The 1908 South Car Barn Fire
On the evening of Monday January 20, 1908 at about 7:45 in the evening, Police Constable Yaxley was walking his beat when he discovered that the Hamilton Street Railway’s South Car Barn on the northwest corner of Herkimer St and Locke St South was on fire. The fire had apparently begun in the southwest corner of the building, and by the time fire crews arrived it had reached the roof and spread the width of the building.
Strong winds fanned the flames to the point that the entire neighbourhood was at risk, and so efforts were split between extinguishing the blaze and protecting neighbouring buildings and St. Joseph’s church, which was directly opposite the car barn on the other side of Locke St. Two fire crews responded to the blaze. The King William St Company tried to halt the fire from spreading to buildings on the north side of the car barn, while the Sophia St Company concentrated on protecting St. Joseph’s church and fighting small roof fires on nearby Charlton Ave. Neighbourhood residents also pitched in to help. The winds were so fierce that it was reported that ‘for a short period there was an arch of fire across the street.’
The electrical overhead wires for the streetcars were not switched off until some time had passed, and so as the flames engulfed the wires a large number of sparks and electrical arc were observed. The danger from the live overhead wires and poor water pressure seriously hampered the efforts of the fire crews.
As the car barn burned, the roof of the building collapsed inwards around 8:15 pm, sending out sparks that landed on the roof of the neighbouring house, setting it on fire. To fight the house fire the King William St Company positioned themselves in a 30 ft wide alley between the car barn’s north-side shed and the neighbouring house, a small ditch marking the property line between the two lots. With the neighbouring house fire put out, attention shifted to trying to save the shed and the streetcars inside.
Four men were spraying water on the north wall of the car barn: Captain Robert Aitchison, and Firemen Roy Creen, Alex Henderson and William Seal. Without warning the north wall of the car barn began to buckle outward. The four men dropped their gear and ran. Aitchison and Henderson ran northwards and cleared the collapsing wall. Seal also ran northwards, but was pinned by falling debris. Fortunately he was dug out with no injuries. Not so fortunate was Fireman Creen, who had run more east than north and had stumbled into the small ditch. The collapsing wall knocked down the north-side shed, and a large mass of brick and roof timbers landed on Creen, killing him instantly. Firemen and spectators quickly began digging through the rubble, and Creen’s body was found around 9 pm.
With firefighting efforts hampered by poor water pressure, overhead wires, and strong winds the fire completely consumed the car barn, and burned itself out by 11 pm, but smouldering embers kept the crews on site until 2:30 am the following morning. There was no serious damage to any of the surrounding buildings. Fire crews pulled down the east wall of the car barn due to the danger of it collapsing onto Locke St, but the west and south walls were left standing.
Photo of the ruins of the South Barn after the fire. From the Hamilton Spectator, Jan 25 1908, pg 11.
A total of six streetcars were destroyed in the fire. Three of the Stephenson cars (HSR #90-99) were located in the north-side shed. HSR #111 and a pair of open cars (either in the HSR #20-24, #30-34, #65-74, or #76-88 series) were located in the car barn itself.
Total damage from the fire was estimated at $30,000 (approx. $570,000 in 2010 dollars), with $10,000 for the building and $20,000 for the six cars inside, all of which was covered by insurance. Because only a small number of streetcars were destroyed the HSR was able to operate as usual the next day, although the loss of the South Barn meant that operations and repairs had to be based out of the North Barn on Stuart St and the East barn on Sanford. The HSR leased several cars from the H&D and from the HRER to replace the destroyed Stephenson cars on a temporary basis.
A coroner’s inquest was held to determine the cause of the fire. Based on the damage, it was concluded that the fire was not a result of either faulty wiring or an incendiary source (i.e. a burning candle), but was likely caused by an overheated streetcar truck motor on HSR #111. The streetcar had been placed in the barn after its last run, and the heat from the motor had ignited nearby wood. No charges or blame were laid as a result of the fire.
On Thursday January 23rd City of Hamilton building inspector Anderson condemned the still standing west wall of the car barn as unsafe. The HSR tore down both the condemned west wall and the acceptable south wall, removing all remaining traces of the south barn. The HSR would not rebuild the south barn, although it used the tracks for storage off and on for the next twenty years, until the site was sold and redeveloped during the 1920s.
Roy Creen was born in Waterdown on October 5, 1870. He married Hannah Guerine of Penetanguishene in Dundas on October 5, 1891, and they settled in Hamilton at King St and Sanford Ave. Roy Creen was originally a machinist working for M. Brennen & Sons, but was forced to change careers when he lost a thumb in an industrial accident in early 1895. He became a member of the Hamilton Fire department on December 12, 1899, and was a member of the Central, Victoria Ave and Bay St fire companies before joining the King William Street fire company in the summer of 1906. Roy & Hannah had 10 kids, two of which died in infancy. At the time of his death, the Creen family had been planning to move out west to Medicine Hat, Alberta.
Hannah Creen received a total of $2000 in insurance from the Fire Department and from Roy Creen's policy. But with a family of seven children she was forced to move, and to take in boarders at the new home to make ends meet.
By an odd coincidence the HSR is indirectly responsible for the death of another member of this family. Roy & Hannah’s daughter Winnifred Creen was killed on December 18, 1905 when Roy Creen’s carriage was rear-ended by HSR #109 on a dark night on Barton St just east of where Glendale Ave is today. Winnifred was thrown out of the carriage and run over by the streetcar. Roy suffered serious internal injuries that kept him bedridden for over a month, while his daughter Lucretia who was also in the carriage suffered a broken leg.
A few weeks before the fire a photographer for the Hamilton Spectator visited the King William Street Company and photographed several of the members. Captain Robert Aitchison's picture is 2nd row on the right, Alex Henderson is 3rd row on the left, and Roy Creen is at the bottom (William Seal's photo was either not taken or not published). Photo from the Archives of Ontario, L 23 Newspapers, N 184 reel 162, Hamilton Spectator, December 7 1907, pg 18.
Roy Creen was the eighth firefighter killed in the line of duty in the history of the City of Hamilton. He was buried in Millgrove cemetery on Thursday Jan 23, 1908. His name is inscribed on the Ontario Firefighter’s Memorial located at Queen’s Park in Toronto, just northeast of the intersection of College & University Avenue. Roy Creen’s name is on the west side of the north stone, at the top of the third column of names.
"Brief Local Items" Mar 28, 1895
“Little Girl Killed in a Trolley Accident” Dec 19, 1905, pg 1
“Lost His life in the Discharge of His Duty” Jan 21, 1908, pg 1
Kirkpatrick, Robert B. Their Last Alarm. Renfrew, Ontario: General Store Publishing House, 2004.
Library and Archives Canada. Census of Canada, 1901. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Census Place: Ward No 1, Hamilton, Ontario. Page 12, Family No: 112.
Archives of Ontario. Registrations of Deaths, 1869-1934. MS 935, Reels 73, 99, 128, 140. Archives of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Archives of Ontario. Registrations of Marriages, 1869-1926. MS 932, Reel 73. Archives of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Archives of Ontario. Registrations of Births and Stillbirths – 1869-1909. MS 929, Reels 124, 135, 144, 152, 156, 166, 189. Archives of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.