Spectator March 23, 1903
Hamilton, with its splendidly equipped fire department and its half hundred expert fire fighters, under command of the ablest chief and assistants in Canada, has reason to feel that there is almost absolute security against any great fire that would destroy business or make any number of families homeless. So prompt is the department in responding to an alarm that in nine cases out of ten before the fire gets s good start a chemical stream is playing upon it and half a dozen lines of hose are stretched ready for the work if the chemical fails to check the blaze. It is a rare thing to see a red sky over Hamilton because of a conflagration, as the big chief and his gallant band have the fire checked before it reaches the roof of the building.
Away back in the middle of the fifties, Hamilton’s fire protection was a volunteer department, equipped with five hand engines, a hook and ladder truck and a hose company. The members were principally young men who had no interest at stake in the city, but there was an attraction about a red shirt and ‘runnin’ wid de masheen’ that the boys could not resist, and they rendered faithful service to the city and saved much valuable property. The council gave an appropriation of $1,600 a year, which was divided pro rata among the companies, and also paid Charley Smith, now city messenger, $400 a year to keep the apparatus in order and to build fires in the engine houses during freezing weather, making an aggregate of $2,000. Black sheep are to be found in every flock, and a few pretty tough boys got into the department. Along in the fall of 1854, there were a number of fires, the origin of which could generally be traced to incendiarism. About 6 o’clock one morning in November 1854, an alarm of fire called the department down to West avenue north, where six houses, belonging to G. Stirling, were in flames and by the time the firemen got to work another alarm pealed out for a fire in a carpenter shop between the gas works and the Roman Catholic church. The same week a machine shop on King street east was fired, and three tramps were arrested, but nothing could be proved against them, although they were seen acting suspiciously. The sheds back of the Central school were burned down, and even an attempt was made to fire the old city hall. The Banner printing office and dozens of buildings in different parts of the city were fired, and things had come to such a pass that public meetings were held to discuss the danger that threatened the city, and special constables were appointed and volunteers patrolled the streets at night. The most barefaced attempt was made by a man who went into the City hotel barn, on Rebecca street, between James and Hughson streets, about eight o’clock in the evening, to set fire to the hay in the loft, and then walked out as two of the stablemen entered the barn. Meakins & Son had a cabinet factory on King William street, nearly opposite the fire station, and one night the incendiaries started up a blaze, and almost as soon as the firemen had got it under control, flames burst out from other buildings in the same neighbourhood. It was a perilous time for Hamilton, but fortunately no great fire occurred. The officers and members of the department made every effort to catch the incendiaries, and while less than half a dozen were suspected of being the guilty parties, no proof could be had to fasten the crime upon any one of them. The reign of terror lasted a little over two months, and then the incendiarism subsided, and the fires could generally be accounted for as the result of accident. The businessmen of Hamilton, whose property had been saved from destruction at the hands of incendiaries generously acknowledged thanks by sending letters to Chief Samuel Sawyer, and in each letter was always enclosed a substantial check. In 1859 the City of council dictated who should be chief engineer, by appointing Dodger Gray against the united protest of the department, and the old fire fighters dropped out. Of old No. 2 company Joseph Kneeshaw, George Le Riche, W. J. McAllister, Col. A. H. Stoneman, Charles Smith and U. S. Consul Richard Butler are all we can recall, who are now in Hamilton, though there may be others. Doubtless there are a number still living who belonged to other companies.
The carnival committee that is making such grand preparations to welcome the Old Boys next August, in making up a program for the four days has decided to give one day for old society members, in which is to be included a parade of the remnant of the volunteer fire fighters that belonged to the department during the decade from 1850 to 1860. As many of the Old Boys who will come to the reunion doubtless belonged to the volunteer department, it would be a nice feature of the parade to have them rally once again on the drag rope and show the present generation the kind of fire fighters there were in Hamilton forty and fifty years ago. There is an old hand engine and a couple of hose carts which will be fixed up for the parade, and the committee think it would be one of the carnival features.
