First of three parts
On May 20, 1913, the Nelson Fire Department moved into its new headquarters at the corner of Ward and Latimer Street, a brick building considered the most modern of its kind.
A century later, the department is still there, in what’s now BC’s oldest operating fire hall (no one disputes the title which was recently affirmed during a meeting of provincial fire chiefs in Nelson).
As the iconic building celebrates its centennial, the Star looks back at its colourful past.
Bullt for horses
In 1909, then-fire chief Donald Guthrie pleaded with city council for a new hall to replace the one at the corner of Victoria and Josephine streets built 15 years earlier, which he described as “poorly located, unsanitary, and delapidated.” He got his wish but it took until June 1912 to approve the funds.
The new hall was designed in Italiante Villa style by city engineer G.C. Mackay and built by contractors John Burns and Son for $17,973 (over $367,000 today). It came in under budget but slightly behind schedule due to boiler problems.
According to Nelson: A Proposal for Urban Heritage Conservation, the location was initially dismissed by citizens as too far from the city’s core, but it proved a wise decision given the growing Uphill residential district and proximity of several schools.
The original floor plan showed the basement with a coal room, boiler room, and battery room that powered the alarm system. The second floor had accommodation for the chief and ten firefighters and the ground floor had room for two wagons and five horses — two teams and a spare — plus a grain bin and hay room.
“The fire hall basically was a stable for horses as opposed to a garage for trucks,” says current chief Simon Grypma. “Instead of waxing fire engines they would have been feeding, brushing, and washing the horses and checking their hooves instead of air pressure in the tires.”
When a call came in, “Residents were amazed and awestruck by the precision training and general intelligence of the horses,” according to an anonymous account compiled in the 1950s.
As the gong sounded, the horses left their stalls without prompting and positioned themselves in front of the fire wagon or sled. Harnesses were dropped on their backs and snapped beneath them.
“Opinions differ as to whether the driver issued the command of ‘guddap’ or the horses departed immediately, challenging the driver to mount the driver’s seat at the time of response,” the history reads. “The highly spirited horses were keenly instinctive of direction.”
Yet times were changing, for less than six months after the fire hall opened, the city decided to buy its first motorized fire engine, an American LaFrance that arrived in 1914. Horses and vehicles then worked side-by-side for a decade until the department finally dispensed with its equine employees.
Retired fire horses (who included Barney and Jerry and Bill and Dick) found jobs on milk wagons or garbage duty but reportedly had a hard time adjusting, for upon hearing the fire alarm they would gallop off, spilling their wagon loads behind them.
At home in the fire hall
Until 1973, the chief’s family lived in the hall. In a memoir, Shirley Hanic (nee McDonald) of Burnaby whose father Gordon was chief from 1939 to 1954, recalled her bedroom was “the little one at the top of the building by the bell tower. It was blistering hot in the summer and I grew radishes in a box on the window sill.”
During a fire, she would hear the alarm sound outside her parents’ bedroom, the clatter of doors opening, sirens on nearby streetcorners, and the gong in the tower. Returning to the hall after the excitement, the firemen would eat in their kitchen.
“Some nights, if the temperature was below zero there would be icicles still clinging to their moustaches,” she wrote. “By that time I was back upstairs in bed but if there was fascinating chat about the fire, I would keep my ears open so that I could tell my friends.”
On one embarrassing occasion, while Shirley’s father was out, her mother was frying fish for supper when flames shot out of the pan and spread to the curtains.
“The men responded quickly and soon put it out leaving not too much painting and repair to be done. That day we knew there was great advantage to living in a fire hall.”
Hollywood comes calling
The building underwent major alterations in 1948 when it was re-roofed in aluminum and galvanized steel. The cupola atop the hose drying tower was removed and the original arched doors for the horse-drawn wagons were enlarged and squared off so automatic doors could be installed.
In 1956, chief Elwyn Owens suggested building a second hall in Fairview, but the idea didn’t go anywhere.
By 1979, acting chief Harry Sommerville told city council improvements were urgently needed and recommended replacement. By that time the hall was severely overcrowded and the concrete floor was cracked from the burden of multi-ton trucks — one of which was parked without cover at the city works yard because there was nowhere else to put it.
The city seriously considered building a combined fire department and police station, but times were tough and instead the hall received $90,000 worth of restoration and renovation that included adding an ambulance station on the lower side.
The foundation was also stabilized, the sheet metal roof replaced with cedar shingles, the red and white paint scheme removed in favour of the original brick, and a new cupola built by David Thompson University and Selkirk College students.
The renos paid unexpected dividends when Hollywood came calling in 1986. The fire hall was a primary set for Roxanne — which cast Steve Martin as Nelson, Wash. fire chief C.D. Bales — and one of the key reasons the movie was filmed here.
“They were looking for an older fire hall on a hill,” recalls longtime firefighter Gord Rae. “They were here for two months prior [to filming]. Every day we’d pull our trucks out and they’d work on the hall.”
The film crew framed in the brick ambulance bay to make it look an old wooden drayage, added a shake canopy across the front doors, put artificial bricks on the lower front half, and installed styrofoam planters to hide the hall’s far bay.
One scene called for a ladder to stick out an upper window. “They literally took a sledgehammer and smashed it out,” Rae recalls. “The chief’s going ‘This is a heritage building! You can’t do that!’ They had woodworkers build a new window.”
The crew spent five days of their three-week shoot at the hall and then returned everything to normal. Shortly after the movie came out the following year, a family of five from Chicago showed up at the fire hall asking if it was the one from Roxanne.
“That’s when we knew it was going to be big and we had a problem,” Rae says. “Everybody was scrambling to bring in pictures. It was just an onslaught. That first year I think we had over 1,000 visitors and ever since we get a minimum of 200.”
The lunch room still has a signed photo of Martin that reads: “To the guys at the fire hall.”
Talk of replacement
The present chief, who has worked in the building for more than one-third of its 100 years, is proud of its longevity but says it isn’t without its headaches.
“The biggest challenge we face today is the size of equipment,” Grypma says. “Backing the trucks into the hall during the winter, the front ends want to slide downhill. City council [of 1912] never imagined engines as big as they are now.”
Talk of a new fire hall still comes up occasionally, most recently in 2010 when Fairbank Architects pegged the replacement cost at $5 million. Since then, the hall has received about $250,000 worth of work, particularly in energy upgrades after an audit found the building was one of the city’s biggest culprits for greenhouse gas emissions due to lack of insulation.
“In the next few years I think there’s going to be some serious planning on replacement,” Grypma says, “but I’m hoping this fire station remains an historical site.”
Public invited to help celebrate centenary
The fire hall’s centennial is being marked with several events.
The first was in March, a meeting of the executive of the Fire Chiefs Association of BC, originally founded in Nelson in 1907.
On June 21, the fire department will host a wine-and-cheese for current and former members and the following day a community open house and barbecue will be held at the hall.
In September, the department and Nelson Road Kings car club will team up on an antique fire equipment show. The department will exhibit its own 1944 Bickle Seagrave engine and ladder trucks alongside antique equipment from other departments and private collectors.
Touchstones Nelson is also hosting the exhibit City in Flames: A Journey Through Nelson’s Fire History from June 8 to September 8.