Numbers under the photographs show the location of buildings on the map below.
These two photographs were taken from almost exactly the same spot. The building with the triangular top (not with the flag) on the right-hand side of the street (seen best in the 1903 photograph) was owned by the Evening Telegram newspaper,and marks the north-east limit of the fire. Dedicated Telegram employees fought the fire for two hours, spraying water from windows and from a hydrant on the roof. They saved their building, and prevented the fire from moving east. (Their employer, John Ross Robertson, rewarded them with large bonuses.)
Exactly how the fire started has never been solved. Early reports suggested that faulty electrical wiring was to blame. Others thought that a stove left burning at the end of the work day was the cause. Whatever the source, by the time a watchman saw flames and sounded the alarm at 8:04 pm on that icy night of April 19, 1904, the Wellington Street building in which it had started was already a loss, and the fire was spreading to its neighbours.
This plan was drawn for the use of insurance companies. The black cross in the pink circle in the upper left-hand corner shows where the fire began.
The red numbers and arrows, added for this web exhibit, correspond to the red numbers underneath each picture in this exhibit. They show the location and direction of the pictures.
From its origins in the E. & S. Currie Building (on the north side of Wellington Street, west of Bay), the fire quickly spread north, south, and east. Soon, both sides of Wellington and Bay were aflame. By 9 pm, every fireman in the city was at the site. The mayor, Thomas Urquhart, sent the deputy fire chief a message, asking if he needed any assistance. The deputy’s response: “We need all the assistance we can get.”
While the mayor sent telegrams to other cities, urgently asking for help, the fire’s northward advance was stopped. But the fire continued south and east, and by 11 pm, it had reached Front Street. From there it swept south to the Esplanade, and east along Front towards Yonge Street.
Fire fighters and equipment from Toronto’s surrounding suburbs, and others arriving by special express trains from Hamilton and Buffalo, arrived in time to help Toronto’s exhausted fire fighters make a last stand just west of Yonge Street. Some on the ground, some climbing to the roofs of untouched buildings to get above the flames, for two hours they soaked the advancing edge of the fire. Finally, by 4:30 am, the fire was declared under control, though small fires continued to break out for the next few days, and the ruins smouldered for two weeks.
Miraculously, although many fire fighters suffered minor injuries, particularly temporary eye damage due to smoke and cinders, no one died in the fire. Financial losses were another story. Total estimated losses were $10,000,000—in 1904 dollars. Most businesses had insurance, but even so, some lost tens of thousands of dollars. Five thousand workers lost their jobs, temporarily or permanently. The insurance companies suffered serious losses, but earned no one’s sympathy when they raised all insurance premiums for businesses in the affected area by 75%—retroactive to the night of the fire.
Most of the burnt-out businesses quickly found temporary quarters and continued to operate. Many began to rebuild immediately, and City Council worked fast to pass a new building by-law, setting standards for fire-resistant (for the time) construction. On the first anniversary of the fire, TheGlobe would write, “The business interests of Toronto are safe in the hands of the men who within a year of such a staggering blow as the great fire of April last have made such wonderful progress in effacing its results.”