The Owen Sound City Hall fire awakened the city's citizens to the fire which destroyed one of the community's most historic civic structures.
Thirty-seven years ago, this week on Friday, February 24, 1961 the citizens of Owen Sound awoke to black clouds of smoke billowing from the downtown area. The news quickly spread that one of our historic landmarks, the 92-year-old City Hall was on fire!
Shortly after 4 a.m., three police officers noticed smoke. At that time, the Owen Sound Police Department was located in the City Hall. Constable Murray Gibbons headed to the basement to see if the stoker might have run dry. However, when he reached the top of the stairs, he was forced back by clouds of dense smoke.
The Fire Department was called, and their response time was almost immediate because, at that time, the Fire Hall was located immediately next to the City Hall. Mayor William Forsyth and other civic leaders were called immediately, and everyone pitched in to try and save the valuable documents that were stored in the building. The police were hampered in their efforts to help when all of the alarms for the banks and trust companies went off at the same time. It was suspected that the fire had tripped the alarms in the police headquarters. However, nothing was left to chance, and officers were dispatched to check out each of the financial institutions.
By 6 a.m., it was evident that the fire fighters would need more help to stop the raging inferno. Therefore, Mayor Forsyth called for help from both the Meaford and Chatsworth volunteer fire brigades. Soon, six fire trucks, every available Owen Sound fire fighter, volunteer firemen from the two neighboring communities, all available Owen Sound policemen, and the mayor, members of council, city officials and other volunteers were locked in a battle to save city documents and prevent the Owen Sound City Hall fire from spreading beyond the immediate building.
People living in the apartments above the stores located across the street were evacuated as there was a fear that the clock tower might topple. By 8:50 a.m., Fire Chief Cecil Whalen decided that there was a danger of the tower falling, and by 10 a.m., the fire was under control. By this time, firemen were only taking preventative measures as the main fire had been doused. An aerial truck sprayed water on the roof to extinguish random flames that seemed to shoot up every so often, and another hose was deployed to hose down the area around the City Treasurers office.
It was suspected that the cause of the Owen Sound City Hall fire was due to problems with the boiler which workmen had been trying to repair the day before. In fact, they had stopped their repair efforts at midnight, the previous evening — only a few hours before the blaze started. The cost of the damage was set at $500,000. However, the structure was only insured for $175,000 and the contents an additional $25,000.
The fire had threatened the loss of many important documents. Firefighters had attempted to open vaults in order to remove these documents. However, the smoke had been so thick, they could not see well enough to activate the combinations to open the various vaults located in the building. The objects of concern were the assessment rolls, by-laws, including some historic documents, planning department records, welfare rolls, and treasury records.
Fortunately, most of the documents escaped the Owen Sound City Hall fire. If these documents had been destroyed, the result could have meant chaos and further financial burden for the community. For example, if the assessment rolls had perished in the blaze, the cost of re-assessment was believed to be in excess of $50,000.
The fire not only destroyed one of Owen Sound's historic buildings, but it also led to a change in the housing of various community services. For example, the police department was moved to another location, as was the fire department. The old clock was dismantled and put into storage.
The impact of the Owen Sound City Hall fire was devastating but, thanks to the efforts of our fire department, the volunteer fire departments from neighbouring communities, the police and concerned citizens who voluntarily risked their safety, the blaze was confined to one building.
The information used in this column came from several sources including interviews, personal memories and an excellent newspaper report in the Sun Times from the day of the fire, written by Dick Waugh and Bill Dane.
A version of this article originally appeared in my Local History column in the February 20, 1998 edition of the Owen Sound Sun Times.