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Manitoba History: Plate #53: The Rescue of a Brother Firefighter

by Rick Northwood #1216 (Ret.)
Fernie, British Columbia

Number 67, Winter 2012

In November of 2007, my wife and I walked into an antique shop on Corydon Avenue in Winnipeg with no intensions of buying anything. We had just sold our home and were downsizing, getting ready for retirement. Had you told me I would later walk out with an antique Manitoba license plate from 1912, I would have said you were crazy. (The fact that I paid $100 for it is also … well, never mind.) I am not sure what attracted me to it, but when I saw it, I knew that I had to have it. It is a little smaller than today’s license and being made of iron and coated with porcelain, a lot heavier. It has a black background with white lettering and numbering. It also sports a white buffalo. It is #53.

When we got home I did an Internet search on it, not expecting to find anything. I typed “Manitoba license plate 1912” and was surprised to find a website devoted to this subject. According to the person responsible for the website, one Gordon Goldsborough, the records for the other years had been destroyed in a fire, all except 1912. He was doing some research on who owned them and where they lived. His website stated that if you give him the license number, he would tell you who owned the plate, where they lived, their occupation, etc.

Goldsborough told me that plate #53 was the third-lowest number of those he had heard about. It was carried on a Ford vehicle registered to Donald MacDonald, a firefighter at Fire Hall #2 at the northwest corner of Smith and York. In 1912, MacDonald was 55 years of age, single, born in Ontario (as were many 1912 car owners) and Presbyterian, not surprising given his Scottish heritage.

Before continuing, I should state that I have been a firefighter with the City of Winnipeg for 27 years and was, at the time, living just a few blocks from where this Fire Hall was located. I decided to head over to the Firefighters Museum of Winnipeg to see if I could get any more information for Goldsborough, possibly a picture of MacDonald. Little did I know that this simple inquiry would lead me on a quest to find as much information as I could on a “brother firefighter”, thereby rescuing him from obscurity. With the help of Bill Mitchell, a veteran fireman who spent many hours creating the museum, and who has since passed away, this is what I found.

I did not know until later that this simple license plate, once belonging to Winnipeg firefighter Donald MacDonald on his Ford car, and bought nearly a century later at a local antique shop, would lead me to learn about the hard life of early firefighters.
Source: Rick Northwood

* * *

Donald MacDonald was born on 9 January 1857. His parents were Daniel MacDonald (1835–1918) and Isabella Marshall (1837–1893). He had one sister, Elizabeth, and two brothers, Ben and John. Born at Hanover, Ontario on the border of Bruce and Gray counties, like many young men of his time, Donald grew up reading and hearing about the great adventures in the Canadian North West. When he was 13 years old, and Manitoba joined Confederation, the population of Winnipeg was only 241. By 1881, now aged 24, Donald decided to head west to take up farming. Near Grenfell, North West Territories (now Saskatchewan), he bought a half-section of land and endured six years of drought. He gave up in 1887 and came to Winnipeg. His father, Daniel MacDonald, had moved his family to Winnipeg and Donald joined them. The population of Winnipeg was growing rapidly, now at approximately 21,000. With the CPR tracks now laid all the way to the Pacific, it was expected that Winnipeg would become a boomtown. On 15 October 1887, Donald joined the Winnipeg Fire Department. The Fire Chief, W. O. McRobie, made him one of its engineers—the men who operated the steam-powered fire engines.

Fireman Donald MacDonald (1857-1912)
Source: Firefighters Museum of Winnipeg

McRobie was a 25-year veteran of the Montreal Fire Department when, in 1882, he was hired by the City of Winnipeg to create a professional department. McRobie decided that, though most blue-collar workers of the day could neither read nor write, firefighters would be required to be literate. While most chiefs of this period would ride to fires in a buggy pulled by a horse, McRobie would ride to the fire on a horse—bareback because putting on a saddle wasted valuable time. He also felt it very important that the Chief arrive at the scene of a fire as quickly as possible, conduct a size-up, and be able to task his men as they arrived. McRobie’s faithful dog would run beside him. It was also well-known that after the fire, he would ride into a local bar, order a whiskey for himself and a beer for his horse.

