The Great Toronto Fires of 1904—and 1895

Goad’s Atlases of Toronto were meticulously-detailed, scaled maps for use by insurance underwriters, the real estate industry, and private fire brigades, in the assessment of premiums and fire risk. As it turned out, at least four notable Toronto fires were documented by the Chas. A. Goad Company in map form.

The Great Toronto Fire of 1904

The Great Toronto Fire of 1904 destroyed a massive parcel of downtown Toronto, with damage estimated around $10 million (that’s in 1904 dollars!).
Remarkably, no casualties were reported as a direct result of the conflagration (One labourer, John Croft, was killed during the post-disaster demolition work).

Toronto Fire devastation: Looking north from the foot of Bay St.
Looking north from the foot of Bay Street. The clock tower of (Old) City Hall can be seen at the view terminus.

Here is the map that Goad produced as a result. An examination of the map reveals the extent of the devastation and the many businesses which were completely destroyed by the conflagration.

Area of fire, wholesale district, Toronto, Canada, Tues. April 19th and Wed. April 20th 1904. Image courtesy City of Toronto Archives

A high quality scan of the above map may be downloaded here. Note the mention (upper right) of “Sheets 5-6-13 & 14” of “Toronto Vol. 1”. This is a reference to the Insurance Plan of Toronto (follow that link to inspect the detailed sheets from the Plan).

Toronto Fire of 1904: Looking west from Yonge along Front.
Devastation: the view looking west from Yonge St. along Front (centre with tracks). In the distance you can discern the Romanesque 1892 tower addition for the 2nd Union Station.

Amazingly, film footage from the Great Toronto Fire of 1904 and its aftermath survives:


The above video contains three scenes, each about a minute long:
• Northbound Bay Street - Fire Wagons responding to the alarm.
• Firestorm - Location unknown.
• Demolition of buildings - After the fire.

Bay St. facing South West, as seen from an upper storey in the Telegram building (SE cor. Bay/Melinda). One of the towers of the 2nd Union Station is visible in the background, right.

It took more than a dozen hours for the fire to be declared under control. Many buildings were reduced to mere shells and had to be demolished.

Smoldering ruins of the Wyld-Darling building, South East corner of Bay and Wellington

Stunning Photos of the Aftermath

I’ve put together an annotated gallery of photographs from the Great Fire here. When browsing the gallery, you’ll find it useful to refer to the previously shown map for orientation. The photos give you an idea of the spectacular scope and nature of the disaster.

The Globe and Osgoodby Fires of January 1895

The destruction wrought in 1904 naturally commands the most historical interest. But in 1895, there were three calamitous infernos which merited a map from Goad.

The first two fires occurred mere days and a block apart, on January 6 and January 10, 1895:

Plan of Fires at Toronto: January 6 (red) and January 10 (blue), 1895. Image courtesy Library and Archives Canada

The front page of the Globe breathlessly chronicled the destruction of the first fire (outlined in red above) -- which included the Globe building itself! Previously fierce newspaper rivalries were temporarily set aside in the name of journalism, and the Globe hastily relocated to the presses of the Empire Printing Company, while the offices of the Star, the Mail, the News, and the Telegram were leveraged to get the paper out to print.

The front page of the January 7, 1895 Globe (excerpt). Click to view full-size.

Fire Chief Richard Ardagh -
jumped 40 feet for his life
While battling the blaze, fireman Robert Bowery was killed and several others were injured. Fire Chief Richard Ardagh sustained serious wounds and bruises after jumping 40 feet for his life out of the third floor of the adjoining Brough & Carswell building. He would later perish a scant three weeks later, from pneumonia developed while attempting to recover.

Although the fire took place early in the morning in the midst of a thick snowstorm, nevertheless a crowd of thousands gathered to watch the fire, which spread across the street to the brand new McKinnon building. It took hours before the fire was finally declared under control. Firefighters were notably unable to direct their streams to the top of the Globe building despite their best efforts -- it was too high.

A second blaze - the Osgoodby building
The city had scarcely gathered itself before another major fire took place a few days later, this time immediately west in the Osgoodby building:

'Another Mighty Conflagration' declares the Evening Star, January 11, 1895. 'Was it Arson?'

Two women were forced to jump from the upper stories of the burning Osgoodby building -- both survived. Thousands of onlookers were again witness to a mighty spectacle of smoke and flame. The damage was estimated at hundreds of thousands of dollars, prompting a serious and punishing insurance rate hike for businesses in the core. It was speculated that the cause must have been leftover embers from the Globe blaze, though some raised the possibility of arson. This event was deemed Toronto’s most devastating fire until the calamity of 1904.

