Gazette, Thursday, April 30, 1863
It was a brief item about a fire, like countless other such items over the years in The Gazette. This blaze started in a stable next to the Prentice brewery at Dorchester and Bleury streets, but caused little damage.
The only unusual circumstance was that arson was suspected. "The person who communicated the alarm saw a person run away from the building a moment or two before the flames broke out," we said.
Yet there was a bigger fire story unfolding, one that The Gazette left uncovered both then and in subsequent editions. April 30, 1863, would have been the last day that fires in Montreal were fought exclusively by the old volunteer companies. Starting May 1, responsibility for firefighting was in the hands of a paid, on-call, full-time force.
A bylaw earlier that spring had authorized organization of the so-called City Fire Police. The force consisted of a chief, Alexander Bertram, several other officials, and eight firemen known as guardians. In fact the guardians, with their wives, had begun moving into the various engine houses a week before the official May 1 launch date.
Those eight stations had formerly been occupied by the old volunteer companies. At first, the only other living creature at each was the horse that pulled the hose reel and the attached hook-and-ladder cart.
The guardians came from those volunteer squads. One of the most colourful was Jean Naud, who had founded the Voltigeurs company in 1848. His size (350 pounds), his foghorn voice which could be heard everywhere at the scene of a fire, and his capacity for alcohol were all equally prodigious.
The guardians fought fires in their ordinary clothes. As a general rule, teams from up to three stations would converge on a single fire, the others being held in reserve or to answer the call should a second fire break out elsewhere.
The guardians were also responsible for watering the unpaved streets with their equipment to keep the dust down. At sundown, it was their job to light the gas lamps illuminating some of the streets.
They often slept in nothing grander than a corner in the station's hayloft. But city council was determined to make the new regime work. An assistant guardian and a driver were soon hired for each station, and living conditions began to improve. Late that year, a purpose-built Central Fire Station was opened on Craig St., today's St. Antoine, at the corner of Cheneville St.
When the professional force was organized, the volunteer companies were disbanded. However, several dozen of their men were retained in a small reserve unit called the City Fire Company that could be called out to help fight an especially difficult blaze. But as the main city force quickly expanded, the reserve's value waned, and this final link to the past was shut down in 1867. The following year, street-watering duties were handed over to the roads department.
What we now call the Service de securité incendie de Montréal traces its birth to May 1, 1863, but professional firefighting did not emerge in the city overnight at a single stroke. Nor had firefighting before then been the exclusive preserve of the volunteer companies.
In November 1842, the municipal government, newly-restored after having been suspended since the rebellions of 1837-38, issued a comprehensive set of bylaws and regulations, including provisions for a fire department. This consisted of a paid inspector and several assistants who ensured that the volunteer companies' equipment was well maintained, and who also oversaw chimney-sweeping and other fire-prevention matters.
Even further in the past James McGill, future benefactor of the university bearing his name, was among a group of prominent citizens who in 1786 set up the Montreal Fire Club. To be sure, it had its members' interest in mind, not the city's as a whole. Members agreed to help each other fight fires at their various premises, and to recover from the flames whatever goods and other property they could.
Even as far back as 1734, three months after a fire devastated much of Montreal, Intendant Gilles Hocquart ordered the provision of 280 buckets, 100 axes, 12 long ladders, and other equipment, to be stored at four strategic locations. Chimney-sweeping was made mandatory. The town's carpenters, masons and similar tradesmen were organized into squads that would descend on any breakout of fire.
It was, in effect, the first fire brigade - not only in Montreal but anywhere in what's now Canada.