New Westminster’s first Fire Department was organized in the summer of 1861 and given the name “HYACK COMPANY NO. 1.” “HYACK,” meaning “Quick” in the Chinook Indian dialect, was an appropriate name for that pioneer brigade. The responsibility of the “Hyack” brigade was protecting the town from flames sparked by bush fires which, if not extinguished in time, could destroy the wooden buildings of the settlement.
The first fire hall, completed in July 1862 on Columbia Street, was known as “Hyack Hall.” The Municipal Council contributed $400 towards the purchase of a Fire Engine, and in 1863 the “FIRE KING” was purchased in San Francisco for $2,600, plus $150 for 500 feet of fire hose.
In late 1863, a water tank for firefighting purposes was constructed at the rear of the fire station. The tank was kept full by a running stream of water from a nearby ravine. Water tanks proved beneficial for firefighting and in March 1870, the Municipal Council approved the construction of five more. In 1893, a water pipe line system was established to pump water from Coquitlam to the City.
In November 1898, the volunteer “Hyack Brigade” was reorganized as the “City of New Westminster Fire Department”. Ten paid members staffed the six fire halls, which were constructed and located at various points throughout the City.
In the early days, firefighters worked 24 hours a day, with one hour off for each meal. Consequently, most firefighters lived in the vicinity of the fire hall where they were assigned.
From 1898 to 1919, the horse played an important role in firefighting. It was the primary means of pulling the fire engines to a fire, and added great speed in responding to fire calls. Each fire engine had three horses, one driver, one Captain, and one or more horsemen.
The fire engines used at this time had chemically activated water tanks. These tanks held 35 gallons, and the pressure to eject the water out of the tank was supplied by Sulfuric Acid and Soda. Each engine carried between 800 and 1000 feet of 2 ½ inch fire hose.
The New Westminster Fire Department (Hyack Company No. 1) was organized by the Municipal Council, and, on July 24, 1861, elections were held resulting in Fire Chief F. A. RICHARDS and Assistant Fire Chief William JOHNSON being elected. On August 1st, 1861, a Captain, First Lieutenant, Second Lieutenant, Secretary and Treasurer were chosen. Beginning in August 1862, the Fire Department elections were conducted under the provision of the 1861 Fire Bylaw and held on the same day as the Municipal Elections. All rate payers were entitled to vote for the candidates nominated by the Fire Department. At the 1862 elections J. A. Webster was elected Chief and C. R. Ashwell assumed the Assistant Chief position. The appointment of Captains and Lieutenants were, at this time, held within the Fire Brigade itself.
Governor Douglas granted £500 (approximately $2,500.00) to the ‘Hyack Brigade’ for a fire engine and a piece of property on which to erect a fire hall. The building was completed in July 1862 on Columbia Street and was known as “Hyack Hall.” The Municipal Council contributed $400.00 towards the purchase of a Fire Engine and in 1863 the ‘FIRE KING’ was purchased in San Francisco for $2,600.00, plus $150.00 for 500 feet of fire hose. This equipment was to be housed in the new fire hall on Columbia Street, situated where the Post Office now stands.
The arrival of the FIRE KING in the Royal City on April 9, 1863 was a gala event. The Fire King was delivered from San Francisco through Victoria and accompanied across the gulf, to New Westminster, by 28 members of the Victoria Fire Department. The ‘Hyacks,’ dressed in their colourful uniforms (red shirts, black pants and black caps) and headed by the Band of the Royal Engineers, met the Fire King at the Government wharf and amid the ceremonies drew the Fire King down the main street.
In late 1863 a water tank for fire fighting purposes was constructed at the rear of the fire station. Cost of this tank was $240.00. The water tank was kept full by a continuously running stream of water from a nearby ravine. Water tanks of this nature proved beneficial for fire fighting and in March 1870 the Municipal Council approved the construction of five more to be located at: (1) Mary Street and Royal Avenue, (2) Blackwood Street and Columbia Street, (3) Merrivale Street (Below Captain Irving’s house), (4) at the Convent, (5) Douglas Street and Royal Avenue. A water pipe line system was not established in New Westminster until 1893, at which time water was piped from Coquitlam to the City.
In 1863 the New Westminster Fire Department (Hyack Company No. 1) was comprised of 58 members, 5 boys and 5 Honourary members.
In the year 1862 the Hyack Brigade afforded fire protection to a City of approximately 150 buildings with a total population of 1800 people. Of main concern at this time was the protection of the Royal Columbian Hospital, the oldest established hospital on the mainland of British Columbia. In 1862 the Royal Columbian Hospital was located at Agnes Street and Fourth Street and did not move to its present Sapperton location until 1889.
