Fire protection has been a concern in Oakville since the founding of the town, but it hasn’t always existed the way it does now. In the early 1800s, before most cities had an organized fire department, fires were handled by “bucket brigades”. When a fire broke out, any able bodied townsperson was expected to take part in putting it out by passing buckets of water down a line to the blaze. At the time, this slow method was the best that could be done in Oakville, despite fires being exceptionally common.
One such fire in 1856 burned down a foundry on Colborne (now Lakeshore road) causing 10,000 dollars’ worth of damage. This and similar fires pressured the town into purchasing a fire engine. In the same year, the community raised enough money to buy a hand powered engine which was nicknamed “Little Cataract”. The engine was small and inefficient by today’s standards, it needed about twenty people to pump handles on either side in order to produce a stream of water. During this time, the St. Jude church’s bell was used to alert the town of a fire, and any civilian who showed up to the scene would help put it out.
In 1857, Oakville’s first by-law to prevent fires was passed, and a year later in 1858, the Cataract Fire Engine Company No.1 was formed. Like the Neighbouring Trafalgar and Bronte fire departments, This was a volunteer fire company. Volunteer companies were very common at the time, but this meant that the firefighters were not compensated for their exhausting and dangerous work.
In 1871, a bush fire broke out at sixteen mile creek that covered the area in a cloud of smoke for five days. This led to the Fire and Water committee seeking out ways to improve fire protection for Oakville. A second hand-powered engine was purchased from Toronto.
In 1917, the fire engines were retired in favour of a fire hydrant system created in 1908. The hydrants were much more efficient than the town’s engines, needing less manpower and covering a larger area.
Before improvements were made, however, another catastrophic fire broke out in 1883 in the office for the Standard Newspaper. The firefighters were unequipped for such a large fire and could not stop it before the building collapsed, causing the fire to spread to neighboring buildings. Help was sent from Toronto at 1 AM, but by the time they arrived, the fire had been put out and damages had reached a whopping 100,000 dollars.