The great fire of 1886 and the birth of sandstone buildings in Calgary

Smoke wafted into the air as Calgarians stood watching the smouldering ashes of the inferno that would go down in history as the great fire of 1886.

Clad in coats and hats, one person in a blanket, they stood and walked about that snowless November day. All around them were stacks of wooden boxes and boards, chairs, tables and plates.

A horse and buggy moved past dressers and mirrors, rugs, sacks, chests, wooden barrels and a two-pedal piano. Everything was stacked and organized as neatly as you could expect of people trying to save the contents of wooden buildings that stood in the path of a raging fire.

About 18 buildings on the main commercial strip, Atlantic Avenue (now Ninth Avenue), were destroyed by that early morning blaze on Nov. 7. Losses were estimated at $103,200 or more than $2,000,000 in today’s dollars.

The townspeople had thought they were ready to fight fires, especially after a house on Atlantic Avenue the year before burned to the ground when the best the Volunteer Bucket Brigade could do was throw snowballs at the flames.

Town officials had created the volunteer Calgary Hook, Ladder and Bucket Corps and had 22 men signed up. Eight wells at strategic intersections were equipped with hand pumps. They had rubber buckets, wooden ladders and had ordered a new chemical engine, which subdued fires by taking away oxygen and heat. They even had a fire captain: George Constantine first held the post then Steve Jarrett took over.

But it wasn’t enough.

In the early morning of Nov. 7, 1886, someone saw flames at the rear wall of the Parish and Son flour and feed store. Church bells were rung, waking the town’s citizens that numbered in the hundreds. The Calgary Hook, Ladder and Bucket Corps volunteers sprang into action.

The chemical engine was ready and waiting, but was unfortunately impounded in the CPR freight shed because no one had the authority to pay the freight charges. Suspected corruption in the municipal election in January had left Calgary without valid political leadership.

Undeterred, firefighters broke into the freight shed and used the engine to fight the fire. But the inferno raged on, a strong southwest wind spreading it from building to building. At one point, 2,000 rounds of ammunition went off at one of the burning buildings.

People decided they needed to create a firebreak. The former mayor, George Murdoch, agreed his harness shop needed to be sacrificed and helped tear it apart.

The blaze stopped in its tracks. No one was killed or injured. But in the fire’s wake lay the ashes of hotels, barns and warehouses.

The destruction was a heavy blow. Murdoch was blunt when he addressed the crowd.

"If you find any man setting fire to any building, I hand him over to you and you may deal with him as you like."

People cheered. No arrests were reported.

To prevent another devastating loss to fire, town officials recommended that major civic and religious buildings be constructed out of Paskapoo sandstone rather than wood. Builders complied. Hundreds of sandstone buildings were constructed over the next quarter-century.

Sixteen quarries eventually operated around Calgary to supply sandstone to construction projects. By 1890, over half of the city's skilled trades were stonecutters or masons.

Town officials also bought a new $4,000 steam-powered fire engine from the J. D. Ronald Company of Brussels, Ontario. It was cutting-edge technology with its horse-drawn engine and two hand-pulled hose reels with 2,000 feet of hose.

One drawback before 1890 was that firefighters had to borrow horses whenever the alarm bell rang. The first person to arrive at the fire hall with a team of horses received $5 – the equivalent of three days pay at the time.

By 1911, Calgary’s Fire Department had 21 horses of its own. By the 1920s, horses were being replaced with motorized vehicles. The last team of horses was retired and sold in 1933. A farmer was passing through town one day when the fire alarm was sounded. His horses, purchased from Calgary’s Fire Department, sped off to report for duty.



Firefighters Museum of Calgary blog
Calgary Fire Department history web page
Milestones & Mementoes – book
Calgary CSPS Fire website
CBC website, article CBC website, article: Calgary's Great Fire of 1886 sparks 'Sandstone City'
City of Calgary website
Glenmore Museum