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The great Toronto fire of 1904

Posted by Derek Flack / April 19, 2011

Toronto Fire Great 1904Much is made of the structures that have been lost to demolition over the years in Toronto, but poor planning and a lack of respect for historical buildings isn't the only culprit to contribute to this city's diminished heritage standing. As much as such factors may have implicitly played a role in the recent lost of the former Empress Hotel at Yonge & Gould, the vehicle of that building's destruction — namely fire — has its own history of destruction. And it was exactly 107 years ago today, that Toronto witnessed the biggest blaze of them all.

At 8:04 p.m. on April 19th, 1904 (107 years ago today) a police constable on patrol in downtown Toronto reported the sight of flames shooting skyward from the Currie Building, which was located at 58 Wellington (near where the current TD Centre now sits). Spreading rapidly, by 4:00 a.m. an area of approximately 20 acres was destroyed by flames. To put that into some perspective, Ground Zero, the site of the former World Trade Centre in New York City, is about 16 acres.

It could have been much worse. Because the fire started after regular work hours, the affected area was virtually empty. In fact, though it's hard to believe, there were no fatalities associated with the blaze. It's also somewhat remarkable, given the inferno it was reported to be at its height, that the blaze didn't spread further north and and east. Credit goes to the over 250 firefighters — some of whom travelled from Hamilton and Buffalo to help — for saving other areas along King and Yonge streets from being engulfed by the flames.

Some statistics

  • $10 million in property damages (in 1904 dollars!)
  • 5000 jobs lost
  • 20 acres destroyed
  • Over 250 firefighters fought the blaze
  • 9.5 and 11 million litres of water were used to douse the flames
  • 5 injuries (the most serious of which was a broken leg)
  • 9hrs total duration

Photos

Bay Street looking north before the fire (1903)
Toronto Fire 1904

Bay Street looking north after the fire (1904)
Toronto Fire 1904

Bay Street looking north at Wellington
Toronto Fire 1904

Bay Street looking southwest (Old Union Station in the background)
Toronto Fire 1904

The aftermath as seen from the roof of the Queen's Hotel
Toronto Fire 1904

Front and Bay streets
Toronto Fire 1904

Front looking west from near Yonge Street
Toronto Fire 1904

Location unknown
Toronto Fire 1904

The City Engineers album
Toronto Fire 1904Additional resources

Lead photo from the Ontario Archives. All subsequent images from the Toronto Archives.

Discussion

19 Comments

burnbabyburn / April 19, 2011 at 03:41 pm
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Reminds me of present day Regent Park.

What with them finally tearing down all the crap.

Dmitri replying to a comment from burnbabyburn / April 19, 2011 at 03:55 pm
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Reminds me of bombing of Dresden (although I have never been there).
steve / April 19, 2011 at 04:27 pm
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Toronto had another great fire in 1894
Not Derek / April 19, 2011 at 04:50 pm
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I'm waiting for the photos of the "Not so great fire of 1978," when the Hibachi in the backyard caught on fire :)

Seriously though, nice piece!
seanm replying to a comment from Dmitri / April 19, 2011 at 05:54 pm
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The first thing I was going to say when I saw this is that Toronto looks like Dresden in those shots. Beat me to it.
David Katz / April 19, 2011 at 06:39 pm
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yikes...had no clue as to the scope of the fire...amazing that nobody was killed.
alan / April 19, 2011 at 06:40 pm
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interesting the fire fighters came from as far as hamilton and buffalo...by the time the message got to them and then to make the trip to toronto...valient effort...
Torontonian / April 19, 2011 at 07:58 pm
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One reason the fire was so extensive is that
the buildings may have had stone facades but
the interior walls and stairwells were made
of wood.

After many years of heating seasons and many
coats of paint, the wood was tinder dry.
Small wonder it didn't spread further than
it did.

Similar conditions existed at the burning
of the Noronic in the harbour in 1949.
Dry wood, many coats of paint or varnish
and open flame.

Things were vastly different then.
mike in parkdale / April 20, 2011 at 07:21 am
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on the subject of fire....

Remember that Toronto HIstory show that used to air on Rogers cable? I think it was called 'Structures' or something like that. They had an episode about the CNE grounds and all the wonderful old builds - but every single segment ended with "...and then it burnt down"

I'm sure that if some history buffs were so inclined, it would have made for a great drinking game. Did the building burn down - take a sip. Did the building erected in the same spot burn down too? - finish your drink.
BM / April 20, 2011 at 07:49 am
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Another great read Derek. Thanks!
skeeter / April 20, 2011 at 09:37 am
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if this were an essay in school, you would lose points for not mentioning the cause of the fire. in this case, it was never determined. faulty heating stove or an electrical problem is suspected. but you should at least mention that.
DS replying to a comment from skeeter / April 20, 2011 at 10:00 am
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If you were one of my classmates in that school, you would be kicked in the butt for being a pedant.
skeeter replying to a comment from DS / April 20, 2011 at 10:41 am
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i'm telling!
nippleholic replying to a comment from mike in parkdale / April 20, 2011 at 12:53 pm
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that show is still on: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracle_on_Manchester
nippleholic replying to a comment from mike in parkdale / April 20, 2011 at 12:54 pm
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haha...wrong link

http://www.rogerstv.com/page.aspx?sid=129&;rid=16&lid=12
mike in parkdale / April 20, 2011 at 03:27 pm
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haha... I read most of the first link, and hoping for some sign of "and then it burnt down"
nippleholic / April 21, 2011 at 03:41 pm
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in a way, it did!
biggest blown lead in NHL playoff history!
mike in parkdale / June 1, 2011 at 11:17 am
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just found some newsreel footage of the fire (yep, film from 1904) and am uploading it to youtube.
NostalgicMan / October 19, 2012 at 05:18 am
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Can you imagine if this happened now? what it would do to our economy? Speaking of the Empress Hotel - when are they arresting the old owners for arson? Maybe there's a back story here on the 1904 fire, with cause being arson? A little too convenient of a time of day to burn something without hurting a soul.

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