SoHo Fire Lights Up Downtown London

At 2 a.m. on May 25, 1905, one of London’s most spectacular fires lit up the skies of downtown London. That fire was at Dyment-Baker Lumber, on the northeast corner of Bathurst and Wellington Streets. Before the fire was contained, some 10 hours later, it also damaged much of the London Machine Tool Company; lumber at the nearby Tambling and Jones yard, and six Michigan Central Railroad freight cars. Three of those cars were filled with agricultural implements valued at several thousand dollars. Sadly, sparks from the fire also destroyed a frame house at 318 York Street. Neighbors did manage to rescue the contents before the home was completely gutted by the fire.

George Heard and his family, who lived next door to Dyment-Baker Lumber mills (there were many private residences along Bathurst Street) saw a young boy set off an Empire Day rocket at about 9 p.m. on the night of the fire. The rocket fell at the rear of the box factory. Family members failed in their efforts to locate the missile.

Thomas Baker, co-owner of the huge lumber business, would later tell the London Advertiser: “The rocket caused the fire. There had been no fire in the mill since Tuesday night. And all the boilers had been cleaned out.”

At 2 a.m. in the morning, two young men returning home from work, spotted smoke and sent in the alarm. Flames were already shooting up from the two-storey frame structure south of the mill, which was used as a box factory and dry kiln. The fire brigade responded in record time (remember, they used teams of horses in this period). The flames were so intense that some firemen’s hands were blistered as they held nozzles toward the flames. By the fire’s end, 12 firemen had been injured, mainly the result of the heat and smoke inhalation. Every available foot of hose was put into use, hooked up to every fire hydrant located in that part of SoHo. The fire, which jumped from the lumber mill to the machine shop, was so intense that it lit up the area for half a mile around the intersection. Flames shot 50 to 60 feet in the air. The Heards were understandably in a panic. Friends and neighbors quickly removed all the contents from the Heards house. Firemen later concluded that it was the slate roof on the house that saved it from catching fire.

Sparks also landed on the roof of the nearby Grand Trunk Railroad freight shed. A 15-year-old boy climbed up on the roof, and ran from place to place stomping out the small fires until the firemen could thoroughly soak the shingles.

Because of the danger of flying embers, residents in the immediate area along Wellington and Horton Streets removed furniture from their homes, and sat huddled beside their belongings until the fire was brought under control at about 7 a.m. the next morning.

Hundreds of spectators lined the streets in the area, watching one of downtown London’s most memorable fires.Those spectators likely included the 50 employees who worked at Dyment-Baker Lumber and the 12 men employed at the machine shop. Some of the employees worked side-by-side with firemen, as they watched their livelihoods threatened. The firemen worked without refreshment or breaks of any kind from shortly after 2 a.m. until they were finally able to leave the scene at noon of the next day.

Losses in the fire totaled about $50,000 for the Dyment-Baker Lumber Company; $15,000 for the London Machine Works, owned by William Yeates, and $3,000 for the smaller Tambling and Jones firm. The lumber lost by this smaller company was very valuable, some of it seasoned for years to be used in the firm’s building projects. Michigan Central Railroad claimed its losses of the six freight cars – and damage to about two hundred feet of roadbed – at $6,500. The loss of privately-owned employees’ tools in the fire was placed at $500.

Despite his personal loss, William Yeates told a London Free Press reporter, “The firemen did noble work. They had a tremendous fight and carried themselves well.”

Although co-owner Thomas Baker initially indicated that Dyment-Baker might not rebuild in London, that threat didn’t materialize. Instead, on June 5, 1905, it was announced that Dyment-Baker would purchase the London Machine Tool Company site, and actually expand its business.

Happily, neither neighborhood residents nor exhausted firemen knew that SoHo would experience two other serious industrial fires along Bathurst Street within months. On August 25, 1905, the London Box Manufacturing plant on Bathurst east of Clarence was reduced to ruins; on October 16, 1905, there was another serious blaze at the Canada Brass Company at Richmond and Bathurst Streets.

(research from SoHo Industries Project)