Fire department was big priority in 1903

Fort Frances Times and Rainy Lake Herald

One of the first actions taken by the Town of Fort Frances subsequent to its incorporation, was establishment of a fire department. What follows is a history of that department. It’s a story of people who made it work and the equipment they used to achieve maximum efficiency.

In 1903, the Fort Frances Fire Department was established through a bylaw passed by Town Council.
The first piece of fire fighting equipment was a hand-drawn, two-wheeled hose cart and a few lengths of fire hose.
On July 7th 1905, the late J.A. Osborn, mayor of Fort Frances called a meeting in the public library to organize a volunteer fire brigade. The late O.J. Hollands was chosen chief (part time) and some 30 members signed the roll as volunteer firemen.

They had very little fighting equipment so the brigade decided to put on dances and bring in a theatrical troupe in order to raise funds. This method proved successful as the brigade purchased rubber boots, coats and other equipment for the department.

About this time, the town was putting in sewer and water so the boots and coats came in handy for this work and it was no time the equipment was used up or “borrowed”. This was the year 1909. Then the Brigade requested Council to have them replaced, which it did.

In 1905, the Fire Hall was constructed in conjunction with the Town Hall. It was built of brick and stone on terrain that was pretty much a “tag-alder” and “cedar swamp”. Also in 1905, a steam operated fire engine was purchased from W.S. Knott Fire Engine Co. of Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was delivered to Fort Frances by Fire Chief Cote of Winnipeg by rail on a flat car.

Pending the outcome of a dispute between the Town Council and manufacturer, the fire engine remained on the flat car while a fire razed the main business section of town. The matter in dispute was finally resolved and the town accepted the fire engine. Too late, however, to help during the fire.

The fire engine was drawn by a team of horses purchased by the town and stabled in the fire hall where the “common room” was. The harness (rigging) for the horses was suspended front he ceiling in front of the fire engine. When the fire bell rang, the horses were trained to stand under the rigging which was lowered on to them and they were hitched up very quickly.


Fire alarms were transmitted over the telephone to the fire hall. The fire fighters were summoned to an alarm by ringing a large bell which was mounted at the top of the hose tower of the fire hall. This bell is now on display on the south-east corner of Church and Portage. Later, calling out was done by the telephone operator who acted on instruction from the fire hall.

On November 8, 1906, F.H. Kempton was elected chief, part-time. By April 24, 1907 F.G. King was appointed to the position, after Kempton resigned.

Prior to the installation of fire hydrants, a reservoir in the form of large well was constructed near the front of the fire hall for a water supply. Up until 1909, the fire fighters did not receive pay for their services. Beginning February 12, 1909, however, the driver answering a fire alarm received five dollars. If the hose was not used, the driver would only receive two dollars.

This system worked until about 1911; then a resolution was passed, asking to pay the Fire Chief (F.G. King) and two firemen. These two firemen (or roomers as they were called) actually lived in the fire hall and were paid fifteen dollars a month.

On September 11, 1912, Milton Bibbeson was elected part-time chief and served in that position until March 4, 1914, when the fire department was reorganized. R.E. Readman was appointed the first full-time fire chief and building inspector. At that time the department was made up of a few full-time men and some volunteers. Full-time employees lived in the fire hall and were on duty twenty-four hours a day six days per week.

About 1915-16, a model “T” Ford truck was purchased for the department to carry hose and pull the ladder wagon.

In 1924, a “Reo” fire truck was purchased. It was equipped with a 100 gallon cylindrical brass tank which could be rotated with a crank. It was used for mixing soda and acid solution which by chemical reaction created pressure within the tank, forcing water out the hoses. The truck was an open cab, four cylinder motor, and could carry a few hundred feet of hose. It also had a siren and a bell. It was used as a first alarm vehicle until 1938 when a Bickle Seagrave custom-built pumper was purchased.

