Skip to main content

Alan and Colin Watson apologize when asked about Toronto's great fire -- not that they feel familial guilt about it having started at a tie factory owned by their great-uncle Edward Currie and his sister Sarah.

But the octogenarian brothers are contrite about their inability to provide inside information, dispel myths or even tell a tale of how the conflagration affected their mother's side of the family.

"My [late]brother Douglas might have been able to tell you a bit," Alan says. "He and Colin ran the business. But, sorry, I can't remember my mother ever speaking about [the fire]"

"I don't think it was deliberate silence," Colin adds, "but . . . I have no scrapbook, or clippings -- anything."

The Watsons needn't apologize; their city has almost forgotten too. The witnesses are gone, and even though a commemorative stone is in the works, it was a last-minute project that might not be ready in time for the 100-year anniversary on Monday. The city archives' photo collection is stunning, but its file is thin on reading material.

Blow-by-blow accounts have appeared on other major anniversaries, and a few historians have analyzed the fire's spread and how it could have been prevented. But with a century of hindsight, a bigger story has emerged: April 19, 1904, wasn't just the most spectacular night the city has ever seen, it might be the single most significant date in the development of modern multicultural Toronto.

Torontonians boast about how cosmopolitan their city is, but 100 years ago, it was still very much an insular outpost of empire, proudly the most British city in Canada.

Most street names were the same, but present-day Torontonians wouldn't recognize King and Bay. The area we know as the country's most important financial district was mostly factories, warehouses and printing shops.

On the night of April 19, 1904, after an unusually cold day, fire chief John Thompson was just sitting down to a cup of tea at the Lombard Street fire hall when an out-of-breath night watchman named T.H. Johnson arrived at King and Bay Streets to break the glass on Alarm Box 12. It was 8:04 p.m. and Mr. Johnson had seen flames at one of the factories, the E. & S. Currie building at 56-58 Wellington St. W., roughly where two locust trees now stand near the southeast corner of the Toronto-Dominion Bank tower.

Horses pulled the chief, several men, their hoses and coal-fired pumpers to the blaze. Minutes later, the horses pulled Mr. Thompson and his broken right ankle to hospital. He was the first of 30 injured firefighters, sidelined for what should have been the biggest assignment of his career.

By 8:51, the fire was out of control, having spread to several nearby buildings, and a general alarm summoned all the city's fire crews. Mayor Tom Urquhart spent his night rustling up help -- sending telegrams and making phone calls to other cities, pleading with the railways to clear tracks for crews racing from Buffalo, Niagara Falls, London, Hamilton, Brantford and Peterborough. Rolling stock had to be shunted from the fire's path as it neared the railway tracks south of Front Street. Ships later had to be towed from their wharfs.

According to the April 20 Globe, the night of the fire was "a combination of sights and noises Dantesque and inconceivable."

Flames leaped across streets; walls collapsed right and left; pavement heaved and buckled. A freak cold snap conspired to feed the fire and work against firefighters: Shortly after midnight, the temperature was minus 8, still a record for April 20. But it felt much colder. A fierce northwest wind arose with gusts to 90 kilometres an hour.

The wind, the cold and pathetic water pressure combined to make it seem as if hell had frozen over. Ice-laden wires, often live, pulled utility poles down around the firefighters. Printers and journalists risked their lives to man hoses from the icy roof of the Telegram building, a battle credited with preventing the blaze from roaring east to Yonge Street and beyond. Employees at the Minerva underwear factory worked through the night to save their jobs and a magnificent factory building. Guests at the Queen's Hotel (where the Royal York now stands) soaked blankets in bathtubs to protect windows whose frames were scorching.

The streetcar system was crippled by a widespread power outage, but somehow nearly 100,000 people flocked to the "wholesale district" to watch. Some were hurt battling for vantage points, and a few cases of looting were reported. The army had to be called in to help police control the crowds.

University of Western Ontario professor emeritus Frederick Armstrong, whose essay, The Second Great Toronto Fire, is probably the most authoritative account of the blaze, quotes police chief H.J. Grasset as saying the crowds were generally well-behaved, but "they were all anxious to see. . . . We had to be rough with them."

