The Great Toronto Fire of 1904 by Adam Bunch

It was a miserably cold night, with bitter gusts of wind and a light snow even though it was the middle of April. And at about 8pm things got worse; a nightwatchman spotted the first plumes of smoke billowing out of a necktie factory on Wellington, just west of Bay (where the TD Bank tower is now). As he rushed off to sound the alarm, the flames spread. Quickly.

Within an hour, every fireman in the city was desperately trying to contain the blaze. But it wasn't going well. Violent gusts of wind blew the water from their hoses off course. The spray froze in mid-air, coating everything with ice. Thick tangles of newly-installed telegraph, telephone and electrical wires made it impossible for ladders to reach the flames. The textile factories, book sellers, paper supply companies and chemical manufacturers crowding the core of the city provided the perfect fuel. Men were being blinded by smoke. The fire chief had broken his leg. And the snow was joined by a constant rain of broken glass, burning wood and ash.

The flames tore through the heart of the city, moving south from Wellington all the way down to the Esplanade and east toward Yonge. Twenty acres of downtown Toronto—more than a hundred buildings—were on fire. You could see the glow of the flames for miles in every direction. They were loosing the battle. Mayor Urquhart sent urgent telegrams to other cities asking for help. And all through the night they arrived: firemen from Hamilton, London, Peterborough, Niagara Falls and Buffalo joining in the fight. Within a few hours, there were 250 of them pouring millions of litres of water on the flames. At the Evening Telegram offices on Bay, employees spent hours spraying water out the windows to save the building. At the Queen Hotel (about where the Royal York is now), guests and employees organized bucket brigades, hung water-soaked blankets out the windows and beat off the flames, saving the hotel and helping to stop the fire's advance before it could cross Yonge.

Finally, by five in the morning, nine hours after it had started, the fire was out. One hundred and twenty-five business were destroyed. Five thousand people put out of work. And $10 million dollars worth of damage had been caused. Somehow, amazingly, no one had died.

The ruins smouldered for two more weeks, with smaller fires popping up and reigniting from time to time. The charred husks of the damaged buildings were dynamited and the rubble cleared out of the way. In their place, new brick buildings (many of them supplied by the suddenly now-booming Don Valley Brick Works) rose to fill the skyline, built to a new fire code and protected by more hydrants and a new high-pressure water system—all designed to make sure that the biggest fire in Toronto's history would stay that way.

Incredibly, there's footage of the fire, which for some silly reason they haven't made embeddable, but which can you see here on the city's website. There are shots of horse-drawn fire engines rushing down Bay Street toward the blaze, flames consuming a building, and the demolition of the ruins in the aftermath.

Main photo: Front Street after the fire. You can click on any of these to make them bigger:

Front Street, looking west from Yonge

The Esplanade, west of Bay

You can find more photos here, on the city's website. And the Archives of Ontario have an animated map showing the spread of the fire here.

Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at

This post originally appeared on the Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog, which tells stories about the history of Toronto. You can read more highlights from it here, or visit it yourself here.


Post a Comment