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The great fire of Tottenham destroyed much of the village in 1895

February 10, 2022   ·   0 Comments

When you need emergency assistance in New Tecumseth, the response is quick and professional.

If you’ve got a kitchen fire and make the call to 911, you can bet the New Tecumseth Fire Department will be roaring down your street in short order with sirens blaring to clear the way and red lights flashing for a visual reference.

Modern building and fire codes along with a highly responsive fire department means most fires are quickly under control.

At the end of the 19th century, however, fire-fighting techniques were still very rudimentary.

Most towns didn’t even have a real fire department. If a fire did break out, it was mostly town-folk who would show up and pass a bucket in hopes of containing the fire.

Fire was a very real concern at the time. Many buildings were wood construction and once a fire started, there was a real possibility it could be out of control in minutes.

If you look back through Ontario history, there were a lot of towns that went up in flames in the latter part of that century.

The great fire of Tottenham was a blaze that started in a foundry in the middle of the night on June 18, 1895, and destroyed a good part of the town. It was a very hot, very dry season meaning the risk of fire was already a concern.

Several years earlier, in July of 1884, a serious fire in Alliston prompted some Tottenham residents to start pushing for the town to buy their own fire engine.

An article published in the Cardwell Sentinel, a local newspaper at the time, said, “What was Alliston’s fate last week might be ours next, and a small expenditure in time might save large losses in the future.”

The article described “dozens of places in the village littered with dry chips and rubbish that a spark or match might result in a burnt hamlet.”

There’s no word on whether the town did get their fire engine, but it would have come in handy on that hot windswept summer night. At least one fire engine was present but there is no indication whether it was from Tottenham or a neighbouring community.

Around 3:00 a.m., a fire broke out in McKinney’s foundry at the corner of Queen Street and Albert Street.

The flames were fuelled by a strong south-westerly wind and the fire rapidly spread.

At first, they thought they had the fire contained in two buildings, but embers carried by the wind started fires at new locations and the situation quickly became out of control as more and more buildings went up in flames. When crews tackled one fire, another would break out at a different location. 

As the wind pushed the fire south, the flames also travelled north from building to building.

When word of a serious fire began to spread through the region, local residents responded with many people arriving from both Alliston and Beeton to help out.

There was a militia group that had set up camp near Beeton. Around 300 militia men arrived to help and are credited with saving much of town.

One woman who was a young child during the fire, recalled years later that her disabled grandmother had been rescued and carried away in a carriage that was pulled by men because no one had time to find or hitch up a horse team.

She also said her father, local store owner and merchant, George Gordon, opened his store for anyone who needed to come in and get food and supplies to tide everyone over for the following days. Local residents made their homes available to take in people who were now homeless. 

By the time the fire was finally put out, the Town was devastated. 

A total of 80 buildings had been destroyed. Albert, Richmond, Victoria, and Mill Streets had lost everything on both sides of the street.

Around 21 business were burned to the ground along with the Methodist church.

Businesses lost included the foundry, retail stores, blacksmith and wood working shops, a butcher shop, druggist, shoemaker and a factory.

Over 40 private residences were destroyed. 

The final estimate of damage came in at $125,000 which would have been a sizable number for the time.

Considering the amount of devastation and the fact that an entire Town was burning, not a single life was lost in the fire.

Tottenham rebuilt over the next few years, which dates many of the current older buildings that were constructed after the fire.

By Brian Lockhart
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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