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THEN AND NOW: How a 1963 fire reshaped a streetscape in downtown Yarmouth


YARMOUTH, N.S. – When looking at the current-day landscape of Yarmouth’s Main Street, much has changed over the past century.

In more recent years a façade program initiated by the Town of Yarmouth, coupled with property development and the vision of property owners, has brought bright colours, interesting architectural features and, in some instances, an urban feel to the seaside downtown.

However, other changes over time were brought on by reasons that didn’t include modernization, restoration or redevelopment. Buildings were demolished. One, the former Odeon Theatre, collapsed long after the last movie was ever shown here and the building had been used for other purposes.

And then there were fires that destroyed parts of the streetscape.

One of the worst of these fires – in terms of the impact to numerous businesses all at once – happened on Nov. 6, 1963, when fire broke out at the rear of the Margolian’s Building at around 8 a.m. By the time the fire was brought under control on Main and Brown streets, eight businesses had been destroyed, three others were damaged, 33 people were left unemployed and some people were left homeless.

Dave Darby, curator of the Firefighters’ Museum of Nova Scotia in Yarmouth, says in terms of historic fires that reshaped the streetscape of the Yarmouth downtown, this was a bad one.

“Guaranteed,” he says, noting 1963 was a bad year for fires in Yarmouth, which also saw the circus ship fire and a City Drug fire.

A thank you ad that appeared in a newspaper following the 1963 fire in downtown Yarmouth.
A thank you ad that appeared in a newspaper following the 1963 fire in downtown Yarmouth.

FIREFIGHTERS INJURED

The Main Street/Brown Street ’63 fire is remembered for another reason as it saw a large number of firefighters injured. According to media accounts of the day, an explosion at the Margolian’s store blew out one of the large windows. The impact of the explosion also blew out the Simpson Sears plate glass window across the street. Injured firefighters were rushed to the hospital by ambulance and in private cars. Many had been stuck by the flying glass and were treated for burns and shock. Others had other minor injuries. According to a ‘Thank you’ ad they later took out in a newspaper expressing gratitude to all those who had treated and assisted them, the injured firefighters were Colin Atkins, Edgar Robicheau, Robert Cox, Bill LeBlanc, Bill Carter, John Murphy, Edgar LeBlanc, Wendell Smith and Paul Cleveland.

Other firefighters at the fire scene were also said to have suffered bruises and cuts, many of which went unreported. And bystanders were also said to have suffered cuts from flying glass.

Western Electrical Company dispatched a crew at the scene to disable and cut away power lines in the fire zone. Later on they replaced burnt power poles so that power could be restored. Phone crews of Maritime Tel and Tel were also kept busy restoring burnt wires and getting service back to normal, according to media reports.

This was also said to be the first multiple Mutual Aid call within the town since the system had been put in place years earlier. It brought firefighters and equipment from the Wedgeport, Hebron, Port Maitland, West Pubnico, Eel Brook and Carleton departments, the Yarmouth Herald reported in 1963.

CHANGES IN FIREFIGHTING

There were no pagers back in those days, so sirens and alarms wailed to alert firefighters of fires, as they would have for the November ’63 blaze.

Former Yarmouth Mayor Charles Crosby, also a veteran firefighter, wasn’t at this particular fire. But thinking back to how firefighting happened then compared to how it happens now Crosby says there is no comparison.

“There are bigger and better pumpers now, the hook and ladder. And the training. We didn’t get trained like they do today, we trained on the job. You went to a fire and you learned as you went, it was dangerous,” he says.

“We had to buy our own boots, our own gloves. We had old rubber coats that would freeze in the wintertime, you could hardly walk in them,” he says, noting those coats didn’t work so well when they got hot, either.

Back then there were various fire companies in the town, as opposed to one overall department like there is today. Crosby – who was Captain of St. George, pumper #1 South End – liked that set-up.

“You competed with each other. You wanted to see who could be the first truck in, who would lay the first line and got the water on the fire first,” he says. “We had 20 members in our company and we had another 20 members waiting to get in.”

A November 1963 fire in Yarmouth's downtown in the Brown Street/Main Street area destroyed and damaged a lot of businesses and buildings and reshape the streetscape. PHOTOS FROM FIREFIGHTERS' MUSEUM OF NOVA SCOTIA
A November 1963 fire in Yarmouth's downtown in the Brown Street/Main Street area destroyed and damaged a lot of businesses and buildings and reshape the streetscape. PHOTOS FROM FIREFIGHTERS' MUSEUM OF NOVA SCOTIA

FIGHTING THE BLAZE

During the 1963 blaze, water was pumped from the Yarmouth harbour to help battle the fire but the intensity of the inferno reportedly leveled an entire row of buildings on Brown Street (where the parking lot is today) within an hour. And while two lines of hose had been run up Brown Street from Water Street, the low tide and the lack of sufficient hoses prevented firefighters from taking full advantage of sea water as a firefighting tool, it was reported in the media.

