Fire of 1884 Levels Town in Less Than 4 Hours
By Paul Arculus
AS THE WARM DAYS of May, 1884 arrived, Port Perry's resilient town folk had begun to put the terrible fire of November 1883 well into their past. By the end of the month, Thompson's new hotel was under construction, as was Jonathan Blong's new building in the middle of the eastern section of Queen Street. No one was prepared for what was about to happen.
At the beginning of the last week of June 1884, a heatwave hit the citizens of this part of Canada. The heatwave continued into July. As the sun set, on the evening of Thursday, July 3 a breeze drifted in from the south east. Most of the windows of the homes of Port Perry's residents would have been flung open in an attempt to catch the refreshing movement of air. A sense of relief from the intense heat would have no doubt embraced those who had opened their windows, for the breeze began to increase in strength.
In the middle of the south side of Queen Street, Neil Sinclair ran the Mansion House Hotel for its owner Ben McQuay. This was where the Post Office is now located. Behind the hotel were the necessary stables and a blacksmith shop.
A few minutes before midnight, on the evening of July 3, the townspeople were rudely awakened by the persistent ringing of the Town Hall bell. The Town Hall bell acted as an alarm clock for the townsfolk, ringing every day at 7 a.m., noon hour, 1 o'clock and at 6 o'clock in the evening. However, if it rang at any other time, it could only have one meaning; FIRE! The volunteer firemen made their way quickly to the Town Hall to gather the limited fire fighting equipment available to them and to find out who was ringing the bell.
A fire had been noticed in the stables behind Ben McQuay's hotel. Aided by the strong wind from the south east, it spread rapidly, first in a westerly direction, then across the road and finally, to the east. Wooden buildings in the middle of a hot dry summer, virtually exploded when sparks settled on them. The fire appliances were totally inadequate to handle an inferno of this proportion. One can only try to imagine a scene of panic and desperation as merchants ran downtown to try to rescue their merchandise. Flames reached dozens of metres into the air and could be seen as far away as Greenbank, Oshawa, Whitby and Port Hope. Attempts to save buildings were futile.
Panic stricken merchants, most of them uninsured, or at best under-insured, smashed down the rear doors of their stores, desperate to save merchandise. Some merchandise was rescued and piled on Perry Street but the heat of the conflagration drove people away and the rescued merchandise itself caught fire, consumed as the fire spread to Perry Street. In less than an hour, the entire business section of downtown Port Perry was an inferno.
From the north side of Mary Street to the south side of North Street, from Water Street to Perry Street and on Queen Street all the way to John Street, the fire consumed every building; house, store, shed and stable with the exception of two buildings at the extremes. Tummond's store at southeast corner of John and Queen Streets, (this is the site of the present Big V Drug Store) and Curries' Mill at the waterfront were the only buildings to survive. They defined the limits of the conflagration.
As daylight came, a scene of utter desolation confronted the townsfolk. Cries of disbelief and despair would no doubt be heard for miles around. This was a time when few places of business had adequate insurance, the majority would have had none at all. Thirty-three commercial buildings housing almost 50 businesses, as well as factories, warehouses, stables, six lodges and a dozen homes were turned into soot and embers. According to the Port Perry Standard, there was a loss of over $350,000 but only $150,000 was covered by insurance. Those estimates are in 1884 dollars. Today, the value of the buildings alone would be in the tens of millions.
The only consolation was that the tragedy wasn't accompanied by death. Today, the upper floors of the downtown core are almost entirely occupied by apartment dwellers. At the time of the fire, the upper floors were occupied by the street level businesses or rented out to other businesses. Most of the dry goods and clothing stores which dominated the downtown core, devoted their upper floors to millinery and (cover your eyes gentlemen!)...ladies undergarments.
A few people received burns as they tried to save merchandise. A number of valuable animals were lost. In the stables at the Mansion House Hotel, where the fire started, one horse valued at $300 was destroyed along with other horses and a cow. A similar fate befell other animals in the stables of the other downtown hotels.
Fortunately, the contents of 26 vaults in various buildings were found to be undamaged in spite of the intense heat.
Mr. Tummonds survived the fire but his reputation stumbled momentarily. Whether through envy, mistrust or malicious lies, or a combination thereof, he was accused of inflating his prices. The Ontario Observer said that he was "taking advantage of the adverse circumstances in which the town has been placed by the late fire because being the only store in this place, advanced the price of many of the necessities of life as high as 50, 75, and 100 per cent."
He advertised an offer of $100 to anyone who could prove that he charged more for an article after the fire. There is no evidence to show that anyone claimed the reward.
The tragedy of the 1884 fire was largely an economic one. Dreams of financial success and entire life savings were lost. For those on the north side of Queen Street who were just beginning to get themselves re-established after the 1883 fire, the tragedy was even more devastating. This second fire was too much for W.B. McGaw. He had run the Walker House for Dan Ireland and the hotel had been destroyed in the 1883 fire. Rather than stay in Port Perry and re-invest in its future, in October 1884, he moved to Bowmanville and invested in a hotel there. Fortunately for Port Perry his case was the exception.
The Victorian age was one of optimism and hope. The people who lived in it had a resilliency and determination. They had heard from their parents, of an earlier age when nothing but hardship and disease prevailed. Some of the older citizens could relate those experiences first hand. If they could survive the perils of pioneer life, they could rebuild their lives again; and so they did. The townsfolk rallied.
The newspapers themselves were knocked out of business for three weeks, but on July 24, 1884, the editor of the North Ontario Observer, James Baird, commented in his editorial:
"We have to apologize to our patrons for this second interruption to our business during the past eight months. It would almost appear that the fire fiend has a dislike to the Observer office. It has hunted us from pillar to post and driven us around town and came precious near to driving us out of it. No matter in which part of the town the fire starts it is sure to rope in the Observer ere all is done. During the past eight months we have twice been driven to the street by fire..."
Mr. Baird then went on to relate that:
"...The entire village is one grand scene of busy life, whole armies of carters, labourers, stone masons, brick layers and carpenters, are combining their efforts for the restoration of the town and the work is progressing with amazing rapidity."
Immediately following the editorial was a list of businesses which had started up in new temporary locations. Various basements, barns, warehouses and other storage facilities provided temporary accommodation for the displaced businesses. Davenport and Jones set up their general store in the Town Hall basement. T.C. Forman, a staunch Presbyterian was even able to convince his congregation to allow him to set up his store in the basement of the church.
By July 31, the Ontario Observer was able to report:
"The perfect rush of industry which now prevails in the village of Port Perry is highly commendable to the enterprise and manly courage of those who so recently passed through the fire, the burned district is one scene of rush and activity and hosts of busy men are hurrying hither and thither in every direction while the perfect babel of hammers, saws, axes, trowels...is highly pleasant...there are 17 permanent brick blocks under construction, these blocks will afford accommodation for 20 stores, one hotel...etc."
Progress reports of the buildings appeared in the newspapers on a weekly basis.