Ravages Town on
By Paul Arculus
EVERY CANADIAN settlement of
significance has faced the fury of the flame. Town
fires, it seems, are a prerequisite for acceptance
into the status of "Major Canadian Settlement."
Among the worst fires in Canada
were those in St. John, N.B., Vancouver and St.
John's Newfoundland. In 1877 in Saint John N.B.,
1600 homes and the entire business district were
consumed. In Vancouver's 1886 fire, 50 lives were
lost and only four houses were left standing in
the entire city. St. John's fire of 1892 left over
Montreal had two fires. In 1876,
411 houses were destroyed and in 1881 over 600 homes
were destroyed. Ottawa and Hull had their major
fire, a joint effort, in April 1900, in which over
3,200 buildings were destroyed. Toronto had its
fire in 1904. In neighboring Lindsay two thirds
of the town was destroyed in 1861...and so the list
In order to avoid exclusion from
this list of notable communities. Port Perry came
up with two major fires only seven months apart
and then a third one seven years later. There were
other lesser fires consuming two or more stores,
but the conflagrations of 1883, 1884 and 1901 were
the most tragic and dramatic.
For some strange reason, the third
fire, the 1901 conflagration has been almost completely
forgotten in the pages of Port Perry's history.
We'll come to the reasons for that and the details
of this forgotten fire later.
Port Perry's first major fire
began at the rear of the north-west corner of Queen
and Water Streets, the building known as the Port
Perry Hotel or the Thompson House. It later became
better known as the Sebert House Hotel. This is
the site on which the Canadian Imperial Bank of
Commerce is now located. James V. Thompson had purchased
the property from Peter Perry's estate in 1869 and
built a three storey frame hotel on the site. Sometime
in 1882, Thompson hired John Ruddy to run the hotel
for him. At the rear of the hotel were stables and
a blacksmith shop. It was here that the fire broke
out on the evening of November 26, 1883. After the
1884 fire, it was rebuilt in red brick and was purchased
by Louis Sebert who renamed it the Sebert House
On that cold November evening
in 1883, there was a strong breeze from the south-east
and the fire spread rapidly next door to the west
to a frame building owned by Wm. Hiscox and occupied
by Curts and Henderson, grocers, and flour and feed
merchants. Their produce was ideal fuel for the
fire. This is the site of present day Emiel's.
The next building was The Walker
House, a three storey veneered brick building put
up by Dan Ireland and run by Wm. McGaw. The Laurentian
Bank and the green space immediately to the west
occupy this site today. The Walker House was quickly
engulfed in flame.
Proceeding west, an alleyway occupied
the spot where the eastern part of Home Hardware
is now located. The next building occupying the
site of the western section of the present day Home
Hardware and "From My Heart" was another three storey
veneer brick building. This was John Desfield's
jewellery store. John Desfield had come from Germany
in 1860 and settled in Prince Albert and established
a jewellery business there. He moved his business
to Port Perry in 1873. His store was referred to
as the "Diamond Hall." Desfield lived with his family
on the top floor of the building. He was one of
the few merchants who had living quarters on the
same site as his business. The fire quickly consumed
his building, but the family escaped harm.
Immediately next door to Desfield
was the Blong Block.
Joseph Bigelow had built a huge
three storey brick which he called the "Emporium"
or "Royal Arcade," an extensive department store
which also contained a bank for which he was manager.
In 1878, Bigelow decided to reduce his business
enterprises. He sold the "Emporium" to a Toronto
businessman, Jonathan Blong. When Blong brought
it he changed the format by dividing it into three
sections; two stores and a hotel. At the time of
the 1883 fire, the stores were occupied by Laing
and Meharry, hardware merchants, and A.J. Davis,
druggist. Blong himself ran the hotel which he called
the "Hotel Brunswick."
A.J. Davis was a local success
story. He was born here, attended local schools
before going to Toronto to attend Pharmacy College.
Upon his graduation in 1880, he set up his practice
by buying out the pharmacy business of C.C. McGlashan
in the rented accommodation in Jonathan Blong's
building. After the fires, Mr. Davis eventually
set up his drug store in the eastern half of the
present day Guardian Drugs on Queen Street.
These three businesses were in
Mr. Blong's building which was on the site of the
present "Settlement House." In spite of it being
built of brick the interior was of wood and the
heat from the fire quickly gutted the building.
Immediately west of the Blong
Block, was an open space containing some sheds.
This was on the site now occupied by Children's
Den, Emmerson's, Tom's Front Porch and Native Perspectives.
This space had originally been occupied by Joseph
Bigelow's first house, an impressive two storey
In the winter of 1877-78 he had
the house moved on logs and skids to Perry Street.
This house is still standing at 100 Perry Street.
This particular maneuver enabled Bigelow to sell
off the Queen Street lot and to sell the Perry Street
property complete with a house. Over the spring
and summer of 1877, Bigelow built the most impressive
house in this part of Ontario. This was stately
Italianate home at #178 Cochrane Street.
Shortly after Bigelow had moved
his first house to #100 Perry Street, some sheds
were built on the eastern half of the lot and McCaw
built a jewellery store on the western half. At
the time of the fire the sheds on the eastern half
of the lot were blown up in order to create a complete
fire break which prevented the fire from spreading
further west to McCaw's new building.
McCaw's building, where Children's
Den and Emmerson's Insurance now stands, was saved,
but all the buildings between McCaw's and the feed
mill were consumed in the flames. The Ross Elevator
and Mill at the waterfront luckily escaped the fire,
primarily because the wind was blowing from the
Nevertheless, six prosperous business
establishments had been destroyed. Luckily no one
was injured in this blaze.
The tragedy of the 1883 fire was
compounded by the fact that in the early stages
of the fire, some unscrupulous people pretended
to help by rescuing merchandise from the fire and
piling it on the street, but much of the rescued
merchandise disappeared. We can hear the townsfolk
whisper; "What happened to old fashioned honesty
and trust? Why, in the good old days..."
The cause of the fire was never
determined, but it is safe to assume that it was
started by a spark from the blacksmith's forge.
Those who took advantage of the other people's adversity
by stealing their merchandise, were never apprehended.
Within a month, the six businessmen
were back in business again in rented accommodation
downtown and were waiting for the spring to begin
the task of rebuilding on their original premises.
The onset of a long, cold winter prevented them
from making an early start on new buildings. In
the springtime however, Thompson began work on a
new hotel, this time out of brick. Mr. Blong began
his new building and John Desfield built a small
temporary wooden building while renting another
wooden building across the road. No one in Port
Perry knew that an even more devastating tragedy
was about to engulf them.
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