Hamilton was always a sporty town, even in its infancy. The old stagers will remember John Martin, who kept a gin mill and a boxing school in a building in the market square. John was tall, lank and wiry, and was an expert with gloves. He taught the boys the noble art of self-defense without charge, but as they had to go through the barroom to get to the boxing room, many a five-cent piece was invested in spirituous tonics, so that he did not lose anything in the long run. John gave the preliminary lessons, and then the boys banged away at each other to their heart’s content. Many a private feud was amicably settled in John’s boxing parlor. Now and then a couple of young sports, with blood in their eyes and staring at each other with fury and bitterness, would tell their grievance to John, and he generally advised them to go upstairs, put on the gloves, and have it out in a manly fashion. John umpired the tournament, and the old fellow took quite a bit of pleasure in the game. However, he held the boys down to the rules, and when both were satisfied, they shook hands and took a drink, having satisfied their wounded honour. It was a harmless way to settle little personal enmities, pounding each other with soft gloves. Nowadays, pistols, bludgeons and brass knuckles, and a wind up in the police court are the result of personal feuds.
Where now stands Hamilton’s handsome city hall was the old market house, the second story being the only public hall in the city till after the Mechanics’ Institute was built. Minstrel shows, travelling lectures, sparring matches, and all kinds of entertainments were held in the market hall. During winter months, John Martin gave Saturday night exhibitions with his prize boxers, and in this way made a lot of money for the hall was generally crowded. On the stage, at the east end of the hall, was the ring, and this was roped off. Nothing worse than a bloody nose now and then, or possibly a tinge of mourning around the eye, was the result. Old John was the referee, and he and old of his best pupils would have a wind up bout. Some of the boys who wore the gloves are now among the old and staid businessmen of the city. How they now wish for the rugged youth and muscle of which they thought so little when nature was lavish in her gifts to them!
The blue laws passed in Pennsylvania in 1794, when that state was but a colony, have never been repealed, although no effort has been made in a hundred years to enforce them. The old Puritans, who settled in the new world that they might exercise the rights of conscience, were determined that no one else should have conscientious rights, hence the passage of laws that in the light of the present century seem very ridiculous. Some features of the law might be enforced now to the benefit of workingmen who are debarred the privilege of resting on Sunday. In their haste to get rich, too many employers look upon Sunday as any other day, and always manage to have some work of necessity for their employees to perform. In Canada the people have not entirely forgotten Sunday as a day of rest, but they are fast drifting away from the old landmark, some ministers even going so far as to spend part of the Sunday in putting the finishing touches on their Sunday night sermons. In some respects, the old blue laws were not half bad - for example, they prohibit bargaining and travelling on Sundays. In many of the western States, especially in the country towns, stores are open, on part of Sunday, at least, the same as any other day; and it would be the same in Canada were it not for the restrictive laws. As it is, a number of the drinking places in Hamilton do a profitable business, and send men with appetites for liquor reeling through the streets on Sunday. Beasts of burden and all servants and employees shall not be called upon to do any manner of labor. But the blue laws have some ridiculous clauses. For instance, “no husband shall kiss his wife, nor shall a mother kiss her child on the Sabbath, or on any day of fasting. While the Pennsylvania legislature was recently in session, one of the representatives introduced a bill to repeal the blue laws of 1794, but such a howl was raised by the Sabbatarians , who do nothing toward enforcing the law, or even live themselves up to its provisions, that the bill never got beyond its introduction. But in Philadelphia a number of prominent men say the law must either be enforced, and they propose to test it on Easter Sunday by causing the arrest of the hired organists and choir leaders and singers, who are paid salaries , and to make a fight to the finish they will carry the war into all classes of business. Newspaper publishers who have work performed on Sunday, transportation companies, and even the policemen and firemen will have to keep Sunday or pay the penalty. Some laws are too strenuous, and, while they might be good if enforced, are a farce when dormant.