98 Donald Goodman and Les Wagg
Fire fighting on Salt Spring Island


Parts transribed by Usha

Les Wagg, in a presentation to the SSI Historical Society on April 9, 1991
(audio #98 SSIA)

The Harbour House Fire was A Big One.
Les Wagg, in a presentation to the SSI Historical Society on April 9, 1991
(audio #98 SSIA)

The cause was never definitely determined, although we had our serious thoughts of how it did start. At the time, the new part was built up to the old part, so the old part conveniently burned down and the new part was saved because there was a brick wall on that side.

When we arrived the fire was in the basement crawl-space area, and we tried to get in the entrance but in those days they had a couple of metal posts with a 2x4 in it, so the only way was just to smash your way through it, which we finally did.

By the time we were able to get in there and get in the main floor, the heat had got so intense that it just, it just blew; as soon as the doors started to open it just took right off, so we didn’t really get too good of a chance to stop too much, and once it got blowin’ it just burned furiously, with all that dry wood in it.

The Pre-History of the Salt Spring Fire Department
Manson Toynbee: in a presentation to the SSI Historical Society on April 9, 1991
(audio #98 SSIA)

The First Fire Truck, the First Siren, and the First Volunteer Fire Department; 
and Arthur Elliott, the Grandfather of Fire Fighting on Salt Spring.

Mr. Elliott was a remarkable man. Salt Spring was always a very loyal island in hard times. In the first World War many people as you know were sent overseas from Salt Spring; in the second World War they were just as loyal, or perhaps even loyaller; and when Japan came into the war, we then came in the front line on Salt Spring. It was felt that almost any time the Japanese planes might arrive, and so we started a branch of the A.R.P, Air Raid Precautions, here. Of course if you have air raid precautions, you must have some way to put out fires, and as a result of this Mr. Elliott became the sort of one-man-ARP to start with. The Red Cross was busy training people to help the casualties; Mr Elliiott had to prepare to fight fire.

Now, it has already been mentioned by Goody that Mr. Elliiott made the first fire truck. Now, that was a great job. There was no government money, no local money went into it. As Goody said, Charlie Moore [from ‘up in the Cranberry’] donated his old [1927] McLaughlin Buick, which hadn’t been used for a number of years; Elliiott then had to turn that into the fire truck. He had no money with which to do this; however he wasn’t the man to give up easily. He went around looking for scraps that couldn’t be used, to make it. The water tank that Les mentioned as being rather a small one, was Goody’s, 60 gallons was it, Goody, that it took? Actually it was a much bigger tank to start with, it was the only one he could find, and so he went to my dad, who, he didn’t have a welding machine himself, Mr. Elliiott, and so he came to my father, who ran Toynbee’s garage, Ganges Garage it was called, and he had my father use his cutting torch to cut the end off it, take out about three feet, and weld the end back in place again.

He then found, as Goody said, that putting that tank on the back and filling it with water, it - it wasn’t a truck at all, it was a car - and it just went down! And so he went around, and he found some old springs, he took leaves out of them and added them to the leaves in the McLaughlin Buick, and the tank was safer. He managed to get a pump - actually I think that was one of the few things the government gave.

Before this, (Mr. Elliiott, as the ARP branch) also had to help to see that the blackout was carried out. We got very little warning, as you may remember, those of you who are old enough, of these blackout precautions. I remember I was a young teenager, I guess I was scarcely (even) a teenager, working in Mouats’ Store, and I remember we were all summoned down for the meeting, and Gilbert Mouat my uncle, who was the manager of Mouats, and those of you who knew him know he was confined to a wheelchair most of his life, wheeled up to the front of the store and had all his staff there, and told us about these blackouts that were starting, and that we all must close the store early that afternoon if we had to be at work that much earlier the following morning, to make up for the time lost - he was a businessman.

The blackout, Mr. Elliiott thought, couldn’t start unless you had a siren of some kind. You couldn’t buy a siren, and so he had to make a siren. He got an old cream separator, and he took off the part that the milk went through, and he got two cake pans, different sizes, and he made holes in one, with a needle, and this, turned around, could make quite a noise! I can remember as a boy, wheeling this down onto the wharf at blackout time, and turning this, and my mother, who lived across the harbour, could scarcely hear it, but she would go out to the point and listen for it, and then she could go home and put up her shutters, and know all was well - this was the first siren.

But when Elliott got the fire truck almost ready, when it was ready to go onto the road - no siren!
You couldn’t buy one, you had to get permission from the federal government, which meant filling in a form. So he wrote off for the form, and it came, and he filled it out and sent it in, and they sent back another one - this is Wartime Prices and Trade Board - and he filled that one in; well, when about the sixth form came, he was getting to come to the end of his tether, so he wrote a long letter in reply; and he asked them, to give a little more reason to justify having this privilege in wartime when things were scarce, and so he told them about Salt Spring Island. He sent to Ottawa, and he began the letter by Salt Spring Island being a pristine little island lying in the Gulf of Georgia, where the lambs fed on the violets on the hillside, and where one thousand God-fearing people lived, “and now, for God’s sakes”, he said, “either say yes, or say no, but don’t send any more of those damn fool letters!” Well, that brought Salt Spring fame. For the first time ever, I think perhaps, it got known, and Time Magazine published this; because he got his yes answer right away, and we got our siren.

