This article was published in the Montreal Gazette on January 3, 2009.
My quest for further information about the infamous Novelty Oil Cabinet Works fire which took place on St. Urbain Street in April of 1877 led me recently to a little known city museum. Located in the very heart of St. Louis-du-Mile End, the Musée des Pompiers has been in existence since October of 1946 when it first started amassing and archiving artifacts associated with the perilous occupation of firefighting.
Since 1980, the Firemen’s Museum has been housed in the old municipal building of the Town of St. Louis-du-Mile End (today Fire Station 30). Constructed shortly before the municipality and its 35,000 inhabitants were annexed to the City of Montreal on January 1, 1910, the historic Edwardian structure has recently undergone several restorations which unfortunately affected the smooth running of the museum; in fact, forcing it to close on a number occasions.
But now, every Sunday since last August, the Firemen’s Museum has re-opened and offers free guided tours to those who care to drop in for a visit. While there are usually three or four volunteer firefighters on hand Sunday afternoons, I lucked out in having my own escorted tour conducted by the two men who are, for all intents and purposes, the curators of the collection. Serge Dandurand, 67, and Barry Adams, 53, both spend a considerable amount of their retirement time classifying and caring for the assortment of odds and ends found within the attractive edifice. Passionate about the profession, they too are volunteers even though neither was ever a fireman.
Of particular interest to me was a well-indexed series of photo albums that depicts the major Montreal conflagrations of the twentieth century, including the Laurier Theatre blaze of January 1927 (in which 77 children lost their lives) and the infamous Blue Bird Café fire of September 1972. Poignantly, in another corner of the two-storey museum is found the helmets of the 46 firemen who died in the line of duty since 1948. Yet another helmet is located nearby – this one used by a Montreal firefighter in the Great Fire of July 1852 in which a quarter of the city was destroyed, leaving ten thousand people homeless.
Portraits, photos, and sketches cover the freshly-painted walls, including one of Montreal Fire Chief William Patton who himself was badly injured in that same 1877 St. Urbain Street conflagration. That blaze left seven firemen and four civilians dead – an unlucky city record of firefighters lost on any one day.
One wall on the second floor is dedicated to the firemen who lost their lives in New York City on September 11, 2001. The tender tribute includes a list of all the NYFD men who perished in the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan. Next to the roll is found a very beautiful colour photo of one of them, fully outfitted in his firefighter’s uniform, proud and brave, taken just three days before the disaster.
After a two hour visit, I left the Musee des Pompiers somewhat surprised that it is so often overlooked on the heritage circuit. Staffed by a number of devoted and enthusiastic volunteers (including Roland Carrière, 91), it is more than well worth a visit – in truth, it’s a learning experience. There is even a display for children dubbed “Le coin des petits pompiers.”
The general public is welcome every Sunday from 1:00 – 4:30. There is no admission charge. It is located at 5100 St. Laurent Boulevard.