The Great Toronto Fire: How Could it Happen - Page Banner


It would be understandable to question how such a fire could take place, but in many ways it's a wonder it hadn't happened sooner.

Photo: Dominion Bank Building, S.W. Corner King and Yonge, Toronto, [ca. 1890]
Click to see a larger image (219K)

Dominion Bank Building, S. W.
Corner King and Yonge, Toronto, [ca. 1890]
Josiah Bruce
Black and white print
Reference Code: F 1125-1-0-0-98
Archives of Ontario, I0001862

On April 12,1904, one week before the fire, Toronto Fire Chief John Thompson had attended a meeting of the Board of Control to request additional funding to improve city fire-fighting services. In his presentation he had stated, "We are taking more and more risks every year; we are running in wonderful luck". His concerns were legitimate and a week later the luck ran out.

The late nineteenth century had seen dramatic advances in building design and construction. Perhaps none was more significant than that which took place in 1857 in New York City. In that year Elisha Graves Otis installed the first passenger elevator which, combined with the increased use of cast iron for structural purposes, meant both literally and figuratively that the sky was the limit, as far as the height of buildings was concerned.

Constructors were now free to design taller and taller buildings making better use of valuable urban real estate.

While these changes didn't increase the risk of fire, they did make fires dramatically more difficult to contain. As buildings grew in height open elevator shafts and stairways made it easy for fire to travel between floors.

Many of the buildings in the fire area predated the elevator but most were still three or four stories high. The illustration below from 1897 details planned renovations to one of the buildings that ultimately burned. This particular building doesn't have an elevator but the illustration shows the open staircases and the wooden joist construction of the floors that was prevalent at the time. Any fire that took hold could quickly spread between levels.

Drawing: No. 75 Bay Street, Proposed alterations for Mr. Charles Walker, February 22, 1897
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No. 75 Bay Street, Proposed alterations for Mr. Charles Walker, February 22, 1897
D. B. Dick Architect
Drawing
J. C. B. & E. C. Horwood Collection
Reference Code: C 11-349-0-1 (360) 2
Archives of Ontario

Many buildings had mansard roofs, dormers and wooden windows that quickly caught fire if a burning ember landed on them. Most contained large quantities of combustible materials.

Only three of the buildings were equipped with sprinkler systems.

Photo: Confederation Life Building (Yonge and Richmond Sts.), Toronto, [ca. 1890]
Click to see a larger image (216K)
Confederation Life Building
(Yonge and Richmond Sts.), Toronto, [ca. 1890]
Josiah Bruce
Black and white print
Reference Code: F 1125-1-0-0-26
Archives of Ontario, I0001812

There were other factors that worked against the firefighters, as well.

The use of electricity, telegraphs and telephones had recently become widespread and the entire area was a maze of overhead wires. This made it difficult, if not impossible, to use ladders to reach higher floors. And, to exacerbate the problem, the low pressure water system employed by the city at the time simply put upper floors out of reach.

In addition, the brisk wind that night helped the fire to spread between buildings and across streets. It also meant much of the water didn't reach its target and because of the cold temperature the spray often turned to ice making working conditions even more difficult.

Many lessons were learned as a result of the fire and changes were made to ensure that a similar fire never occurred again.

A high pressure water system was constructed and went into service in 1909. Changes were made to the way buildings were constructed, as well. The drawing below, dated May 7, 1904, two and a half weeks after the fire, shows details of planned renovations to the Kilgour Building. The Kilgour Building survived the fire and was one of the few equipped with a sprinkler system. In their planned renovations, fire doors and fire walls were included as further protection.

Drawing: Messrs Kilgour Bros. Premises, 21 Wellington St. W., Toronto, May 7, 1904 (Detail)
Messrs Kilgour Bros. Premises,
21 Wellington St. W., Toronto, May 7, 1904 (detail)
Burke & Horwood Architects
Drawing
J. C. B. & E. C. Horwood Collection
Reference Code: C 11-1102 (883) 15
Archives of Ontario

Overhead wiring would continue to pose a threat to firefighters until the mid 1920s when much of the grid was placed underground.