Fighting Fires in Calgary: From Steam Engines to Engine23

Horses and fire wagon
An early horse and carriage hauling a hose and perhaps a pump at Fire Station No. 2.

Fighting fires was an ad-hoc affair when Calgary was still a sleepy little town. At the shout of “fire” people would come running with buckets filled up at the town water tank. In winter, some would battle the flames with snowballs. Neither technique, needless to say, proved effective.

Ten years after the creation of Fort Calgary, the town organized its first volunteer fire brigade: The Calgary Hook, Ladder and Bucket Corps, composed of 22 volunteers. Not long after that, on a quiet Sunday morning in November, 1886, church bells woke the community when a fire broke out in town.

A few months before the fire, Town Council purchased a chemical engine and hose reel, but without enough money in the treasury to pay for the freight charges, it was impounded and locked away in a barn. At the fire’s height, a crowd smashed open the barn door and wheeled the equipment to the fire. Some reports say that it might have helped…had they known how to use it.

The following morning, with the fire finally extinguished, the town surveyed the damage: 14 buildings decimated, including four hotels, three warehouses, a couple of saloons and a handful of stores. Massive damage for a small town.

Up to that point, committing funds to firefighting equipment was not a high priority for the community. The fire of 1886 changed all that. Soon the town had more volunteers, a reorganized brigade, and a new steam engine that could shoot in a strong, steady stream. What they still lacked were horses to pull the steam engine.

Since the fledgling firefighting unit didn’t have its own dedicated team of horses, the town relied on citizens to grab a team of horses when they heard the fire bell, rush to the storage house for the equipment, hook up their team, and race to the fire. The first team to the equipment would get $5—worth three day’s pay at the time.

In 1910, the Fire Department replaced horses and carts with the first motorized vehicle, dubbed the “Buzz Wagon”. The crew who staffed it were called Calgary’s “Flying Squadron.”

Calgary Fire Department's first motorized vehicle
Calgary Fire Department's first motorized vehicle, the Webb Car, nicknamed the "Buzz Wagon".

The Calgary Fire Department has come a long way from the days of the Buzz Wagon. Bring your kids to see a modern fire engine up close at Central Library! Engine 23 is an interactive installation that helps children play and pretend together, learn life-saving fire safety tips, and create their very own Engine 23 adventures. Thank you to the Calgary Fire Department for this unique partnership!

Want to learn more? Read: Yours for Life: 125 years of courage, compassion and service from the Calgary Fire Department, 100 Years of Smoke, Sweat and Tears by Grant MacEwan, Cowtown: An Album of Early Calgary by Tom Ward, History of the Calgary Fire Department, Milestones & Mementos, 1885-1985: A Century of Firefighting.

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