Within nine hours, the fire's spread had been checked, but it continued to burn for two weeks. Flare-ups were spectacular and dangerous. Firefighters had to nap in shifts at downtown fire halls so they could work round the clock.

About 100 buildings and 220 businesses were gutted, leaving a smoking, 7.9-hectare scar. In a city of 219,000 people, 6,000 jobs were lost (including that of Mr. Johnson, the night watchman). The damage -- estimated at $11-million -- was roughly equal at the time to a year of insurance premiums for the entire country. Toronto's fire damage for all of the previous year, from 867 alarms, totalled just $273,697.

Miraculously, no one was killed -- unless you include John Croft, an explosives expert who blew himself up while demolishing burned-out buildings on May 4, one day after the fire was officially out.

The lack of deaths "is absolutely phenomenal when you consider the damage and other conditions," says Toronto's current chief, Bill Stewart, a third-generation firefighter whose great-uncle Jack Hughes fought in the 1904 blaze.

No definitive cause for the fire was ever determined, though three possibilities were identified -- a poorly insulated electrical wire, an overheated stove pipe and a hot iron left near rags. It's believed no one was in the Currie building when the fire started.

Were the Curries vilified in the fire's wake? "If they were, we never heard about it," Alan Watson says.

The city had changed overnight, and not just physically. Toronto was scared and embarrassed; years of penny-pinching and procrastination had left it vulnerable, and everybody seemed to realize how much worse it might have been. Had the wind been off the lake, fanning flames up into the city, it's almost certain Toronto would be on a list of the world's great urban fires.

More than a decade of warnings about the city's unpreparedness for fire had gone unheeded. Ten days before the blaze, during budget debates at city hall, Chief Thompson had told Mayor Urquhart: "We are taking more risk every year; we are running on wonderful luck." The mayor replied: "Oh, I guess we'll have to risk it another year."

The city had faced big fires before, most notably in 1849, but this one set off long-lasting alarms.

"There was almost a cleansing," says Toronto history buff Bill Gray, whose grandfather had to walk three hours to get to his home in Port Credit that night after staying in town late to watch the fire from the Spadina trestle.

City archivist Michael Moir, when talking of the blaze, mentions the rejuvenating role fire can play in a forest. Post-fire Toronto was also cleansed and rejuvenated in many ways.

The city promptly hired more firefighters, ordered more equipment and set aside $1-million for a high-pressure hydrant system. It seems out-of-towners had ridiculed our wimpy 1½-inch hoses. Buffalo's firefighters (who helped save buildings near Yonge and Front, including what is now the Hockey Hall of Fame) said Toronto's equipment would be considered poor, "even in Rochester." An insurance appraiser, quoted in The Great Toronto Fire, a 1984 book by Nancy Rawson and Richard Tatton, said Baltimore at the time had 60 fire engines, Cleveland 35, Buffalo 30 and Montreal 16. Toronto had five. The preconflagration paralysis hadn't been restricted to an inability to equip firefighters. It had been acknowledged for decades that the railway station was inadequate. The privately owned streetcar company refused to expand with the city. The harbour was both a reeking sewage dump and the source of the city's drinking water.

After the fire, "Toronto and its leaders were willing to think big . . . and act," York University historian Christopher Armstrong says.

"Work on a real, high-pressure fire hydrant system started almost immediately" and was completed in 1909. "Larger projects took longer, but after decades of inaction it became certain they would be built," Prof. Armstrong says, referring to the construction of the new Union Station, infrastructure for water purification and sewage treatment, the Bloor Street viaduct crossing the Don Valley, and an expanded streetcar network.

The city purchased burned-out properties on the south side of Front, providing the land needed for the new Union Station. The waterfront, which is still being battled over today, was created largely with landfill as part of a postfire harbour cleanup. East of Union Station, the curving beaux-arts Dominion Public Building was built. Outside the fire zone, the birth of several cultural institutions (including the Royal Alexandra Theatre and the Royal Ontario Museum) date from this period, as do the city's first plans for a subway.