The life of a firefighter in the 1880s was different than it is today. Firefighters back then spent almost all of their time in the fire halls. They worked seven days a week and were given only ten days off a year. A firefighter was allowed to leave the hall for five hours once a week during the day and five hours once a week at night. If they did leave the hall to, say, go to church, they would have to go to one nearby and sit at the back so they could hear the gong and respond to an alarm. They also had to be able to respond to a fire call within 15 seconds of receiving the gong. Insurance companies would time the response. On 26 November 1888, married men of the department boldly petitioned the city, asking for one whole night a week to be with their families. They conceded that no two firefighters could be home at the same time and they would still respond to fire calls from home. Permission was granted.

In the early years there were only three fire halls in Winnipeg. Donald started at the Central Hall, ended his career at the South Hall, but spent the vast majority of his career—18 years—at the North Hall at 56 Maple Street. Today, this hall is the home of The Firefighters Museum of Winnipeg. On its walls are many pictures of fires that MacDonald would have attended. The “Alex Logan”, one of the steamers that Donald would have been operated, is on display.

Over the course of his firefighting career, Donald would have borne witness to many changes to this country, from the opening of the west by the CPR in 1882 to the first airplanes flying over Winnipeg in the early 1900s. By 1912, Winnipeg was home to 13 fire halls and had a population of over 166,000 residents. Winnipeg received its first motorized fire apparatus in 1910, one year ahead of the New York Fire department. This was the beginning of the end for the horses at the Department.

The gear worn by firefighters in this postcard scene from March 1905 was primitive compared to what we firefighters use today: just rubber boots, a full-length rubber coat, and a hat. It would be years before respirators and fire-retardant clothing would become standard issue.
Source: Firefighters Museum of Winnipeg, AL1905.1.1

In September 1911, Donald started feeling sick. That fall he decided to head home to Hanover, Ontario. There, he started feeling better so he returned to Winnipeg and back to work at the Fire Department. In January 1912, he was sent home, too sick to work. He was therefore unable to attend a fire that occurred on 9 March 1912, where an arsonist named James Dodds set fire to the Radford-Wright building on the west side of Main Street, just north of the CPR underpass. The men from the North Hall were the first to arrive. An explosion from vats of naphtha inside the building killed two firefighters, Charles McPherson and Edmond Molyneux, along with five civilians. The incident must have been devastating for Donald as firefighters become very close to each other, sometimes closer than family. It was perhaps experiences such as this one that caused Donald to be one of the key men responsible for making viable the Firefighters Benevolent Fund in support of the families of injured or killed firefighters.

In mid-July 1912, Donald went to see Dr. H. H. Chown, who promptly admitted him to the hospital where he was soon diagnosed with terminal cancer. On 20 July, Donald wrote out his will, giving all his earthly possessions to his sister, Elizabeth. On 8 August, at 9:45 AM, Donald died at his home at 45 Lily Street. In the eulogies that followed his death, fellow firefighters described him as “cheery and energetic, both efficient as an engineer and popular as a man.” William Code stated in the local paper that “he was a good engineer and a good fellow … one of the best.” Donald was buried in the St. James Cemetery.

Today, Donald’s residence at 45 Lily Street is known as the Daniel McDonald House—at some point, the family changed the spelling of their surname. The building stands virtually unchanged since Winnipeg’s early years. I have no idea how Donald’s 1912 license plate came to be in that antique shop in 2007, but I am so glad that, through it, I came to learn about him and his life in the occupation that we shared.

In late morning of 6 April 1907, fire broke out on the second floor of a warehouse on Pacific Avenue belonging to the Montreal firm of the James Robertson Hardware Company. Pile of tar paper and oakum caught fire, and billowing clouds of black smoke made it impossible for firefighters to enter the building. So they were forced to stand outside, playing a stream of water on the blaze in hopes of bringing it under control. Donald MacDonald was probably among the firemen from the North Hall at the scene, calmly standing beside his engine (right) that belched smoke as it pumped water through the hoses held by the men at the centre of this view. A newspaper reporter at the scene estimated that some 5,000 people watched the firemen in their futile efforts. In the end, the building was a total loss, and the business manager estimated his losses at between $100,000 and $150,000.
Source: Firefighters Museum of Winnipeg, AL1907.1.1

Page revised: 2 January 2017

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