In the wake of the Globe and Osgoodby fires, steam-powered pumping engines were (re)introduced in Toronto. Fire Chief Ardagh had argued for many years that the existing water supply from hydrants, supplying 80lbs pressure in that area (see Plate 1 of the Insurance Plan), was insufficient to reach beyond the 4th floor of a building. His pleas for steam fire engines went unheeded by city council, until exactly that scenario played out in the Globe fire -- firefighters were unable to direct their water streams to the top floor of the building, a factor in its destruction.

The Simpson-Eaton Fire of March 1895

A third significant fire occurred on the morning of Sunday March 3 1895, at the corner of Yonge and Queen. This disaster  consumed most of the rival stores of Robert Simpson and the T. Eaton Co., with damage estimates coming in at close to a million dollars. Here is Goad’s subsequent map of the fire:

Plan of fire at Toronto, Ontario, Can., Sunday morning, March 3d, 1895. Image courtesy Library and Archives Canada

The practically-new, recently-constructed department store of Robert Simpson was obliterated.

SW corner of Queen and Yonge. The Simpson building was completely destroyed.
The damaged spire of Knox Church can be seen at rear.  Photo taken March 4, 1895

For comparison: Simpson’s newly built store before the fire of March 3, 1895. Also note steeple atop Knox Church.

The next day, Simpson bravely ran the following ad:

Simpsons advertisement the day after the March 3, 1895 fire

Remarkably, after this catastrophe Simpson was able to construct a new store at that very location, which stands there to this day.

Let’s wind up this look at the Simpson fire with the tale from the Globe of how the spire of the neighboring Knox church burned:
A sketch of Knox Presbyterian Church
... one of the most absorbing features of interest about the fire was the burning of the steeple of Knox Church. The steeple of the old church was destroyed in a manner that kept an immense crowd in a state of excitement for two hours, and made up a scene of wonderful beauty and impressiveness. To see the fire smouldering high up on the steeple during all that time, a fire so small that a pailful of water would have extinguished it, but with no possibility of getting anywhere near it, was painful to the spectators, and must have been exasperating to the brigade... 
The terrific heat from the upper storeys of the Simpson building first ignited a small wooden ornament on top of the stone tower of the church, but this was of little consequence, as it was hardly possible for it to ignite anything else. A tiny jet of smoke coming from the small wooden window frames thirty feet higher up, which appeared after 1 o‘clock, was the real source of danger, and some of the officers of the church and insurance men appealed to the firemen to try in some way to extinguish this fire before it should spread.
But the firemen realized how helpless they were in the matter, as they had no appliances at all suitable. Finally at 2 o‘clock a fireman with a Babcock extinguisher made an attempt to ascend the tower on the inside. By this time the fire in the steeple had become brighter, and it was feared that if the fireman could not get up the steeple the whole church was doomed. The crowd watched with intense interest his slow ascent, as shown by the light of the lantern he carried shining through the large front window. When he reached the belfry he endeavored to pass the bell, and in so doing pulled the hammer, the bell giving out three strokes, that sounded weird and pathetic under the circumstances. Then followed a period of suspense while the people strained their eyes to catch the first sight of him at the summit of the tower, but soon the lantern was seen descending again, and it was evident that he had failed and that the tower was doomed.
From this time on the fire very slowly increased, until about 2:45 o‘clock it had blazed out fiercely, looking like an immense torch. The wind sent the flames curling around the steeple, and as the fire spread upwards and downwards great forks of flame stretched out to the east. Then the firemen brought hose to play upon the church as the falling embers were a source of danger to the body of the building. The moment the stream was turned on the crowd set up a cheer with a distinctly derisive note to it...

Thanks for reading!

Additional Resources and Further Reading

The Great Fire of 1904 - Toronto Archives
Historicist: the story of Mr. Croft - Torontoist
The Great Toronto Fire of 1904 - blogTO
Companies and Buildings Affected (1904) - Toronto Archives
The Great Toronto Fire - Archives of Ontario

Their Last Alarm - Robert Kirkpatrick [notes on Chief Ardagh]

Context for this Post

Originally I was planning to do a brief post with just the 3 Goad maps of the fires of 1904 and 1895. I then decided it would benefit from a few supplementary photographs and discussion. This article is thus meant to complement the rest of this site, which provides simple online access to the Atlas of the City of Toronto by the Chas. E. Goad Company. 

Atlas Editions available: 188418901893189919031910, 1913, 1924.
Bonus Updates: 1880 Insurance Plan of the City of Toronto, 1889 Insurance PlanThe Great Toronto Fires of 1904 -- and 1895
More Maps: Check out Historical Maps of Toronto -- includes the 1858 WS Boulton Atlas and the 1842 Cane Topological Map of the City and Liberties of Toronto

Please ‘Like’ and share these maps! I hope that other Toronto heritage enthusiasts will find them useful. Have fun exploring Victorian Toronto!