One of the most feared events in prairie communities has been a grain elevator fire. Elevators are large, highly combustible structures. An elevator fire, once started, is almost impossible to put out. Moreover, the towering blazes can soon threaten much of the neighboring business district.
Red Deer was fortunate in not having an elevator fire for the first 30 years of its existence. That luck changed in the fall of 1923.
The early 1920’s were already a very challenging time for the community. The post World War One depression had devastated the local economy. Commodity prices plunged, businesses went bankrupt and unemployment soared to more than 25%.
The economic desperation was particularly acute for the farmers. There was a sharp drought. Crop yields fell to a mere fraction of normal levels. At the same time, wheat prices dropped by more than 60%. There was no relief in diversification either. After the American government imposed punitive duties on imports of Canadian livestock, prices for cattle dropped dramatically, often to below the cost of shipping the animals.
It is hard to overstate how bad things became. The local power company was unable to make its payroll. The City had trouble paying its employees as well. The Red Deer Memorial Hospital went bankrupt. The public school trustees went door to door to try and collect enough delinquent taxes to pay the teachers. When that failed, they took out personal bank loans to meet the short fall.
The Red Deer Fire Department was hard hit like everyone else. The fire chief and the deputy fire chief received no pay from September of one year until the spring of the following year. A request for urgently needed fire hose was turned down by City Council.
Finally, in 1923, the economy began to slowly improve. The drought began to ease. Wheat prices began to rise after the farmers banded together to form the Alberta Wheat Pool and thereby gained some significant clout in the marketing of their grain.
On October 10, 1923, just as the first reasonable harvest in years was coming into the local elevators, a C.P.R. car inspector, Albert Donnelly, noticed smoke coming out of the Alberta Pacific grain elevator around 4 o’clock in the morning. An alarm was quickly raised by blowing the whistle of the C.P.R. yard engine.
The entire Fire Brigade quickly piled out of bed and rushed to the scene. However, by the time they got the hoses hooked up and the water turned on, the flames had shot up to the roof of the elevator, well beyond the reach of the streams of water. It was obvious that the Alberta Pacific elevator was already doomed.
Attention then turned to trying to save the adjoining Massey Harris farm implement warehouse and the other elevators along the rail line. Frantic efforts were made to keep the falling embers from igniting the coal sheds and a lumber yard north of the elevator.
The battle wore on for the rest of the night and well into the following day. By late morning, the Fire Department decided that they had the situation under control. The main fire lines were gradually shut down, but one line was left in place for two more days to put out the small fires that kept breaking out in the ruins of the elevator.
Excellent work by the Fire Department had prevented a much larger disaster, a feat made all the more remarkable given the poor repair of several of their hoses.
Losses from the fire were calculated at nearly $20,000, an enormous sum in those cash strapped times. The Alberta Pacific rebuilt the elevator as quickly as possible, using the money from the insurance companies. Nevertheless, there was still a significant reduction in the local grain shipping capacity and one more headache for the district’s long suffering farmers.
Michael Dawe is a Red Deer historian and his column appears on Wednesdays.