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150 years ago, Great Windsor Fire of 1871 destroyed downtown built of wood

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Wind howled. Fire raged.

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And in one catastrophic day, downtown Windsor was destroyed.

Tuesday marks the 150th anniversary of the Great Windsor Fire of 1871, when flames sparked by an overheated iron ripped through a tinder-dry town made of wood.

“Buildings were mostly wood frame, they were built close together,” said Walt McCall, who is working on a book about the history of the Windsor Fire and Rescue Services. “They were just kind of built to burn. It took a long time to learn the dangers of that kind of construction. And the firefighting was rudimentary.

“By the time the volunteers got there with their hand-operated equipment, it was too late. The fire had made too much headway. It just swept from building to building and block to block.”

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The destructive fire forever changed the face of Windsor. Ouellette Avenue was widened for safety after buildings were levelled, and civic leaders required the town’s core be rebuilt with brick instead of wood. It’s also the reason Windsor introduced running water and fire hydrants.

The blaze erupted around 3 a.m. on Oct. 12, 1871. The common consensus is it started with an overheated iron in the back of McGregor’s livery stable at the northeast corner of Ouellette and Pitt Street. There are also accounts of it starting in a tailoring business run by Dandy Fletcher at the same intersection.

Either way, it ravaged Windsor.

“It pretty well gutted the commercial section of the town,” said local historian and author Patrick Brode. “Far too much of it was timber. It was just a bonfire waiting to go off.”

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Windsor Fire Chief Stephen Laforet is shown with an old megaphone on Friday, October 8, 2021 at the downtown station. Decades ago before modern technology the megaphones were used by fire department leaders to call out commands at a fire scene.
Windsor Fire Chief Stephen Laforet is shown with an old megaphone on Friday, October 8, 2021 at the downtown station. Decades ago before modern technology the megaphones were used by fire department leaders to call out commands at a fire scene. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

Windsor’s volunteer fire brigade was no match for it. Fed by an endless source of wind, wood and hay, the blaze raced west, consuming stores, hotels, homes and banks.

“Old wooden timber buildings,” said Doug Diet, a retired firefighter who is also doing research for the book on Windsor’s fire department. “You can imagine, you’ve seen some old barns out in the county that are made like that.

“Everybody used hay back then to feed their horses. That’s the transportation that was used back then, so I imagine there was lots of fuel for it.”

Firefighters started out confident in their state-of-the-art, horse-drawn steam fire engine, which the town bought three years earlier in 1868.

“It was the first major fire that the city’s new steam fire engine fought,” said McCall. “That was a marvellous piece of technology and was supposed to prevent any conflagrations in the future. Well, it was overwhelmed by the 1871 fire.”

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A photo taken around 1870 shows the south side of Sandwich Street (now Riverside Drive) between Ouellette Avenue and Goyeau Street. These buildings all burned down in the Great Windsor Fire of 1871.
A photo taken around 1870 shows the south side of Sandwich Street (now Riverside Drive) between Ouellette Avenue and Goyeau Street. These buildings all burned down in the Great Windsor Fire of 1871. Photo by original at the Windsor Community Museum /Windsor Star

Apart from the steam engine, the main lines of defence were bucket and hose brigades drawing water from tanks placed around town or out on the Detroit River.

“They had hose reels, simply big wagons with hoses on them pulled by horses,” said Diet. “There were no motorized vehicles. They’d have very little protective equipment. Obviously no breathing apparatus. They had helmets, although steel, and rubber raincoats, which doesn’t provide a lot of protection for them.”

To run the wagons, they sometimes had to commandeer horses.

“The firefighters had a barn where they kept horses, or they grabbed horses from other merchants from town when they needed them, and hooked them up to the hose cart,” said Diet. “And away they went to the fire.”

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While it caught everyone off guard on that particular morning, the fire came as no real surprise.

“This particular couple of weeks across the American Midwest was incredible,” said Brode. “People were just waiting for their cities to explode.”

