Fire Ravages Town on Cold November Night
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 10,000 homeless.
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 goes on.
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 Hotel.
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 frame building.
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 east.
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.