A new website is bringing the crackling, smoky history of Nelson’s fire department to life.
Local playwright and historian Richard Rowberry was inspired to create the site by last year’s fire hall centennial and a Touchstones exhibit that coincided with it.
“It was clear there was a wealth of information,” he says. “I looked at old newspapers and some fascinating photographs in the Touchstones archives. It seemed like a good idea to put it together as a package.”
The website, entitled Red Sky Over Nelson, is divided into several sections: the general history of the department, which dates back to 1891; the story of the Nelson fire bug of 1911-12, which Rowberry previously wrote a play about; a memoir by a chief’s daughter of living in the fire hall in the 1950s; a photo gallery of changing equipment; a chronological list of the city’s; major fires; a list of chiefs; a profile of former chief Donald Guthrie, the fire hall’s role in the filming of Roxanne.
Some content previously appeared in the Star or in the museum exhibit.
Rowberry found funding for research and to hire Avia Moore to build the site. “She did a wonderful job and is a great collaborator,” Rowberry said.
He also had support from recently-retired chief Simon Grypma, whom he called “an incredible enthusiast. More than just a fire chief, he’s a real resource for the whole history of the department.”
Grypma provided an introduction to the site in which he says the stories and photos it captures “depict some of the most incredible tales of bravery by the men and women of the Nelson Fire Department and the strength of the citizens who endured the ravages of fire over the past 124 years.”
Grypma, who spent 38 years with the department, said he spent many night shifts walking between the trucks and thinking of the animals that once stood in their place. “I could almost smell the horses and hear their heavy breathing as the alarm bells sound out a box alarm. What a life to be a firefighter in those years gone by.”
Rowberry, whose site devoted to founding mayor John Houston earned the BC Historical Federation’s 2012 website prize, said his next online project will be about family histories of the First World War, both at the front and at home.
Both the Houston and fire history webpages are under the umbrella site kootenayhistory.com. Rowberry hopes other local history sites will join. He’s also hoping to make the material widely available to local schools.
You can find the fire history site here.