‘The truck was so slow that bicyclists easily passed it,’ writes Susan Goldenberg
In North York’s pioneering days firefighting was by water bucket brigade.
In 1922, when North York became independent from York township, one of the first actions was to buy the community’s first-ever fire truck, a converted Model T Ford car, popular with small rural communities because it was sturdy, easy to use by volunteer firefighters with no formal training, and affordable.
It had a hand-rung bell, hand-cranked sirens and air horn. Stick-shift operated, it featured a four-cylinder, 20 horsepower engine, wood-spoke tires, hose, two 25-gallon tanks (50 gallons total was thought to be sufficient), a ladder attached to one side and an axe on the other.
North York had no funds for professional, full-time firefighters and a firehall – 24 residents volunteered to be on call. The truck was kept at the Pioneer Garage on Yonge, north of Sheppard. Owner William John (Jack) Nelson, 41, was selected chief.
According to folklore, the truck was so slow that bicyclists easily passed it. North York still mostly had dirt or gravel roads. In the spring when the roads were flooded the fire truck often could not get east or west of Yonge. Additionally, most barn fires were impossible to fight because of a water shortage, so the firemen just sat and watched them burn.
Jack Nelson retired in 1931. In 1935 his son Ivan, just 22, became chief, the youngest in Ontario. But he already had plenty of experience. As a child he had ridden to fires with his father. At 14 he joined the volunteer brigade.
Ivan was on call 24 hours. He had three phones in his apartment. His wife Eunice answered while he quickly dressed in clean clothes laid out the night before. Eunice called the volunteers and alerted the water and hydro departments.
In 1941 a full-time professional fire department was created with Ivan as chief. He expanded North York’s force to 150 firefighters and 10 trucks operating out of five fire halls.
North York’s worst fires in terms of loss of life: six, Inn on the Park, January 17, 1981; six, January 6, 1995, 2 Forest Laneway apartment building.
Written by Susan Goldenberg.
Originally published on July 29, 2021, on toronto.com.