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History of the Bytown Fire Brigade

Every city’s history is written in the ashes of its many fires – Canada’s Capital Region is no exception.  The entire face of the Region has been dramatically altered by fire.  Many historic sites including the Parliament Buildings were re-designed by fire.

To help preserve the fire heritage and the history of the capital area, a group of concerned citizens from the business and professional community joined with area firefighters to create the Bytown Fire Brigade in the early 1980s.  Incorporated on February 23, 1983, the “Bytown Fire Brigade” is a federally registered non-profit historical society.

The main goal of the Brigade is to acquire, restore, preserve and display the artifacts and apparatus that tell the story of firefighting in Canada’s capital and the country as a whole.  The Brigade has one of the largest collection of antique fire apparatus in Canada, and over the years has participated in a wide variety of events ranging from parades, charitable fund raising activities, creating exhibits and displays and performing demonstrations.

Bytown Fire Brigade Museum

Very early on, members of the Brigade talked about setting up a firefighting museum in Ottawa.  These dreams were realized when the City of Ottawa agreed to rent the Brigade the old Ottawa Fire Station #3 at the corner of Clarence and Cumberland Streets, in the Byward Market area of the city.  A Labour Market Development grant from the Department of Employment and Immigration of almost $200,000 coupled with the Brigade’s growing fund-raising success provided the necessary funding for the venture.

On March 1, 1987 the Brigade took possession of the building and on May 21, 1987 the Bytown Fire Brigade Museum opened its doors to the public.  Two professional curators had been hired along with 10 other staff.  The Museum remained open until October of the same year when it closed as the City had decided to sell the land and building.  During its original 5 month existence, it was open for 138 days and played host to over 4,600 visitors.

Although the City had terminated the Brigade’s lease it turned out that the land and building were not going to be sold quite so quickly.  Therefore, the Brigade was able to re-open the Museum in November 1987, albeit with a considerably scaled-down staff, and this time it remained open until September 1988 with some financial assistance from the Ontario Government ($10,000 – Wintario grant). The Museum was open for 177 days and had just under 4,000 visitors.  

In total, the Museum was open for 315 days and had almost 8,600 visitors.

During its ‘second season’ the Museum played host to 54 group tours of school-age children (1,800 children) and two groups of senior citizens.  Museum staff, along with Brigade members, produced a number of outreach displays containing photographs, artifacts and audio-visual displays for use in various venues including the Nepean Sportsplex, the Victoria Museum, and Billings Estate Museum.  As well, a special Heritage Day display was put together honouring the role of the Brigade’s Silsby Steamer in the 1915 fire in Russell.  Also, through the Museum the Brigade was able to increase its artifact collection.  At this time the transfer of ownership of a 1941 Ward LaFrance/Diamond T pumper to the Brigade was finalized along with the further donation of photographs, artifacts and hand drawn apparatus.

The Museum had overwhelming support from the public and was a success story in many ways.  It provided an important family activity; it was about history, that of fire-fighting in general and of the Ottawa-Hull region in particular; and, it meant preservation of our heritage through conservation and display of artifacts as well as through primary and secondary research.  The museum also gave recognition to the personal courage of firemen and was dedicated to firefighters everywhere.  Unfortunately, the Brigade did not have the financial or physical plant wherewithal to continue the institution.

Educational Discovery Kits

With the final closing of the Museum, the Brigade turned its attention and expertise of its Museum curator to the development of ‘Outreach Programs’ that included several artifact and photo displays at venues throughout the region.  Much of the Brigade’s energies and resources were soon devoted to the creation of in-school ‘firefighter kits’ to be distributed to schools in the six school boards throughout the Ottawa-Carleton Region.

With funding assistance from both the Unemployment Insurance Job Creation program and the Ontario Ministry of Culture and Communication a total of 60 “Educational Discovery Kits” were produced for use in kindergarten to grade 6 classes.  The kits were created in consultation with the Ottawa Fire Prevention Bureau, consultants from various Boards of Education and members of the museum community in Ottawa.  The kits were to be used to help teach the primary level school curriculum through the theme of fire fighting.

Brigade on the Move

With the closure of the Museum for the final time and pending sale of the building and grounds, the Brigade was in desperate need of a location to store its now not-inconsiderable collection and for space to produce the educational kits.  Fortunately the City of Ottawa had another vacant fire station, that although totally inappropriate as a museum or for general public use, was ideal for storage and use as a ‘clubhouse’.  So, in November 1988, the brigade moved into the old Ottawa Fire Station #6 in the New Edinburgh area.  And, as expected the City eventually sold that property as well.  Therefore, in October 1990, the Brigade agreed to buy a newly-constructed condominium warehouse unit at 2880 Sheffield Road, where the Brigade remains today.

Community Involvement

Right from its formation, the Brigade has demonstrated a keen interest in participating in countless community and fund raising events.  For instance, the Brigade has participated in every Help Santa Toy Parade since 1983.  In partnership with the Ottawa Fire Department it has put on public displays in shopping malls and on Parliament Hill during annual Fire Prevention Weeks for many years.  On many occasions the Brigade has participated in events in partnership with the Museum of Science and Technology, the Billings Estate Museum, the Nepean Museum, the Bytown Museum, the Cumberland Heritage Village Museum, the Gloucester Museum and Upper Canada Village.

Aside from events with these museums, the Brigade has lent artifacts or has put on displays as part of  the City of Ottawa Heritage Day, Nepean Heritage Days, Ontario Heritage Society, Renfrew Heritage Day and the Byward Market Bytown Days.

Over the years the Brigade has also acted as Canadian ‘ambassador’ by attending many musters and other fire-related events in the northern States as well as participating in Grey Cup Parades in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto.

