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Veteran firefighters commemorate Great Windsor Fire of 1897

WINDSOR, N.S. — Oct. 17, 2017 seemed like an ordinary day in the Town of Windsor. Shoppers braced themselves against the cool chill in the air while they conducted business. Motorists sped along the thoroughfare.

Nothing seemed out of place – except, perhaps, the sight of four retired firefighters in full dress uniform standing along the waterfront near a monument the Windsor Fire Department placed some 20 years ago.

On Oct. 17, 1897, the Town of Windsor burned to the ground. Members of the Windsor Fire Department's Veterans' Association didn't forget the 120th anniversary. A small group of firefighters gathered by the monument commemorating the historic day.

“I think it's important to know history, to know where we've come from, so that we can see what a beautiful place that this has become and how things change as a result of major fires. For example, building codes change,” said Richard Smith, a former divisional captain of safety with the Windsor Fire Department.

“The houses are built better; they're built to a higher standard... Brick buildings came into view; asphalt shingled roofs came into vogue as opposed to wooden buildings and cedar-shingled roofs,” he said.

Smith, who served for 25 years, said the fire department is planning a remembrance ceremony for the 125th anniversary but didn't want to see this milestone overlooked.

The Great Windsor Fire of 1897 saw upwards of 2,500 people left homeless, 200 houses destroyed and about 130 businesses left in ruins. Smoke was reported to have been visible as far as 112 kilometres away.

“There was no unemployment insurance, no welfare back in those days. A lot of people were left very destitute for quite a long time until this town rebuilt,” said Smith.

In an excerpt from the West Hants Historical Society's newsletter in 2012 recalling the event, it was noted that the fire began at 3 a.m. and started in the rear of the Marine Block on Water Street.

“The fire department of 1897 attempted to battle a blaze with only 38 men, a hose reel, a few ladders and some buckets. They did the best they could with the resources available at the time but it was a losing battle,” the historical society's newsletter reads.

When the wind shifted at about 4 a.m., the fire spread rapidly.

“The whole downtown was ablaze. The heat was so intense sections of the railway tracks buckled. The Windsor Fire Department had to retreat from a hydrant they were using to fight the fire. Fire equipment was brought in from Halifax on the train and help came from Kentville, Wolfville, and Hantsport,” the newsletter reads.

Surprisingly, no lives were lost in the fire. By the end of 1898, 150 buildings had been constructed and Windsor was once again on its way to being a bustling little town.

Smith said in the 120 years since the destruction, the fire service has continued to grow and evolve.

“As every fire happens, we learn something new — new fire techniques; the fire department acquires new fire equipment,” said Smith.

“It's a much better, safer town now because of some of the conflagrations that we've been through — not just the Great Windsor Fire but the King Street fire, where pretty much most of lower King Street burnt, (and) the Dufferin Hotel fire.”

Smith wrote a book on the history of the fire department years ago. While it's out of print, it's still available for visitors to peruse while visiting the Windsor Fire Department museum at 100 King St.

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