by Jennifer Houghton
In September 1900 the Grand Forks Gazette proudly proclaimed that the soon-to-be-built Grand Forks Fire Hall “Will Be One of the Best in the Country.”
It was a two-storey building “with all the modern conveniences” including two well holes for the men to drop through from the sleeping apartments upstairs whenever an alarm sounded. The lower floor had stalls for the team of horses that pulled the steam engine.
By that time, the city also had a system of water mains and hydrants.
The first Grand Forks fire brigade was formed in 1897 and consisted of 37 volunteers.
“Every business man in the city’ belonged to the fire department. A wise choice in a city where buildings were constructed of timber and every one of them contained a wood or coal stove. It also seemed like a wise thing to do for building owners who didn’t invest in full insurance coverage. For example, the Province Hotel was valued at $17,000 but only carried $7,000 in insurance coverage.
The newspaper raved about the fire brigade being “unusually vigilant and efficient.” They boasted of being able to put a stream on a fire within three to five minutes of an alarm sounding. In those early years most fires were caught before much damage occurred. Until 1908, that is.
At that time, A.E. Savage was fire chief. The equipment they had included a fire bell, buckets, a $4,000 horse-drawn steam fire engine, a hose wagon, ladders, a hand reel, and a horse drawn ladder wagon.
They wore waterproof hats and rubber coats “for use in entering burning buildings.”
The engine could be hooked up to the water mains or pump water from the rivers and was able to throw three streams over the tallest buildings. This “practically perfect” fire protection kept insurance rates down.
At 1:30 a.m. on July 10, 1908, a fire of huge magnitude broke out at the Union Hotel on Riverside Avenue which was filled with dry old mattresses. The inferno spread quickly across two city blocks.
The brave firemen endured incredible heat to fight the raging blaze. They got so close to the fierce heat that people were holding up wet blankets between them and the fire to enable them to keep the hoses on it.
Despite heroic efforts, the speed of the surging flames resulted in half of the business portion of the city being burnt to the ground.
One life was lost in that historic fire. The value of lost buildings, including six hotels and two banks, amounted to a quarter of a million dollars. The impressive Yale Hotel, considered Grand Fork’s best advertisement as the largest hotel in B.C., was completely destroyed in the fire.
The newspaper listed the total value of the Yale Hotel as $60,000 but it only had $15,000 in insurance coverage. Current conditions didn’t warrant it being rebuilt in its original glory.
The paper also listed the loss of 26 other buildings and businesses. Many lost out on years of hard toil and savings as a result of the huge fire that went down in history as one of the most devastating in Grand Forks.