by Ashley Harper, Chesterville and District Historical Society
In the early hours of April 6, 1909, Chesterville residents were awoken to the alarm of fire and the smell of smoke. Within hours, an entire block of the village’s business core was reduced to rubble. It would become known as the worst conflagration in the history of Chesterville.
It originated in a wooden-framed building on the north-east corner of King and Water Streets, which housed W. J. Nash’s tailor shop on the first floor and the Masonic Hall on the second. The flames quickly spread east down Water Street to the Chesterville Record office, destroying the printing presses, then travelled north up King to Ralph Street.
Equipped with only one hand pump and pails for water, there was very little that could be done. The fire destroyed everything in its path, including Wilford Saucier’s jewellery store, Isaac Pelletier’s confectionary and fruit store, Gordon Robinson’s blacksmith shop, Joseph Fisher and Colborne Robinson’s butcher shop and the Sanders, Soule and Casselman general store.
The village was left rattled by this tragedy – it was not the first they had dealt with that spring. Exactly three weeks before this incident, the Temperance Hotel and Foster’s Hall, situated at the north end of King Street, burned to the ground, and the train station and water tower narrowly escaped with minor damage.
In light of these incidents, steps were quickly taken to improve the village’s fire protection. By May, the village council was preparing a new by-law to mandate that only ‘fireproof’ (e. g. brick, stone) buildings could be erected in the business section. That summer, a steam pumper fire engine was purchased and a proper fire department was formed with Frank McCloskey as fire chief.
Meanwhile, life went on in the village. The Chesterville Record was back in print on May 6, operating from a temporary office in a blacksmith shop. By the end of the summer, bigger and better buildings replaced those that were lost. Sanders, Soule & Casselman rebuilt on their former site (now Mike Dean’s). The Fisher Block (burned in 1989, now the Mike Dean’s parking lot) was erected, where Fisher and Pelletier carried on their businesses. The new Record building (demolished in 2018) was constructed, and Saucier rented part of the space for his jewellery store. Wesley Hamilton built the Hamilton Block on the corner of King and Water Streets (now Louis’ Restaurant).
The response to the King Street fire demonstrates the resilience of this village and its people – something that we continue to see today.