One of the most disastrous fires in the early history of New Westminster occurred in June 1864 at the Camp (Sapperton). It was caused from a forest fire which raged through dry timber and slashings and spread quickly, consuming the theatre and three Sapperton residences. The Hyacks proceeded to the Camp with the hand drawn fire engine, the Fire King, being pulled by a group of Indians who were in New Westminster to celebrate the Queen’s birthday, and assisted by residents of Sapperton, including Governor Seymore. It was said that within 9 minutes from the time the leading ropes of the Fire King were taken hold of at Hyack Hall, a stream of water was being directed on the burning buildings at the Camp. The distance from Hyack Hall to the Camp was estimated to be approximately one mile. As a result of this fire, a meeting was held at the Camp for the purpose of arranging fire protection for Sapperton. At this meeting the ‘Camp and Sapperton Hook and Ladder Company’ was organized and totalled 34 members. The government was asked to assist, and, gave a £100 grant for the purchase of fire equipment. Governor Seymore allowed the Sapperton Volunteers temporary use of a store building as an engine house and the use of a Force Pump from the ferry boat ‘Reliance’ which had been destroyed by fire.
In July 1870 the FIRE KING nearly met its end, when a fire broke out in the most extensive block of buildings in the City. During the excitement of the outbreak, two men, not members of the Hyack Brigade, attempted to take the engine down the steep incline of Lytton Square, before members or Officers of the Hyack Brigade could reach the fire hall. The result was, one man was almost killed and the engine wildly careened down the hill at great speed and plummeted into the Fraser River, smashing the wheels and brakes and seriously damaging other portions of her machinery. The townspeople constructed a derrick and rescued the Fire King from her watery grave. The Hyacks appealed to the Governor for assistance in repairing it, but were refused. Through the efforts of all Hyack members the Fire King was repaired and restored to running order.
On July 12, 1898 Fire Chief Ackerman applied to City Council for a two month leave of absence, which was granted. During Chief Ackerman’s absence the following occurred:
Saturday September 10, 1898 at 11:00 pm, the Hyack Brigade received a call that brought firemen to the B & K wharf on Front Street. Fire had originated in several tons of hay stored on this wharf, which extended approximately 200 feet along the waterfront. The fire was located at the upper end of the wharf and was bursting through the roof. In a short time the entire warehouse was ablaze and the flames spread to the large City Market building which adjoined on the north, fronting on the Square. So fierce was the heat, the books were barely rescued from the Market. Within ten minutes the flames had crossed to the brick buildings occupying the northern side of Front Street opposite B & K wharf and, fanned by a stiff wind from the South-East, the firemen had all they could do to control them. This may have been accomplished and the fire confined to The Lytton (formerly the Caledonian Hotel) Lam Tung’s and Webster’s Building but for an unexpected turn of events. The three Stern Wheeled steamers Gladys, Edgar and Bon Acord, which had been tied to the wharf had quickly taken fire. The tide was running out strong at this time and as soon as the lashings of the vessels were cut they drifted with the stiff wind along the docks setting fire to all the wharfs and warehouses on the water front. In minutes a large quantity of hay stored in the CPR. warehouse was engulfed in flames spreading rapidly to the brick buildings in the next block. Before the flaming steam boats sank they had ignited the Sinclair and Western Fisheries salmon canneries.
Meanwhile, the brave firemen under the direction of Acting Fire Chief Watson, had been caught between two fires at the foot of Sixth Street. Finding it useless fighting fire in the face of the wind fanned flames, it was decided to try and cut it off from the Ellis and Powell blocks. Firemen remained at this location until their fire hoses burned. During this time firemen positioned at five water front hydrants had been forced back onto Columbia Street by the heat and flames. A draft of wind up McKenzie Street between two stores (Annandales and the Bank of Montreal) created a fierce blast furnace and shortly after businesses had been evacuated the north side of Columbia Street had taken fire. At this point it became necessary for all residents below Agnes Street to flee their homes to safety.
Looking down the hill, the fire covered an area from the Market on Lytton Square to a residence on Carnarvon Street and Begbie Street.
It was thought that the north side of Columbia Street might be saved, but from the burning Columbian Newspaper office in the Powell Building the flames jumped to No. 1 Fire Hall opposite. The fire hall was a wood frame building situated between two brick buildings on either side, consequently it was consumed by flames like a shingle in a stove.
Soon the YMCA, Duncan McColl and Public Library buildings were fired from the rear, while St. Leonards Hall and other buildings on Clarkson Street were belching smoke and flames. About this time, the Hyack Brigade was reinforced by the Vancouver Fire Department under Chief Carlisle. These men proceeded to the Begbie Block at the north east corner of the fire area. The Vancouver firemen were aided in their efforts by the fire pump on the ferry boat and they were accredited with saving the Burr Block, the only brick building remaining after the fire and still in existence today.
