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Waterford’s Firefighting Heritage

In Waterford’s early days, fire protection consisted of a bucket brigade where everyone ran to a fire with a pail of water. Fire alarms were indicated by the blowing of whistles on mills or locomotives and the ringing of church bells.

The first record of fire protection in the town was dated July 11, 1879, authorizing the reeve to issue a cheque for $16.00 to Mr. J.L. Barber for a village fire bell. This bell was erected on the Flat Iron Building. Eleven years later, this building itself burned down, but the bell was recovered and moved to the roof of the Beemer Lintel, where it remained until 1930.

In 1884, the first effort to organize a fire department was made. Mr. E.H. Long was appointed Fire Warden and instructed to form a Hook and Ladder company. Waterford’s first municipal fire-fighting equipment consisted of a hand-drawn four-wheeled wagon equipped with wooden ladders, poles with hooks on the ends, an axe, a crowbar, a coal-oil lantern, and fifty pails hanging on hooks along the sides of the racks.

In 1890, a serious fire in the Flat Iron Building threatened a large portion of the village. Both Simcoe and Brantford sent assistance. The Simcoe engine was drawn by a team of horses, and the Brantford engine came on a flat car on the B.W. & L.E. Railroad. Water pumped from the pond created by the dam finally stopped the fire. Following this, Col. York, heading a group of forty-five property holders, asked the council for better fire protection.

The council met this request by appointing Mr. Oscar McMichael and Mr. T.D. Duncombe as a committee to investigate and report on various types of fire-fighting equipment. However, it wasn’t until 1898 that the council ordered a hand-operated fire engine from Ramsey and Company of Seneca Falls, U.S.A. This engine was equipped with two 4-inch brass cylinders, brass piping, two nozzles, 300 feet of 1½ inch hose, 25 feet of 2-inch suction hose, and pumping bars for ten men. The cost was $249.75.

Following this significant expenditure, nothing notable occurred until 1902, when the council defined the fire limits of the village. In 1903, there were two more disastrous fires: the Sheldrick and Collver store was destroyed, followed by the Henry Block, which included J.E. Chambers’ tin shop, M.J. Chambers’ jewelry store and dwellings, and the Matchett and Sales Apple Factory.

To address these issues, a plan for piping and tanks with water to be pumped from the mill pond was submitted. A large cistern was built in the basement of the town hall, and a pipeline ran down West Street to Alice Street, then west on Alice Street to where the bowling alley stood. Along the route were several standpipe connections to which the hand pump could be connected to boost pressure. This was Waterford’s first waterworks.

In 1915, Dr. O.H. Duncombe resigned as fire chief, and Mr. J.E. Chambers replaced him. In 1916, fire struck again, this time taking the Sanderson Store, Col. York’s hardware and drug store, and T.C. Savage’s jewelry store. This spurred the purchase of two 70-gallon chemical engines on trailer wheels for $800.00.

In November 1917, Mr. J.R. Forbes replaced Mr. Chambers as fire chief, and he was shortly replaced by Mr. D.A. Hill, who acted for the next three years. Mr. Harry Martin followed Mr. Hill in 1921. Changes in the fire protection system were again discussed. Mr. Atkinson of Penmans Ltd. requested better fire protection for their factory. A by-law was proposed and passed, public tenders were called for and accepted, and work began in earnest.

The Fire Department was reorganized, and the present chief, C.L. Tench, was appointed. By August of 1925, wells were built, and a collection basin and pump house were completed, with sufficient mains installed to permit water to be pumped. One thousand feet of 2¼ inch fire hose, along with nozzles and tools, were purchased, and the fire chief was authorized to purchase a second-hand truck to be fitted as a fire truck. Accordingly, a one-ton Maxwell truck with a four-cylinder engine was purchased and refitted, and Waterford became the proud possessor of its first fire truck. The Women’s Institute, led by Mrs. James Fleming, donated twelve rubber coats, hats, and boots to the fire department.

A by-law was drafted not to exceed $25,000.00 for waterworks and electric lights, to be submitted to the ratepayers. However, nothing developed from this until 1913, when Mr. F. Bouslaugh and the summer of 1920, most of the village, except for West Mechanic Street, had water mains.

In the next few years, the department was busy, including regular training practices. In 1928, at the request of the Township of Townsend, the Waterford Fire Department undertook to answer all calls within a five-mile radius. This date is important as it signalled the start of what is now one of the finest arrangements in fire protection circles. More hoses, gas masks, extinguishers, and other equipment were added in the following years.

In 1930, Waterford and Simcoe entered into a mutual fire assistance agreement, the forerunner of the now widely operated Mutual Aid System. Despite the Depression, the Fire Department raised money for a new truck through dances, bingos, picture shows, etc. In the spring of 1935, a new 2½ ton Chevrolet Maple Leaf chassis was purchased. The department built the body, ladder racks, and other components, and the truck was presented to the village. January 1936 saw the first insurance coverage for the department’s men.

In 1938, the Township of Townsend purchased its first fire truck, a 2¼ ton Maple Leaf fitted with four 90-gallon chemical tanks, a 150 G.P.M. pump, necessary hoses, ladders, gas masks, electric lanterns, and tools. By a new mutual aid agreement, Waterford and Townsend each made their truck available to the other. The Waterford Fire Department manned the new Townsend truck, which was housed in Waterford. This mutual agreement has proven valuable over the years. In 1938, fog fire-fighting was introduced on both trucks.

During World War II, the absence of younger men in the village meant older men were often pressed into service, and the department had to cope with material shortages. Despite these challenges, continuous improvements were made in firefighting techniques. The growing of tobacco also increased the fire hazards of this period.

As the old water mains could no longer carry the high pressure necessary for fire fighting, a new pumper truck was purchased. This truck could supply six hundred gallons per minute with a four hundred pound top pressure. To house their equipment, the village and township jointly found new quarters, remodelling a section of the town hall to provide space for four trucks.

In 1954, the township truck was replaced by a more modern one equipped with a 500 G.P.M. pump. Around this time, the Waterford Lions Club donated a resuscitator to the department, credited with saving two lives. The Canadian Legion donated an extra control and mask unit, allowing the treatment of two victims at once.

Prior to 1957, firemen were notified of fires through the cooperation of the Bell Telephone Company. This system was highly efficient but had to be replaced with the installation of dial telephones. The two municipalities jointly installed a radio alarm system in each fireman’s home.

In 1957, Townsend discontinued the use of its older truck and replaced it with a new Chevrolet 25 G.V.W. truck, which mounted a 1,280-gallon water tank and all necessary equipment. In 1960, the Fire Department added portable flood lighting equipment, which was anticipated to be very valuable.

The mutual aid system between the two municipalities has now been extended to include Brant and Norfolk, sponsored by the Fire Marshal’s Department of Ontario.

Throughout the years, manpower in firefighting has been of prime importance. Many good men have served Waterford and Townsend as firefighters, often for many years. Today, it is more necessary than ever to have volunteers trained in the use and application of their equipment and with a general knowledge of fire control.


Blythe, C., Brown, S., & Judd, D. (1978). Townsend and Waterford, a double portrait. Waterford and Townsend Historical Society.

Old timers’ reunion: Waterford and Townsend: “Our home town and township.” (1960). Waterford Town Council.