You pass them by every day. An old house or landmark business, standing there from as far back as you can remember, solid and familiar, part of the fabric of Barrie.
Then one morning it’s just gone. Built over a period of months by the sweat and labour of local tradesmen using the wood of nearby forests, stone and brick, and made to last forever, then wiped out in hours by the unforgiving flames of one devastating fire.
Looking back to your earliest memories, what is the first structure fire that you recall in Barrie?
I arrived in Barrie in 1982, and I believe the first time I saw a local building disappear overnight happened a couple of years later when the HomeLife Realty office, a converted Victorian home, vanished from its lot on Maple St. right across from the Woolco store. I remember thinking that perhaps they would save it, but that was not to be. Today, it is the parking lot just north of the small plaza at 68 Maple St.
Before the availability of brick, most structures were naturally built from the abundant raw materials found nearby, with stone and wood being the obvious choices. Even with the advent of brick, in the later 1800s, the interior structure including frame, walls, floors, doors and window frames, were all made from wood, favourite food of fire. Fire was never far away in those early days as this potential enemy was invited in out of necessity to heat the home, cook the meals and heat the bath water.
Barrie is not alone in its long and ongoing war against the malicious flame. Read the newspaper archives of any Ontario town and there will be mention of ‘the Great Fire’ that swept through and devoured a good portion of the original community.
The first big fire recorded in Barrie occurred on the night of June 24, 1871, when the entire Glebe Block on the south side of Dunlop St. E., from Five Points to the Post Office Square, was reduced to ashes. The fire had easily run through the dry, wooden structures. The brick buildings you see there today were built after that.
For four years, the wood frame and roughcast businesses of the north side of Dunlop St. E. watched as their neighbours across the street evolved from backwoods mercantile to ornate Victorian edifices. Then they experienced their own destructive inferno in the wee hours of June 17, 1875, and everything from Five Points east to Owen St, and up to Collier St., was laid waste by another fire. Some of the newer buildings on the south side of Dunlop St. were damaged and had to be repaired.
The June 24, 1875 edition of the Barrie Examiner had these prophetic words to say, “Soon the stores west of Wood’s (Drug Store) were in flames, as was the Bank Hotel, which, fortunately, being brick, burnt slowly, the walls confining the heat so that, with the engine playing on it, the fire did not cross the street. This was indeed a blessing; for had the fire got into the Simcoe or Wellington Hotels, where the destruction would have ended, no one can tell, as both these blocks are composed nearly entirely of frame buildings.”
Of course, both the Simcoe and Wellington Hotel did burn a year later, in 1876. Both were rebuilt, and evidence of that fire is still visible in the basement of the Simcoe Hotel today. The rebuilt Wellington Hotel finally succumbed to one last memorable fire not quite ten years ago now. The vacant lot is slated to become a condominium building in the near future.
With the loss of the Wellington Hotel, the iconic Five Points intersection got a little sadder as the building on the northeast corner of Dunlop and Clapperton Streets had already been destroyed by fire in January of 1994, when the popular Sam The Record Man store burnt. It has no permanent structure on it presently. Before the record shop, Tamblyn Drug Store sat on the corner, but was razed in 1942 by – you guessed it – a fire!
When you take a stroll through the Downtown area next, take a look a look at some of the uncalled-for alterations made to the neighbourhood by smoke and fire. Do you remember the old building on the corner of Mary St. and Dunlop St. W., that was the Earth & Sky Connection when it was lost in August of 2007?
Perhaps you were there when the vacant lot between present day Boon Burger and Ripe Juicery was an Eaton’s outlet and bowling alley before perishing in February of 1966.
Did you know that the two-storey building that houses Tiffins Curry In A Hurry and other businesses, just east of Five Points, was once a three storey building?
Amazing when you think about it – this building, first occupied in the 1860s, burned to the ground in 1871, rebuilt and damaged by another fire in 1875, repaired only to lose the top floor to flames in 1970, and humming along quite nicely in 2017.
Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.