Originally published in the Montreal Gazette on April 30, 2011.
When Edward Jackson retired from the Montreal Fire Department in May of 1909, he had well-over 53 years of colourful tales to recount.
Jackson first joined the ‘Volunteer Fire Protecting Company’ on May 1, 1856, at the tender age of 16. It was less than four years after the great fire of July 1852, which destroyed about a quarter of Montreal and vividly illustrated the inadequacies of combating fires with volunteers only. The town, therefore, was re-thinking its approach to fire fighting and it was in that context that Jackson joined the Montreal Brigade in 1856 and served faithfully for well over half a century. There were approximately 400 men ‘on call’ from their regular activities whenever a flourish of church bells indicated their need to fight the flames.
According to Jackson, it was the influential Montreal alderman Henry Lyman who, more than anyone, was responsible for the creation of a permanent, professional force being created on May 1, 1863, under the leadership of Chief Alexander Bertram.
“I would do the whole thing over again under the same conditions”, stated Jackson. “It was the sport that attracted us in those days, just love of adventure. It could hardly have been the salary for we only got thirty-two dollars a year and had to provide our own uniforms”.
In an extensive 1909 interview with a local qnewspaper reporter, Jackson recounted how the Volunteer Brigades worked and how it was eventually replaced by a permanent fire department in 1863. When asked about the biggest fire he had ever seen in the course of his career, he didn’t hesitate. It was without doubt the conflagration, which destroyed the first Christ Church Cathedral on December 10, 1856. The sacred edifice about which Jackson spoke was located on the north side of Notre Dame, just a little east of Place d’Armes. “The fire is supposed to have originated by a stove left by some workmen who were repairing the steeple, if I remember rightly. It was a spectacular fire.”
Later, Jackson spoke about the Novelty Works Fire on St. Urbain Street in April of 1877 in which eleven people were killed, seven of whom were firemen. In terms of loss of life, it was the worst conflagration up to that point in the history of Montreal. “I tell you a man who does his duty at a fire can’t see much that is going on around him, and so I know a little from personal observation of heroic rescues.”
Jackson, while speaking generally, could just as easily been referring to the iconic Montreal ice skating champion and popular city alderman, Louis Rubenstein, who, as a young boy of 15, ran from his home on Craig Street (today, St. Antoine) in the middle of the night to alert the authorities to the conflagration then raging out of control on St. Urbain Street. Had it not been for young Rubenstein’s heroism, many more may have been killed.
Jackson’s own personal brush with death occurred in a fire on St. Paul Street. “The closest escape I ever had was in the Rolland Fire when a fireman named Scott lost his life. I had been speaking to him and had just walked to the head of the stairs when there was an explosion and he was killed, poor fellow.”
Edward Jackson fought his final fire on the morning of April 22, 1909. It took place at the Keegan Hotel on the Back River Road (today, Gouin Boulevard). By the time the firefighters arrived on the distant scene, the structure had been completely destroyed, save a few outbuildings nearby.
Recounted the Star: “When the fire alarm was given the guests of the hotel made a hurried exit, some of them in scanty clothing, but there were no accidents reported.”
When Jackson returned to Fire Headquarters later that day, he at once went to Chief Joseph Tremblay’s office (then located in the City Hall) and submitted his immediate resignation. Originally scheduled to take effect only on May 1, perhaps Jackson felt that his luck might run out before that date.
With Jackson’s departure, there ended over half a century of a remarkable career in the chronicle of this city’s fire department.