Great Fire Remakes Financial District

Bay St. looking north on Front St.

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On the evening of April 19, 1904, a watchman noticed flames in an elevator shaft of the E&S Currie Building at 58-60 Wellington Street West. The blaze spread quickly, cutting a path of destruction in an area roughly bounded by Simcoe, Melinda, Yonge and the rail lines. Firefighters from as far as Buffalo fought the blaze.

Aftermath of the Toronto fire viewed from Wellington Street West, looking east from west of Bay Street, c 1904 (courtesy City of Toronto Archives/Fonds 1568, Item 356).

The cause of the fire was never determined. Initial suggestions included faulty wiring or a stove left burning. By the time it was discovered, the building was lost and the fire was spreading. It left important blocks of downtown Toronto in ruins.

Over the next few weeks, safecrackers rescued important documents from the ruins, as demolition teams brought down the damaged buildings. John Croft, a recent immigrant from England, was assigned to dynamite the W.J. Gage Building at 54-58 Front Street West. His team had no storage battery to detonate the charges and had to light long fuses before running for cover. This worked for two explosions Croft set on May 4. The third attempt appeared to fail, so Croft investigated. The blast went off, fatally injuring him. A mural along the downtown street named after Croft tells the tale of the only person killed by the fire, albeit indirectly.

While the fire cost one life, 5,000 workers lost their jobs. Business owners, insurance companies and the city worked fast to rebuild and a year later, with new fire-resistant construction standards in place, a new city core had risen from the ashes.

By Jamie Bradburn

Visit The Canadian Encyclopedia for more on Toronto.