The Brigade has not only participated in many parades for charitable purposes, members have at the same time donated their considerable fund-raising skills over the years to such events as:

    Vanier Knights of Columbus Cystic Fibrosis parade and fund-raiser
    Hull Fire Department Muscular Dystrophy parade and fund-raiser
    Aylmer Fire Department parade for Muscular Dystrophy
    Orleans Easter Seals parade
    Gloucester Parade of Lights
    Help Santa Toy Parade

The Brigade has also participated in many community events and parades such as the Barrhaven Community Days, Action Sandy Hill summer festival, Canterbury Community Association parade and Westboro Village Days.  The Brigade also helped raise awareness of the history of firefighting in working with the Ottawa Ex by providing a live history exhibit and display.

Also, over the years the Brigade has helped many communities, fire departments and organizations or institutions celebrate important anniversaries including:

  •     Buckingham Volunteer Fire Department – 100th anniversary

  •     Village of Winchester – 100th anniversary

  •     Chesterville Volunteer Fire Department – 150th anniversary

  •     Smith Falls Fire Department – 150th anniversary

  •     Town of Merrickville – 200th anniversary

  •     Britannia Yacht Club – 100th anniversary

  •     National Archives – 125th anniversary

Millennium Cross-Canada Tour

For many years some of the Brigade’s members had dreamed of driving an antique firetruck across Canada.  So, with the turn of the century approaching and everyone talking about millennium projects, a cross-Canada tour seemed like a good idea.  After a couple of years of planning and a grant from the Millennium Bureau of Canada along with major financial and in-kind support from a number of corporate sponsors, three antique fire trucks and two support vehicles left St. John’s, Newfoundland on May 25, 2000.  The entourage ended in Victoria, British Columbia 3 months later on August 29.  The group travelled an average of 150 kilometres a day and visited over 100 communities, including all provincial capitals.  The support of all the provincial Fire Commissioners Offices and fire departments, big and small, as well as the general public across the country was overwhelming.

The theme of the trip was to promote the awareness of fire safety and the necessity of preserving history.  Some of the corporate sponsors provided the Brigade with a large assortment of pamphlets, booklets and children’s colouring books on the subject of fire safety and home safety generally.  All fire departments across the country, particularly many of the smaller departments that had little or no budget for promoting fire safety, were very appreciative of the literature.

The Brigade’s Collection

Most people today associate the Bytown Fire Brigade with antique firetrucks.  However, in the early days of the Brigade all the trucks were owned by members.  It wasn’t until the autumn of 1987 that the Brigade acquired its first motorized vehicle – a 1941 Ward LaFrance/Diamond T triple combination pumper.   However, this was not the first major piece of fire apparatus the Brigade acquired.  The first was a 1886 horse-drawn Silsby Steamer that was purchased for $500 in November, 1983.  Since 1952 it had sat on display outside a number of Ottawa area eateries and was in pretty dismal shape.  The steamer had been stationed in Ottawa briefly in 1915 before being sent to Russell in May of that year to assist in putting out a fire that was threatening to raze the entire village.  The Brigade often lends the steamer to Russell for their annual  heritage celebration.  Over the years the Brigade has invested considerable money and time in restoring this historical piece, a project that is still ongoing.  For the first time in at least 50 years, the steamer was once again pulled by horses in both the 2002 Gloucester Parade of Lights and the Help Santa Toy Parade in downtown Ottawa.

Aside from the 1941 Diamond T, the Brigade owns other antique firetrucks including:

  •    1921 American LaFrance pump

  •    1928 American LaFrance pump

  •    1948 American LaFrance

  •    1939 Ford Bickle

The 1928 is an old Ottawa Fire Department truck that was lovingly restored by an area firefighter (and Brigade member) and subsequently sold to the Brigade in 1990.  The 1948 truck was purchased from a private collector in Thunder Bay, Ontario in 2000; the 1921 was acquired in June 2002 from the Firefighters Association of the Town of Sutton, Ontario.

In 2001 the Brigade also purchased a 1930 Chevrolet car to be turned into a Bytown fire chief’s car, which is still on the road today. 

In 2014 Patrick and David MacManus donated a 1922 Model T Chemical Car to  the Museum.

Aside from these vehicles owned by the Brigade itself, Brigade members themselves also own up to a dozen other antique firetrucks, most of which have been restored and are often seen in concert with the Brigade’s vehicles in parades, displays, etc.

While the antique vehicles are the most noticeable artifacts, the Brigade has also been slowly acquiring hand-drawn and horse drawn apparatus.  Aside from the 1886 horse-drawn Silsby steamer, in 1992 a circa 1870-1890 Ronald horse-drawn ladder wagon was donated to the Brigade.  This piece was originally used in Prescott, Ontario and is believed to be the only one of its kind by this Canadian manufacturer in existence today.  It has also been suggested that it is the rarest fire department vehicle made in Canada.  The piece still needs a considerable amount of restorative work which has been estimated to cost about $50,000.

The Brigade also owns countless pieces of hand-drawn apparatus, most of which have been restored by the Brigade and are often used for displays.  The inventory includes:

  •    A hand drawn Hunniman pump, circa 1840 (originally owned by the Bytown Museum and transferred to the Brigade in 1991)

  •    A hand-drawn ladder wagon circa 1882

  •    Various hand-drawn hose carts from the 1880s to 1940s

  •    Hand-drawn extinguishers from 1880s to 1950s

As well, the Brigade has an extensive collection of helmets, fire alarm boxes, fire alarm systems, nozzles, extinguishers, fire marks and other fire-related artifacts.

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