Yarmouth Fire Chief Ron Poole was reported as saying that the fire had started in the wiring in a partition separating a barber shop and Margolian’s. Mayor Fred Emin, in an interview in 1963, said the district had been a “serious fire hazard.”

He said fireman and police “always kept check” on the buildings to ensure rubbish was removed and took “various precautions to ensure fire would not happen.”

The fact that there was little wind at the time of the fire prevented it from becoming far worse. According to a media report in the Yarmouth Herald newspaper, firefighters also worked desperately to use a gap between the MacKinlay and Star Realty owned buildings “as a place to halt the advance of the fire.” Fortunately it worked.

By early afternoon on the day of the blaze an ‘all-out’ was sounded, although water was pumped onto the smoldering ruins for at least another day.

Many months later – on March 30 – Margolian’s Ltd. held a giant fire sale, calling it “a complete sell-out of smoke and water damaged clothing and footwear.”

“Our loss is your gain,” read a newspaper advertisement, which also cautioned consumers: “All sales final. No exchanges. No refunds.”


READ OUR COLLECTION OF THEN AND NOW STORIES

• Tiny house, big view: New home, old soul in Cape Forchu, Yarmouth County CLICK HERE

• Random Digby County find leads to huge loss in leatherback sea turtle research CLICK HERE

• Sam Langford’s story ‘Chasing Champions’ coming to the Marc Lescarbot Theatre as his legacy lives on CLICK HERE

• Celebrating Yarmouth area’s sports history CLICK HERE

• Running shoes, equipment, have come a long way CLICK HERE

• ‘I wanted to keep it here for everyone to enjoy’ – New life for historic Robertson building in Barrington Passage CLICK HERE

• Historic Milton horse returns to Yarmouth for its perch back on 1893 fountain CLICK HERE

• How a 1963 fire reshaped a streetscape in downtown Yarmouth CLICK HERE

• Rural internet efforts continue as travel the information highway in southwestern Nova Scotia CLICK HERE

• ‘I love upholding the tradition’ – 1880 history lives on at Shelburne Dory Shop CLICK HERE

• What was it? Shared story of September daytime UFO sighting in Cape Sable Island has people talking CLICK HERE

• Electric City: ‘We may not have everything we started out with, but we still have the story’ CLICK HERE

• COLUMN: Laurent d’Entremont: Turning back the clock to my childhood days CLICK HERE

MORE TO COME….



OTHER CHANGES IN TIME: Memories: What do you miss?

As part of our Then and Now feature that appears in print in our Oct. 10 issue of the Tri-County Vanguard, on our Shelburne, Yarmouth and Digby Facebook pages we asked you what businesses and buildings in your community you miss that don't exist anymore. Over time in our communities some businesses were destroyed by fire. Some saw buildings demoloshed. And some just ceased to exist for economic or other reasons. 

Here’s some of the ones you picked out, and this is by no means a complete list. And excuse any spelling mistakes or business names that are a little off, we’re going by your memories, not ours.

• IN YARMOUTH COUNTY

Zellers, Creasers, The Colony Restaurant, Women’s Up To Date, Shirley’s Shop, Louis Shapiro, Jackson’s, Kmart, the Royal Store, the Odeon Theatre, O’Hanley’s, the Skillet Restaurant, Jackson’s, The Rainbow, Garth Hatfield store, Garsons, Meyers Electric, Yarmouth Credit Stores, Wagner's Restaurant, Kenney's Home Hardware, Lynch’s Men’s Wear, Margolian’s, Capital Theatre, the Clam Shell, Mr. Leonard’s, Bavarian Inn, Austrian Inn, Christmas Elves, RH Davis, the Metropolitan, Flintstone Car Hop, Kay’s Drive-in, The Snackerie, Pied Piper Music, Save Easy, Western Pizza and Steakhouse, Music Village, Captain Kelley’s Restaurant.

• IN SHELBURNE COUNTY

Danny Bowers Shoe Store, Eli Whiteways convenience store, Ritz, Loyalist Inn, Thompson’s Pharmacy, Dairy Treat, Woodworkers, Old Post Office, Cox’s, the Sea Shell Restaurant, The Pop Shoppe, Mr, Brown’s, Jack Sterns, Stedman’s, Huskilson’s Garage, Seawinds, Burger House, Maggie Owens, Reitman’s, Maurice Flemming’s Book Store, Garrison House Furniture Store, The Old Schoolhouse, River Lunch, Freeland Crowell’s store, the Ritz, Grovestine’s Grocery, Dixie Lee.

• IN DIGBY COUNTY

The drive-in, Margolian’s, Allied Furnishings, The Met, The Elite Shop, Campbell’s Grocery Store, Bill’s Fish Market, The Co-op, Edna’s Store, MacIntyre’s, Lavena’s Catch Café, Taxi Shack, AJ’s Gallery, Budd’s Grocery, The Jean Market, The Digby Dairy, Digby Pizza, D&D Grill, Mirage Music, Save Easy, Christina’s, Dairy Treat, the Red Raven Pub, the Wooden Keg, Buckler’s Furniture.

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