May 17th, 2022
Eden Smith's Beaches Library Blueprint

Q5. Where is Toronto’s only "art deco" style fre station? (P19)
Q7. Why did traditional fire halls have towers? (P22)?

History of Fire Stations in the Beaches & Fire Fighting in Toronto

By Beth Parker

Toronto has many historic fire stations, built from the late 1800’s to the 1950’s. They vary in style, according to the architecture of the day, but many of their early features such as their towers or "wagon" bays are still part of the working stations.

The Beaches is proud to have three fire stations, still in operation today, that are historic sites. It is worth walking by and noting the various features noted in the stories that follow.

Station 226

87 Main Street * Built 1910 * 11,800 sq. ft.

Station 226 was originally known as Toronto Fire Department "Station 22". It was red brick with its date clearly visible over the front window. Although its main two-storey structure is an Amsterdam style with a steep gable roof, the additional two-storey structure is Victorian, with Victorian-style high bay windows. Prior to building Fire Station 22, there was the original fire hall, Old Fire Hall No. 2 (see photo). This fire hall was a wooden, two-storey structure with a cupola on top that held a bell. In 1888, the town council of the village of East Toronto was looking for a better place to hold its council meetings and moved into Old Fire Hall No. 2 from 1888 to 1909. The first floor had large doors for fire wagons and a window on the south side. As was the practice of the day, horses were stabled at the back until they heard the fire bell then quickly moved out front, ready to be harnessed.

Station 227

1904 Queen Street East * Built 1905 * 10,800 sq. ft.

Station 227 was originally known at Toronto Fire Department "Station 17" and is commonly referred as the Kew Beach Fire Hall. The main structure is a three-storey building also in an Amsterdam architectural style complete with a stepped roof and an 80-foot tower. The clock was added to the tower many years later.

Towers were common in old fire halls because they were used to hang the heavy hoses, which were often made of leather; later on, they were made of thick cotton.

Station 227 originally had a single vehicle bay. Later on, an additional bay was built to the west of the original building.

Station 324

840 Gerard Street East * Built 1934 * 13,150 sq. ft.

Station 324 was originally known as Toronto Fire Department "Station 12". Built during the depression, it is the only fire station in Toronto designed in Art Deco style. It is well worth a visit.

Although Toronto was very conservative in the 1920s, there are a few examples of Art Deco in the city – and this is one of them. Station 12 was designed by city architect, J.J. Woolnough (who also designed the Horse Palace at the CNE grounds and Police Station No. 12 at 2398 Yonge Street).

The design is symmetrical, with three bays. A carved stone detail above the central bay shows a fire and lightning bolt. In accordance with Art Deco style, the building also incorporates design elements that use geometry and classic Art Deco traits, such as rounded corners, that produce an understated elegance.

Toronto Fire Services (TFS)

Many of Toronto’s fire stations have two numbers on their buildings – their original number under the City of Toronto and the new number they received following city amalgamation.

In 1998, as part of overall city amalgamation, the six fire departments (Etobicoke, East York, North York, Scarborough, Toronto and York) came together. In April 2005, the departments and commissioners of the Toronto Fire Department were replaced by divisions under the City Manager (and Deputy Managers), and renamed Toronto Fire Services Division. Today, Toronto Fire Services operations consist of 81 stations and divided into four geographical command units.

Fire Fighting Bucket by Bucket

Before confederation and even after Toronto was first founded, fire fighting was something fought by volunteers who left their homes to fight fires. There were no fire stations or "official" fighting equipment.

Imagine a fire in the 1800s when most buildings were made of wood, heated by fireplaces and lit by candle or oil lamp. First, someone had to ring a fire alarm, often a church bell. A runner, carrying some kind of noise-maker, would race up and down the streets hollering for help.

Fires literally were fought "by the bucket". Home and building owners were encouraged to keep at least two fire buckets available in case of fire. Once they heard the bell they would fill their buckets at the nearest pond, well or cistern and bring water to the site. There they formed a bucket brigade. Men would carry the full buckets, and usually the women and children passed the empty buckets back to the water source. As you can imagine, the system was very inefficient. Large amounts of water were lost as the heavy buckets passed from hand to hand.