When the last flames of fire were extinguished the entire portion of the City from Royal Avenue to the waterfront had been ravaged, and the lower westerly portion known as the Swamp (Chinatown) had been completely swept bare.
Within a week of the Great Fire businesses were operating in temporary quarters and the fire loss was assessed at 2½ million dollars.
In November 1898, two months after the Great Fire, a Fire Commission was held and the following determined. Fire Chief Ackerman was suspended from duty and J. H. Watson appointed as his replacement. The volunteer ‘Hyack Brigade’ was reorganized as the “City of New Westminster Fire Department” and comprised of 10 paid members. Six Fire Halls were constructed and located at various points throughout the City.
No. 1 Hall - Columbia & 6th Streets
No. 2 Hall - Nanaimo & 10th Streets
No. 3 Hall - 1st Street & 4th Avenue (Queens Park)
No. 4 Hall - Keary Street off East Columbia
No. 5 Hall - 13th Street and 8th Avenue
No. 6 Hall. - Ewen Avenue & Stanley Street
In these early days firemen worked 24 hours a day, being allowed one hour off for each meal, consequently most firemen lived in the immediate vicinity of the fire hall to which they were assigned. Some time later they were given a half day a week off, this time amounted to 19 hours (from 1 pm to 8 am). In the spring of 1919 the two-platoon system was adopted, employing 28 men. On this system firemen worked 7 days a week from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm, alternating each week to a night shift from 6:00 pm to 8:00 am. This meant each man worked 84 hours per week, which was a vast improvement from the 128 hours per week worked previously. In 1927 the hours of work were changed from 84 to 72 hours per week giving each man one full day per week off. In 1937 the hours were dropped to 60 hours per week, or, one and one half days per week off, in 1946 to 48 hours per week and in 1966 the hours were changed to 42 hours per week. Generally, the hours of work for firemen are longer than in most industries or commercial businesses.
From 1898 to 1919 the horse played an important role in fire fighting. It was the primary means of pulling the fire engines to a fire and added greater speed in responding to fire calls.
Each fire engine had three horses, one driver, one Captain and one or more hosemen.
Upon receiving a fire alarm the horses were trained to go directly to their position at the front of the fire engine. (They were not tied into their stalls and had the freedom of the lower floor of the fire station.) Once the horses were in position, the harness, which was suspended from the ceiling was dropped onto their backs and the collars automatically connected. The driver assumed his place on the engine and the hosemen checked the reins and harness connections to make sure it was properly attached.
The driver had the responsibility of tending to the horses during his time on shift, and would exercise them at least once a day by riding them throughout the city streets surrounding the fire hail. The hosemen cleaned stalls and did general housekeeping duties in the fire station.
The fire engines used at this time had chemical activated water tanks for the initial approach at a fire. These tanks were usually 35 gallons in size and the pressure to eject the water out of the tank was supplied by Sulphuric Acid and Soda. Each engine carried between 800 and 1000 feet of 2½ inch fire hose.
In conjunction with the electric alarm system used, the fire hall had a large bell on its roof. This bell summoned the off duty firemen to a fire. The bell used by the New Westminster Fire Department was discontinued some years ago, however, the original bell with the words "Cast for Chief Ackerman" inscribed on its side ‘New Westminster, B.C. - Fire Department - T. Ackerman, Chief Engineer -- Meneely Bell Company - Troy N.Y. - A.D. 1899 (IH 972.23.1)’ is on display in the New Westminster Museum and Archives.
Fire Chief C. J. Highsted drove the last fire horses to the City Market to be sold at auction in the summer of 1919. Since that time the New Westminster Fire Department has been fully motorized.
The Hyack fire Brigade organized the first May Day celebrations on May 4, 1870. The first May Queen, Helen McColl, ascended her throne accompanied by her Royal Suite. The Hyack Brigade made all arrangements for these celebrations, such as, planning the parade (headed by the Fire King gaily decorated), organizing the dances and crowning ceremonies, and, even supplied the music. (The Hyack Band was formed in 1889 and remained prominent at civic functions for many years.) The Hyacks were noted for the ‘Hyack Anvil Salute.’ The custom of firing the Hyack Anvil Salute was initiated by Mr. Thomas Ovens, a Blacksmith, and employed the use of two blacksmith anvils. To fire a salute, gunpowder was placed on a playing card on the square lot of the lower anvil. The second anvil was placed on top and the powder exploded by means of a long, red-hot iron.
In 1917 Fire Chief J. H. Watson drove the May Queen in the parade in an automobile. Prior to this time all May Queens were carried to their crowning ceremonies by horse and buggy.
The enthusiasm displayed by the early Hyacks for May Day is carried on by the present day Fire Department, without whom the May Day festivities would not be complete.