I guess by about 1943 it looked like the Japanese weren’t going to bomb us after all, and so the ARP gradually started to fall away, and poor old Mr. Elliiott was left pretty much on his own, and so he wanted to do something, and I remember he came to me. And as I say, about 1943 I guess, I was a teenager, and he said “Would you ,” - I was caretaker at Mouats Store, I lived upstairs at Mouats Store, so I was close to the centre of things I guess, so that’s one reason why he approached me - and he said would I join him in a local fire fighting group. And so I did. We then recruited a couple or two other teenagers who were a bit younger than me, there was Greg and Laurence Cartwright, and we ran a little fire department, volunteer fire department, we were volunteers, all three of us.

Mr. Elliiott kept the truck in shape, and every Sunday morning we had a practice; we would go out and wash off people’s rooves or something or other, each Sunday morning, and we even did the odd fire. The one I well remember, was on an occasion when Mr. Elliiott had gone away, something that really hardly ever happened - he was the sort of person who was a stay-at-home person - but he had to go to Victoria for some reason. (So), one afternoon I was working at the store, and Mr Norton, Walter Norton, rushed out and said “Manson! You’ve got to go to the fire!” and I said “Where’s the fire?” and he said, “Mrs. Penrose’s house, on Tripp Road, it’s on fire, and the [? inaudible name Floss?] is off in Vancouver. Well, the problem was this: I’d never driven the fire truck; I’d watched Mr. Elliiott do it, but he perhaps wisely, had never let the boys drive it; but mr. Walter said “Well, you’ve got to go!” So I rounded up my two assistants, or accomplices I guess, and [sadly blank section of the audio here] and we put out, at a dry time of year, we got the grass fire out; so we did do something.

But I do feel that we must always look at Arthur Elliiott as being the sort of the ‘Grandfather of Fire fighting on Salt Spring’. He was a person, he wouldn’t give up on any little thing there wasn’t money for, and what-not; I remember in the case of the fire truck I remember he got Mouats to give the paint, the red paint to paint it, and Charlie Moore had given the vehicle for nothing. A man with remarkable talents. I think he should go down in Salt Spring History.

Les Wagg reads “one of the letters that we keep” in our collection at the Fire Hall.

To Mr. Arthur Elliiott, Fire Chief, Fire Department, Salt Spring Island, B.C.

A recent news item tells of your troubles in obtaining a siren for alarm purposes. The item quoted your reply to Ottawa relative to forms to be filled out for priority.

We would greatly appreciate having a copy of your letter, together with any of the other information that may be useful in aiding other Fire Chiefs when they find themselves in a similar situation.

We plan to use the material as the basis of a news article for our magazine. For your information, Digest has national distribution throughout the fire service, and is the only fireman’s magazine edited and written by firefighters.

Trusting that we may hear from you soon, and that the siren, if you have received it, is operating successfully.”

Goody, regarding the Ladies’ Fire Brigade:
Donald Goodman, in a presentation to the SSI Historical Society on April 9, 1991
(audio #98 SSIA)

“Well, they weren’t actually - they were, they would, we put some equipment out there, and, so they were supposed to hold the fire till we got there. We put out some hoses. They put in about five or six 1-1/4 inch outlets on the water system there. But, er, OK.”

Canada at War: BRITISH COLUMBIA: Siren Call
Time Magazine, Monday, Jan. 15, 1945

Salt Spring Island needed a fire siren which could be had only from the U.S. Dutifully, Volunteer Fire Chief Arthur Elliott filled out U.S. priority forms sent from Ottawa. Just as dutifully, he answered a long series of requests for additional information. Finally he had had enough international red tape. In a letter to Ottawa, Chief Elliott exploded with lyric wrath:

"Salt Spring Island . . . rests like a gem of beauty in the azure waters of the Pacific Ocean. It has an area of seventy miles . . . two well-equipped beer halls ... a population of 1,800 people, all Godfearing, self-respecting souls [who] pay their taxes promptly. . . . [Its] lambs graze on the carpets of wild violets with which the grazing areas abound, giving a distinctive and delicate flavor to the meat.

"The need of adequate fire protection is urgent. . . . The method of alarm at present is totally inadequate. It consists of an old motor horn of the press-bulb type, implemented vocally by the fire chief. . ..

"We need the siren asked for ... so either pass this request or refuse it and let us know, but for God's sake don't go on writing any more damn fool letters, wasting time, paper and the taxpayers' money in idiotic requests for information which cannot have any practical bearing on the application."

Salt Spring Island got its siren.

Accession Number   Interviewer SSI Historical Society
Date April 9, 1991 Location Central Hall
Media tape Audio CD   mp3
ID 98