“It’s only four days after the Great Fire of Chicago. And there had been massive fires in other American Midwest cities right at this time. Apparently, it was very dry. Most cities were built like Windsor, just out of wood.”

The Great Chicago fire started Oct. 8, 1871, killing between 250 and 300 people, and leaving one-third of that city’s population homeless. Fire Prevention Week is held every October to commemorate it.

Windsor Fire Department Ladder Co. 1 is seen in a photo taken around 1896.
Windsor Fire Department Ladder Co. 1 is seen in a photo taken around 1896. Photo by Windsor Fire Department /Windsor Star

The same day, a fire in Wisconsin burned 1.2 million acres and killed as many as 2,500 people. The cities of Holland, Port Huron and Manistee in Michigan also had major fires that day.

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Windsor had been plagued by several of its own destructive fires over the 19th century.

Nobody could stop it.

One of the most notable occurred April 16, 1849, when sparks from a steamboat on the Detroit River set a wharf on fire. Detroit firefighters, who took a ferry across the river to help, are largely credited with preventing Windsor from burning to the ground.

“Another fire where Detroit came and bailed us out,” said Diet. “They came over here at least a dozen times before the turn of the century. Then, even while I was working, they came over here a few times with their fireboat to help us out.”

The same was true on Oct. 12, 1871. With Windsor burning, a weary crew of Detroit firefighters who had just returned from fighting the Chicago wildfire once again boarded a ferry.

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Diet said Detroit’s Engine Company 4 was paid $100 for the effort. But their help had little effect.

“Nobody could stop it,” said Brode. “They really didn’t have any of the fire equipment there to handle it.”

Eventually, the wind died down.

Firefighters took advantage by flooding one building with water and tearing another one down to get the main blaze under control, according to an account from Museum Windsor. But smaller offshoots had also branched out causing more destruction.

The block stretching from Riverside Drive to Pitt Street and Ouellette Avenue to Ferry Street was in ruins. Brode said only one building on the block survived, at the corner of Pitt and Riverside. It eventually became Lee’s Imperial Tavern. Later, it was the home of Cheetah’s before it was torn down to make way for the Chrysler Building.

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Miraculously, no deaths were reported from the fire. But by the time it died out, it had destroyed more than 100 buildings, only partially insured, causing more than $100,000 in damages.

“Dawn lighted a dreadful scene of ruined buildings, blackened firefighters still struggling with the danger, homeless families and broken hopes,” Neil F. Morrison wrote in his 1954 history of Windsor, Garden Gateway to Canada.

As Windsor rebuilt, buildings were pushed back from the streets and away from each other. Ouellette was widened.

“Ouellette is pretty narrow now but you can imagine back then,” said Diet. “Single lane road and wood frame homes. So not much to stop any type of fire. After the fire there were measures put in place to start brick frame homes, fire limits in regards to how far the houses had to be back from each other.”

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The fire also led to calls for a modern waterworks system, which cost $124,000.

“We finally got fire hydrants and pipes under our streets,” said Diet. “Everybody takes them for granted, we use them for drinking water now. But after this fire is when we got a fire hydrant system and running water in the town.”

Firefighting itself has changed dramatically since the bucket brigade days. Computerized air packs allow firefighters to breathe safely in toxic smoke conditions, and equipment protects them from higher temperatures than ever before.

“Our gear now allows us to go into situations that were unthinkable years ago,” said Windsor Fire Chief Stephen Laforet. “We can go into some very hot environments, very dark, very smoky. Our training has had to keep pace with that.”

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Now, firefighters must train to recognize conditions that could lead to a flashover or a backdraft — dangerous, rapidly spreading flames and explosions — “so we don’t go too far into a fire and we understand what those warning signs are,” said Laforet.

Although historic fires have each “provided some sort of lesson to be learned” and prompted improvements to building codes, products of combustion are now much more toxic. Couches, carpets, curtains, laminate flooring, and other plastics all burn at high temperatures and release poisonous gases that can be absorbed through the skin.

“Our equipment has kept up pace with that, but we also have to understand what those dangers are,” Laforet said.

— with files from Taylor Campbell 

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