Waterdown’s Commercial Streetscape

Originally Published in Heritage Happenings, March 2007
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During the first two decades of the twentieth century, four major fires in Waterdown resulted in the destruction of almost all of the original wooden buildings in the commercial block of the village. Rebuilt following each fire, this section located along Dundas Street, between Mill and Main Streets, was home to a wide variety of retail businesses. Some, such as Dale’s, Alton’s and Langford’s returned, but many of the others are only fleetingly remembered – just names in the directory listings of village businesses.

The first of the great fires is poorly documented. Occurring in 1906, it broke out in a store on the north side of Dundas Street, just east of the Main Street intersection, but was miraculously contained by the village’s volunteer firemen and their primitive fire fighting equipment before it destroyed any other buildings.

Less than a decade later, on 25 May 1915, the Crooker Building, a magnificent example of late Victorian commercial architecture on the north east corner, was burnt to the ground. According to the report in the ‘Hamilton Herald’, the fire began in the early hours of the morning and levelled the entire corner block. Owned by F.W. Crooker, it contained his General Store on the ground floor and on the second, a large hall and village library – the building being described by the newspaper as…”the finest mercantile building in the village.”

So fierce were the flames, that the recently rebuilt adjacent buildings were threatened. The village fire brigade was quickly on the scene, but some of the men suffered cuts and bruises from falling debris when one of the neighbouring walls collapsed and it quickly became obvious that they were unable to cope. The Hamilton Fire Department was called to assist and arrived in time to prevent the fire from spreading northwards. Ironically the village activities planned for the Victoria Day weekend had been to raise funds for the same village library.

Three years later, on 30 September 1918, villagers awakened to another Dundas Street fire, when George Potts, the local blacksmith, sounded the alarm by ringing the great village bell. This time, the rear section of W. Cummins’ Drugstore in the centre of the streetscape was destroyed. Fortunately, the many residents who rushed to assist, succeeded in removing most of the druggist’s stock, but the building was damaged beyond repair. This time the fire brigade managed to control the blaze and prevented the loss of additional businesses, but the local newspaper, ‘The Waterdown Review’, still commented upon the disaster in their next edition…”this fire clearly demonstrates the fact that Waterdown is still in need of additional fire fighting apparatus…Let us hope that the days of the frame fire traps are numbered.”

Just after lunchtime on 23 May 1922, the last of the great fires to destroy the original commercial district of Dundas Street broke out. Eleven businesses, the Roller Rink and eleven private houses were destroyed by a fire that engulfed the entire south side of the street between Franklin and Main Street. When it was finally extinguished by the Hamilton Fire Department, the damage was estimated at between $60,000 and $80,000.

David Davies Cooperage and Heading Mill, 1921 –
Barb Carson, Waterdown Memories Facebook Group

The fire originated in the David Davies Cooperage and Heading Mill, when a spark from the engine room ignited a pile of sawdust in the rear section of the building. None of the employees saw the flames, which fanned by a light wind, quickly moved to the rear of the wooden Roller Rink. One of the labourers employed in the construction of the new village hall, saw the flames leaping up the rear wall of the rink and immediately raced to the village bell to sound the alarm.

Within minutes, the village volunteer fire brigade arrived on the scene. Only equipped with hand-operated chemical engines to fight the flames they faced a daunting task, for in the space of just a few minutes the fire had completely enveloped the rear section of the Roller Rink. The men succeeded in removing the piano from the front section, but little else. As other villagers arrived in response to the bell, they managed to remove stock from the nearby stores – Carroll’s, Sterling Meats and Alton’s Hardware.

Some of the old, hand-drawn equipment seen in this picture had been in service since 1884 – Toronto Star Archives, Toronto Public Library

Among the volunteers was Mr. Bachelor, who ran from his store without even removing the cash from the till – his receipts went up in flames, along with his drugstore and stock. Mr. Alf Dale, owner of the north east corner block was advised to remove his brand new car from the front of Springer’s Garage located on the opposite corner of Dundas Street. Busy fighting fire at the Roller Rink, he said that he did not think the fire would reach the garage, since the village fire brigade was on the scene. Before he realized it, the fire had spread across to Main Street South and his car was destroyed.

By the early afternoon the wind increased and it soon became apparent to all involved that the fire was completely out of control as it jumped from one wooden building to the next. Charles Burns, local agent for the Bell Telephone Company instructed his switchboard operators to contact the Hamilton Fire Department for help in the hope of preventing it spreading to the residential section of the village. The operators were politely informed that such a request must be made by the Reeve of Waterdown to the Mayor of Hamilton before any action could be initiated. Fortunately, someone contacted Waterdown resident, Mr. J. F. Vance, the County Treasurer who gave the necessary guarantees to the Hamilton Fire Chief.

When the Hamilton fire fighters arrived in the village, Deputy Chief Aitchison quickly realized that there was no adequate supply of water to fight the fire. The dam on a small stream on Dr. McGregor’s property was broken and then blocked in as it crossed the rear of the Kirk Hotel where the fire truck was parked. This provided the necessary water supply and with a slight change in wind direction, the fire was brought under control and extinguished by early evening. At the end of the day, much of the commercial core of the village was damaged beyond repair and the Dundas Street streetscape changed forever.

© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 2007, 2024.


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