The fire's influence on the city shouldn't be exaggerated, stress academics including Prof. Armstrong. They point out that Toronto, along with Canada and much of the world, had boomed since an economic depression ended in 1897. But numbers back Prof. Armstrong when he says, "The fire marked the start of momentum that would eventually carry Toronto past Montreal in economic importance and population -- even if it would take about 70 years to play out."

Montreal had grown more than twice as fast as Toronto in the 1890s, and was likely growing faster in the 1901-04 period. But in the first five postfire years, Toronto's growth rate tripled and, for the decade overall, it grew 8 per cent more than Montreal. Toronto has steadily outgrown Montreal ever since.

Figures in Toronto to 1918, by historian J.M.S. Careless, put the value of building permits for 1901-04 at $17.7-million. For 1905-08, which included a recession, it almost tripled -- to $49.9-million.

The fire also spurred the financial district's shift to Bay Street from east of Yonge. "Some factories rebuilt on the old sites," Prof. Armstrong says, "but banks and insurance firms started moving in. The stock exchange, which had been on King East, moved to a new building [now the Design Exchange]in 1913."

The fire also marked, to some degree, the beginning of the end of British Toronto. Even as the rubble smouldered, stories about impending labour shortages appeared in the newspapers. English-speaking immigrants were clearly favoured -- and were no longer plentiful enough to satisfy the city's labour needs during the prefire boom. The weekly, Toronto-based Monetary Times ran an editorial stating: "We cannot afford to be specially fastidious in the acceptance of immigrants, in which the days of choice are nearly gone."

Choice ended with the fire. Toronto had never been homogeneous, but it was a place where Irish Catholics almost counted as exotic. Now it had to be like the rest of the continent and start taking its first significant waves of non-English-speaking immigrants.

Even though it was a period of record British immigration, the immediate postfire labour shortage was so great that the percentage of non-British Torontonians suddenly increased about four times as much as it had in the previous 40 years. From 1902-04, Toronto's growth was the equivalent of 3 per cent of Canada's total immigration. In 1905-07, it was more than 11 per cent.

In Gathering Place, a 1984 collection of essays about pre-1945 immigrants in Toronto, historians trace the roots of several ethnic communities to the immediate postfire years.

Lillian Petroff documents the growth of a Macedonian community that "could be counted on one's fingers" at the time of the fire to possibly the largest in North America by 1940. She said in a recent interview that the most important role these postfire arrivals played was in establishing the "underpinnings -- reception areas and institutions -- that would be so essential" for later waves of non-English-speaking immigrants.

Zofia Shahrodi's essay quotes an elderly man saying that "there were only six of us Poles" when he arrived in 1904. By 1906 there were enough to warrant visits by a Polish priest; a mutual benefit society was started in 1907; and St. Stanislaus Kostka church was founded in 1911.

Ukrainian and Greek communities started from scratch, and there were 19 Greek-owned restaurants within a decade. The Italian community more than tripled in size over this period.

Stephen Speisman writes that the Jewish community grew six-fold, to about 18,000 people, in the 10 years ending in 1911, with most coming from 1905 onward. He also notes that because the Jews wanted to stay within walking distance of their jobs, many moved to the Kensington Market area after the owners of burned-out factories started a new garment district on Spadina. Chinese took over their previous homes just northwest of City Hall, creating our first real Chinatown.

Former mayors David Crombie and John Sewell have read a lot about Toronto's history. And while neither would ever hope for a repeat of April 19, 1904, both see parallels in the troubles of prefire and present-day Toronto, a city that seems ill prepared to accommodate the growth expected in the coming decades.

"Cities get into fixes, where they stop and they stagnate, and that has clearly happened again to Toronto," Mr. Sewell says. "But this time it's the result of very conscious decisions by the federal and provincial governments to strip the city of as much money as they can. Whether we can recover quickly, I don't know. . . . It amazes me how fast the city rebuilt" a century ago.

Mr. Crombie agrees that senior governments have done damage, but he's more optimistic. "A lot can be done at the city level," he says. "Toronto proved this after the fire; we acted because we had to."