Bickle Seagrave

The Bickle Seagrave was the first fully motorized pumping unit of the department. It was an open cab type and was powered by a straight eight cylinder, twin ignition, Seagrave engine. It was capable of delivering six hundred gallons of water per minute at one hundred and twenty pounds pressure and was equipped with a 200 gallon water tank. This sleek model also had a preconnected 200 foot, three quarter inch hose, 55 foot extension ladder, both aluminium. Prior to this, all ladders were wooden.In 1946, the number of full-time firemen climbed to five and the tours of duty were changed to 24 hours on duty and 24 hours off. There were two men on shift with an extra man on midnight shift, from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. In 1948, the work week was reduced to 60 hours a week and an extra man was added tot he department.

The department received its first ambulance, presented by the Fort Frances Jaycees in 1948. It was mounted on an International one ton chassis and equipped with two stretchers. An inhalator for administering oxygen was donated by the Town. The ambulance service was operated by the department until November 28, 1969, when it was taken over by the hospital.

Marsh pumper

In 1949, the Town purchased a new five hundred gallon per minute American Marsh pumper mounted on a KB 7 International chassis. The International was equipped with a 500 gallon water tank and could carry 1200 feet of two and a half inch hose and two banks of one and a half inch hose pre-connected to the pump and tank. It had one “booster” line of three quarter inch hose. Included with this unit was a 45 foot aluminium ladder, a 16 foot roof ladder, two 15 pound carbon dioxide extinguishers, one 30 pound dry chemical extinguisher, plus a pump tank type extinguisher. On the International were four combination nozzles of various sizes, a new concept in fire fighting. The Fort Frances Fire Fighters Local No. 1012 was organized and received its charter from the International Association of Fire Fighters, A.F.L., in 1949. The local was recognized by the Town as the collective bargaining body of full-time firefighters.

The fire department was equipped with two way radios in 1950, using a common frequency with the town police.
Its ambulance was replaced with a new one in 1957. Half of this cost was borne by the Fort Frances Kinsmen Club, the other half by the Town.

Fire Chief Readman retired from the fire department as of December 31, 1957, after forty-three years as chief. He was succeeded by A.E. Soderholm who had served with the department since 1946.

A new system for calling out the off-duty and volunteer fire fighters was installed in 1958. It was engineered and built by Bell Telephone Company.

All fire fighters had their telephones connected to this system and could be called simultaneously when an alarm was received. The call out board was located at the pump house at Pither’s Point. Calling out was done by the pump station attendant from the fire hall. This facility was moved to the fire hall in 1966 as the pump station would no longer be manned twenty-four hours a day.

New hours

The hours of duty at the fire department were reduced to 40 hours per week in 1959 and the number of full time men increased to eight, plus the chief.

In 1963, the Pickle Seagrave was traded in on a new LaFrance 625 gallons per minute, Class A Pumper mounted on a 1963 Chevrolet chassis. The Pickle Seagrave had been in service for twenty-five years. The “Chev” fire truck carried 2400 feet of two and a half inch hose, two banks of one and a half inch pre-connected hose, two booster reels, two Scott air pacs, one generator, one smoke ejector, plus other miscellaneous equipment.
The total fire fighting staff rose to thirty in 1966 with the addition of one full time man and five volunteers.
In 1965, the department began to operate on its own radio frequency.

In 1972, a Chevrolet van was added to the department. This van carries the turn out equipment for volunteers plus three Scott Air pacs, a stretcher, rescue saw, oxygen inhaler, respirator, first aid kit, spare air bottles, and other miscellaneous equipment. A separate garage had to be built to house the van which was located on the Portage Avenue curling club parking lot.

In the spring of 1975, construction of a new Town Hall complex began. A new fire truck was ordered – a Pierre Thibolt Pumper mounted on a 1975 Ford Chassis. It was delivered in the fall of 1977 a year later than expected. On February 29, 1976, Fire Chief A.E. Soderholm retired from the fire Department after twenty-nine years in the department and nineteen years as chief. Deputy Chief, W. “Borden” McFayden was appointed Fire Chief as of February 29, 1976.

Breck Chernaski, the present fire chief, was sworn in effective July 23, 1976 to replace Chief McFayden who retired only six months after becoming chief.

Current staff at the fire department consist of 10 full-time firefighters, Chief Chernaski and 18 part-time firefighters.