Fire Fighting in Old Toronto

As towns and villages grew in the 1800s across North America, town councils and residents soon saw the need to organize more formal volunteer fire brigades (that is, people who were "on call" to manage the buckets). In fact, by the later 1880s, most municipalities even passed bylaws to create such volunteer fire brigades. Toronto was no exception. Although still operated by volunteers, in 1874 fire services officially began in Toronto.

By this time, bucket brigades had been replaced by hand-pumping engines Although hand pumpers improved water delivery, they were awkward to use and depended purely on human muscle to operate. At the scene, a team of fire fighters working a pumper would need to be replaced every few minutes because of the sheer energy involved. Also, these early machines still had to be filled by bucket brigades.

Once hand pumpers were replaced with steampowered pumpers, firefighters were able to access much larger amounts of water under pressure. Because the apparatus was much heavier, horses were used to move the machines to the scene. Horses typically were stabled at the rear of the fire hall and trained to move in front of the pumper wagons (or ladder wagons) when they heard the fire bell. Special harnesses were suspended from the ceiling so that they could be quickly lowered and put on the horses. Once these horse-drawn wagons arrived at the fire, the horses were unhitched and moved away so they were not panicked by the smoke and flames.

As cities and towns expanded, firefighting and firefighting equipment began to undergo even more technological advances. The development of the fire hose alone could fill a chapter in a history book. Fire hoses first started as hand-sewn pieces of leather then advanced to woven cotton and eventually large diameter hoses able to withstand great pressure. The heavy hoses were hung to dry in fire stations, thus giving the need for the popular towers built in many stations. Cities like Toronto also now use aerial ladder wagons. Built in two sections, the ladders were elevated to the side of a building by a hand-crank, some able to reach as high as 85 feet.

But fire fighting around 1900 remained a dangerous task. Firefighters, for example, did not wear proper fireretardant clothing. According to the Canadian Fire Fighters Museum, "it was rumored that firemen would soak their beards in water before entering a blaze, and even stuff their beards in their mouths to protect themselves from heat and flames."

Toronto’s Great Fire

In 1904, on the night of April 19, Toronto’s downtown core suffered a major disaster. A fire started out at E&S Currie Neckwear, a necktie factory, located along Wellington Avenue East. Fire Alarm Box 12 was sounded at the corner of Bay and King Streets and firefighters from Toronto and other surrounding fire departments as far away as Buffalo raced to the scene with their various horse drawn ladder and pump wagons. After nine hours, the over 250 firefighters brought the fire under control. It was said that the ruins smoldered for weeks. Over 100 buildings were destroyed that night with damages over 10 million. It was a huge loss to the commercial heart of the city.

Today there is a plaque on Wellington commemorating the fire, erected in 2004 jointly by the City of Toronto, Toronto Fire Services and the Toronto- Dominion Centre.

Miraculously, no one was killed but a few were seriously injured including the fire chief, Fire Chief William A. Stewart. Another, Fire Chief Thompson, broke his leg while jumping out of a building.

The results of the great fire were immense – but out of the ashes there came some good. Only a week before, one of the fire chiefs had asked for more funding to improve Toronto’s fire fighting services. After the fire, the city brought about many improvements to fire safety procedures and building materials. Another legacy of this fire was Call Box 12, which was used to sound the alarm. Today, the volunteer canteen truck supporting Toronto Fire Services bears its name.

Fire fighting by truck

The introduction of motorized vehicles and apparatus dramatically changed the way fires were fought. The basic fire truck chassis were built by companies such as General Motors, Ford and Reo, Gotfredson then customized for specific uses. Now the equipment could get to a site quickly, instead of being delayed by tired horses. The gasoline also supplied pump power, lighting power, and lighting. This not only saved costs, but also saved the strength and energy of firefighters to aid in rescue operations.

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