of 1884 Levels Town
Than 4 Hours
By Paul Arculus
AS THE WARM DAYS of May,
1884 arrived, Port Perry's resilient town folk had
begun to put the terrible fire of November 1883
well into their past. By the end of the month, Thompson's
new hotel was under construction, as was Jonathan
Blong's new building in the middle of the eastern
section of Queen Street. No one was prepared for
what was about to happen.
At the beginning of the last week
of June 1884, a heatwave hit the citizens of this
part of Canada. The heatwave continued into July.
As the sun set, on the evening of Thursday, July
3 a breeze drifted in from the south east. Most
of the windows of the homes of Port Perry's residents
would have been flung open in an attempt to catch
the refreshing movement of air. A sense of relief
from the intense heat would have no doubt embraced
those who had opened their windows, for the breeze
began to increase in strength.
In the middle of the south side
of Queen Street, Neil Sinclair ran the Mansion House
Hotel for its owner Ben McQuay. This was where the
Post Office is now located. Behind the hotel were
the necessary stables and a blacksmith shop.
A few minutes before midnight,
on the evening of July 3, the townspeople were rudely
awakened by the persistent ringing of the Town Hall
bell. The Town Hall bell acted as an alarm clock
for the townsfolk, ringing every day at 7 a.m.,
noon hour, 1 o'clock and at 6 o'clock in the evening.
However, if it rang at any other time, it could
only have one meaning; FIRE! The volunteer firemen
made their way quickly to the Town Hall to gather
the limited fire fighting equipment available to
them and to find out who was ringing the bell.
A fire had been
noticed in the stables behind Ben McQuay's hotel.
Aided by the strong wind from the south east, it
spread rapidly, first in a westerly direction, then
across the road and finally, to the east. Wooden
buildings in the middle of a hot dry summer, virtually
exploded when sparks settled on them. The fire appliances
were totally inadequate to handle an inferno of
this proportion. One can only try to imagine a scene
of panic and desperation as merchants ran downtown
to try to rescue their merchandise. Flames reached
dozens of metres into the air and could be seen
as far away as Greenbank, Oshawa, Whitby and Port
Hope. Attempts to save buildings were futile.
Panic stricken merchants, most
of them uninsured, or at best under-insured, smashed
down the rear doors of their stores, desperate to
save merchandise. Some merchandise was rescued and
piled on Perry Street but the heat of the conflagration
drove people away and the rescued merchandise itself
caught fire, consumed as the fire spread to Perry
Street. In less than an hour, the entire business
section of downtown Port Perry was an inferno.
From the north side of Mary Street
to the south side of North Street, from Water Street
to Perry Street and on Queen Street all the way
to John Street, the fire consumed every building;
house, store, shed and stable with the exception
of two buildings at the extremes. Tummond's store
at southeast corner of John and Queen Streets, (this
is the site of the present Big V Drug Store) and
Curries' Mill at the waterfront were the only buildings
to survive. They defined the limits of the conflagration.
As daylight came, a scene of utter
desolation confronted the townsfolk. Cries of disbelief
and despair would no doubt be heard for miles around.
This was a time when few places of business had
adequate insurance, the majority would have had
none at all. Thirty-three commercial buildings housing
almost 50 businesses, as well as factories, warehouses,
stables, six lodges and a dozen homes were turned
into soot and embers. According to the Port Perry
Standard, there was a loss of over $350,000 but
only $150,000 was covered by insurance. Those estimates
are in 1884 dollars. Today, the value of the buildings
alone would be in the tens of millions.
The only consolation
was that the tragedy wasn't accompanied by death.
Today, the upper floors of the downtown core are
almost entirely occupied by apartment dwellers.
At the time of the fire, the upper floors were occupied
by the street level businesses or rented out to
other businesses. Most of the dry goods and clothing
stores which dominated the downtown core, devoted
their upper floors to millinery and (cover your
eyes gentlemen!)...ladies undergarments.
A few people received burns as
they tried to save merchandise. A number of valuable
animals were lost. In the stables at the Mansion
House Hotel, where the fire started, one horse valued
at $300 was destroyed along with other horses and
a cow. A similar fate befell other animals in the
stables of the other downtown hotels.
Fortunately, the contents of 26
vaults in various buildings were found to be undamaged
in spite of the intense heat.
Mr. Tummonds survived the fire
but his reputation stumbled momentarily. Whether
through envy, mistrust or malicious lies, or a combination
thereof, he was accused of inflating his prices.
The Ontario Observer said that he was "taking advantage
of the adverse circumstances in which the town has
been placed by the late fire because being the only
store in this place, advanced the price of many
of the necessities of life as high as 50, 75, and
100 per cent."
He advertised an offer of $100
to anyone who could prove that he charged more for
an article after the fire. There is no evidence
to show that anyone claimed the reward.
The tragedy of the 1884 fire was
largely an economic one. Dreams of financial success
and entire life savings were lost. For those on
the north side of Queen Street who were just beginning
to get themselves re-established after the 1883
fire, the tragedy was even more devastating. This
second fire was too much for W.B. McGaw. He had
run the Walker House for Dan Ireland and the hotel
had been destroyed in the 1883 fire. Rather than
stay in Port Perry and re-invest in its future,
in October 1884, he moved to Bowmanville and invested
in a hotel there. Fortunately for Port Perry his
case was the exception.
The Victorian age was one of optimism
and hope. The people who lived in it had a resilliency
and determination. They had heard from their parents,
of an earlier age when nothing but hardship and
disease prevailed. Some of the older citizens could
relate those experiences first hand. If they could
survive the perils of pioneer life, they could rebuild
their lives again; and so they did. The townsfolk
The newspapers themselves were
knocked out of business for three weeks, but on
July 24, 1884, the editor of the North Ontario Observer,
James Baird, commented in his editorial:
"We have to apologize to our patrons
for this second interruption to our business during
the past eight months. It would almost appear that
the fire fiend has a dislike to the Observer office.
It has hunted us from pillar to post and driven
us around town and came precious near to driving
us out of it. No matter in which part of the town
the fire starts it is sure to rope in the Observer
ere all is done. During the past eight months we
have twice been driven to the street by fire..."
Mr. Baird then went
on to relate that:
"...The entire village is one
grand scene of busy life, whole armies of carters,
labourers, stone masons, brick layers and carpenters,
are combining their efforts for the restoration
of the town and the work is progressing with amazing
Immediately following the editorial
was a list of businesses which had started up in
new temporary locations. Various basements, barns,
warehouses and other storage facilities provided
temporary accommodation for the displaced businesses.
Davenport and Jones set up their general store in
the Town Hall basement. T.C. Forman, a staunch Presbyterian
was even able to convince his congregation to allow
him to set up his store in the basement of the church.
By July 31, the Ontario Observer
was able to report:
"The perfect rush of industry
which now prevails in the village of Port Perry
is highly commendable to the enterprise and manly
courage of those who so recently passed through
the fire, the burned district is one scene of rush
and activity and hosts of busy men are hurrying
hither and thither in every direction while the
perfect babel of hammers, saws, axes, trowels...is
highly pleasant...there are 17 permanent brick blocks
under construction, these blocks will afford accommodation
for 20 stores, one hotel...etc."
Progress reports of the buildings
appeared in the newspapers on a weekly basis.
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