"We're trying to move heaven and earth," Sean Pearce says from the Toronto-Dominion Centre, where he and a team from the Toronto fire department and Cadillac Fairview Corp. Ltd. have been scrambling to assemble a special display in time for Monday's 100th anniversary. "It's tense. We're still hoping against hope that the commemorative stone will be ready for Monday's ceremony."

At 1 p.m., politicians and representatives from fire departments -- including London and Hamilton -- are expected to be on hand at the Toronto-Dominion Centre to open a four-week exhibition at the spot where Toronto's great fire began.

Mr. Pearce said he would like to have had the ceremony at 8:04 a.m., "but this is when we can get city councillors on their lunch hour. They'll be in budget debates."

The display will feature a three-minute movie of the fire. "It should be running on a continuous loop," Mr. Pearce says, "and there'll be lots of engines and equipment from the era, including the original Box 12 [from which the first alarm was turned in]

"We're trying to honour all the people who helped save the city that night and [who]rebuilt it afterward."

The great Toronto fire facts

Fire alarm at King and Bay was tripped at 8:04 p.m.

The fire began on the second floor of the E. & S. Currie neckwear factory that occupied numbers 58 and 60 Wellington St. W.

Wind was from the northwest with a velocity of 48 to 65 km/h and gusts to 90 km/h.

Fire crews from Buffalo, N.Y., Niagara Falls, London, Brantford, Hamilton and Peterborough assisted in fighting the blaze.

No cause was ever determined

Initial reports blamed the fire on a hot iron left too close to a pile of rags at the E. & S. Currie factory.

According to The Globe of April 21, "A tiny electric wire, imperfectly insulated, is held responsible for the disaster. When the last employee _of E. & S. Currie left the warehouse on Wellington Street there was no trace of fire."

Another theory, published in The Globe on April 23, reported, _"Another suggestion of the origin of the fire is that it was caused by _over-heated pipes from a stove in the premises of E. & S. Currie. It is reported that several employees who were working overtime were using the stove after 6 o'clock, when the pipes became red hot. They _dampened it off and left the building, and it is believed that the fire _may have been communicated from the pipes."

How the fire progressed

8:04 p.m.: Fire started.

8:30 p.m.: The structures on the north side of Wellington Street and Mincing Lane were gutted.

9:00 p.m.: Flames from the offices of Davis & Henderson jumped Bay Street and ignited the Telegram building. This fire was put out by staff.

4. 9:30 to 9:45 p.m.: The floors of the buildings on the east side of Bay Stree collapsed. Meanwhile, on the south side of Wellington, west of Bay Street, fire engulfed the offices of Brown Brothers and Rolph Smith & Company.

10:30 p.m.: By now, the fire had reached Gordon Mackay & Company on the northwest corner of Front and Bay Streets.

11:30 p.m.: The Eckardt Casket Company was reported to be on fire.

Near midnight: Flames from the Gordon Mackay building jumped Bay Street and set alight the Barber and Ellis building. Flames soon spread to the Robert Darling building and north to Wellington Street and east along Front Street.

1 a.m.: In one hour the buildings east of Bay, north of Front and south of Wellington Streets were consumed by the conflagration.

2 a.m.: The Bank of Montreal at the corner of Front and Yonge Streets came under threat, but fire crews saved the building by hosing it down ahead of the fire.

2:15 a.m.: In the block bounded by Front (south side), Bay, Yonge and the Esplanade, the fire had consumed every building save the Custom House, the Bank of Montreal and those establishments north on Yonge Street to Melinda Street. By early morning on April 20, the fire's spread has been contained, but it continued to burn for two weeks.

Loss factors

Hectares burned: 7.9

Factories and warehouses destroyed: approximately 100

Employees temporarily out of work: up to 6,000

Total loss initially estimated by insurance experts: $13,000,000

Insurance companies' losses (approx.): $8,885,000


Also to commemorate the fire:

The city archives website ( ) has mounted a virtual exhibition.

The Toronto Reference Library (789 Yonge St.) has a photo display near the entrance.


The night watchman who turned in the first alarm at Toronto's great fire of 1904 was J. H. Johnston. Incorrect information appeared on April 17.