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The Great Fire of Fenelon Falls, April 21, 1884

April 17, 2023

Fenelon Falls from Church Hill, before the Great Fire of Fenelon Falls, 1884

By 1880, Fenelon Falls was finally starting to come together as a village. Having been founded by land speculators Robert Jameson and James Wallis nearly 50 years earlier. The main street was lined with neatly finished shops, and new homes that were the pride of families who had worked so hard to make a new home. Yet its citizens were all too aware of one shortcoming—built almost entirely of wood nineteenth century buildings were terribly susceptible to fire. Cedar shingles caught very easily and carried fires far too rapidly. For centuries larger centres had regulated against building with wood, but it was the economical material that was at hand in the Kawarthas.

Villages relied on bucket brigades to fight back the infernos. It was a testament to their tireless struggle that the village survived any urban fires. As a stream of hands conveyed water onto the flames, fearless men scrambled on the roofs checking the blazes started from sparks falling on the shingles. But it was almost inevitable that sooner or later, a fire would get out of control and sweep through a block, or even an entire village. Fenelon Falls’ bucket brigades fared pretty well on the whole, yet a fire in the kitchen of George Crandell’s hotel kindled the Great Fire of Fenelon Falls on April 21, 1884.

The fire led to the reconstruction of a large portion of the downtown, in an era when masonry buildings were supplanting wood.

Great Fire at Fenelon Falls

Nearly Half the Stores Destroyed

About one o’clock last Monday morning a fire broke out from some unknown cause in the kitchen of Crandell’s hotel at the southwest corner of Colborne and Bond streets, and in a little less than three hours the flames had made their way to Francis Street and turned the corner, where a small low house built of strips and plastered on both sides burnt so slowly that by desperate exertions the fire was prevented from spreading any further. During its progress great excitement of course prevailing, and, with few exceptions, all present did their best to save the contents of the stores and dwellings from the flames, which fanned by a strong wind from the north, leapt from building to building with such rapidity that in the first three or four, a great part of the contents, especially such as were up-stairs, had to be abandoned to destruction. No lives were lost, nor have we heard of anyone being in much danger; but two or three persons in Crandell’s had to run out with some of their clothes in their hands and finish dressing on the sidewalk. Though our village is pretty well off as regards water, all we have in the way of fire engines are two small affairs, which, though useful enough in checking an incipient fire or preventing imperilled buildings from igniting, are but wasting their energies when attempting to extinguish a fire which has got fairly underway. Therefore when, on Monday morning, they were doing good service by playing on the fronts of buildings facing the fire, Councillor Thomson almost created an insurrection by taking them away in the vain hope of doing more good with them elsewhere; but Mr. Keith managed to have them brought back, and if it had not been for his determination not to be burnt out if he could help it, there is very little doubt that his store and Mr. Deyman’s furniture rooms would both have been destroyed, to say nothing of the buildings in their vicinity. Indeed, for a time no part of the centre of the village was safe, the wind carrying huge flakes of fire and blazing shingles for long distances in all directions, and many stores and dwellings were only saved by constant watchfulness and water on the roofs. In Mr. Heard’s new brick building nearly all the windows below and many above were cracked by the fervent heat; Mr. Nevison’s harness shop and Mr. Moffat’s grocery and bakery were in great danger, and, had either of them taken fire, there is no saying how far it would have spread. As it is nearly half of the business places of the village have disappeared, though in point of value they bore no comparison to those that remain. Crandell’s hotel, in which the fire originated, was a large brick building owned by Mr. Daniel Scully, and formerly when know as ‘Scully’s’ block contained two commodious stores with a public hall above. It was then tolerably well isolated, having streets on two sides and considerable vacancies on the others; but the sheds and stables lately erected formed connecting links with other property. Next to it, but separated by a space of say thirty feet, were two wooden buildings owned by Mr. John A. Ellis, one of which was occupied by the Mechanics Institute and the family of Mr. Kelly, the caretaker and the other as a restaurant and residence by Mr. Blott. Then came a wooden building owned by Mr. John W. Kennedy, now in Manitoba, and occupied by Mr. A Laliberte, tailor, and family. The next was a brick block containing two stores with commodious dwellings above. One of these was the property of Mr. Kennedy and occupied by Mr. Samuel Newman dealer in dry goods and groceries. From this point south the ground over which the fire passed belong to Mr. William Jordan, who owned all the rest of the buildings destroyed except the one owned and occupied by Mr. C.W. Moore, dealer in dry-goods, boots and shores and groceries. Between Newman’s and Moore’s and south of the latter the following persons were burned out: Mrs. Heeley, millinery and fancy goods; John Kellett, baker, L. Mcdonald, watchmaker, John Jones, resident; a French family just moved in whose name we have not learned; R. Cooper, harness maker; Stephen Nevison, painter and dealer in prints, pictures &c.; A. McKillen, shoemaker; Jas. Cullon, shoemaker. L. Laliberte, shoemaker; George Manning, dry goods and boots and shoes, and Wm. Fountain. The last named occupied the small strip and plastered dwelling above mentioned. Though the fire spread on its destructive course with great rapidity, several of the occupants of the doomed buildings had time to remove all their effects, and most of those fortunate enough to do so were uninsured. Below we give a list of losses and insurances as known.

D. Scully, hotel. Cost about $4,000; insured for $3,000.

G. Crandell, contents of hotel. Loss _____. Insured for $1450.

John A. Ellis, buildings. Valued at $1,200; insured for $800.

Mechanics Institute. Lost 333 books, valued at $1 each, and fixtures $85. Insurance $200.

P. Kelly, caretaker. Loss $75; no insurance.

W.W. Blott, restaurant and dwelling. Loss $300; no insurance.

A. Laliberte, tailor. Loss $300; no insurance.

Samuel Johnson, merchant. Loss on stock $1,800; insured for $1,350. Furniture and clothing nearly all burnt, and insured for $150.

John W. Kennedy, brick store and dwelling, insured for $1,000, and small uninsured wooden building.

Samuel Newman, brick store and dwelling. Insured for $1,530 on building, furniture and clothing. Loss on stock about $1,500. Insurance policy ran out a few days before the fire occurred.

Mrs. Heeley, millinery and fancy goods. Loss on stock, furniture and clothing estimated at $400. No insurance.

C.W. Moore, merchant. Loss on stock about $3,000; insured for $1,500.

S. Nevison, paints, oils, prints, pictures &c. Loss $125. No insurance.

George Manning. Loss about $300, covered by insurance.

Wm. Jordan. ten wooden buildings of all sorts and sizes. Ins’d for $1,300.

Over the whole extent of the ‘burnt district’ nothing is left standing except parts of the brick walls of the hotel and Kennedy and Newman’s block, and they ought to be pushed or pulled down, being liable to fall at any moment. We are glad to hear that some of the owners of the property intend to rebuild at once, and it is to be hoped that the others will follow their example, and that a row of neat buildings will soon replace the frail and unsightly structures that have just disappeared. With few exceptions the villagers worked nobly at the fire, which but for their exertions, would probably have crossed the street, in which case the loss of buildings, goods and chattels would have been greatly increased.

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