‘Cause we’re neighbours, right?
All that separates Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario is a one-mile wide river. Today, it’s spanned by the Ambassador Bridge and connected below the river by two tunnels: one for trains and one for vehicles. Back in 1849, tiny ferry boats were relied upon to bring passengers, horses, and freight across the river. As the border cities grew, Detroit sent firefighters and equipment across the river whenever Windsor was threatened by their common foe — fire.
After one particular fire in Windsor in 1849, the townspeople were so grateful, they presented the Detroit Fire Department with a decorated speaking trumpet. In those days, trumpets were used by fire chiefs to direct vocal commands to firefighters so they could be heard above roaring fires and the loud noises made by firefighting equipment. Normally these were brass, but the trumpet presented to Detroit’s fire chief was made of fine, engraved silver.
The following are excerpts from an article on the Windsor Fire & Rescue Services website describing some history of our two cities helping each other fight fires and how much that service is appreciated:
“On a sunny April morning in 1969, there was a unique historical ceremony at the international boundary line in the middle of the Ambassador Bridge — the arching ribbon of steel and concrete that spans the Detroit River, connecting the border cities. It was 120 years ago that very day that most of Windsor’s business district lay in ashes. The bustling village had barely survived the most disastrous fire in its history. Had it not been for the bravery of the firemen of neighboring Detroit, all of Windsor would likely have burned to the ground.
Shortly after 1:00 a.m. on the bitterly cold night of April 16, 1849, the bell in the tower of the old Presbyterian church in downtown Windsor pealed out its dreaded alarm of fire. The huge brick Dougall warehouse on Riverside Dr. E. at Ferry St., where the Cleary Auditorium (now the St. Clair College Centre For The Arts and Chrysler Theatre) now stands, was a seething mass of flames. Whipped by a strong northwest wind, the flames leaped across Ferry St. and enveloped building after building. The entire Detroit volunteer fire brigade rushed to the waterfront in awe.
It was a stroke of fate that only the previous year Detroit Fire Chief William Duncan had made an arrangement with several ferryboat operators that, in the event of a “large and disastrous fire in Windsor, a ferry would be sent and an engine company or two sent over to assist our Canadian neighbors”. Fortunately for Windsor, Chief Duncan kept his word that night. Detroit’s Engine 5, a hand pumper, two hose carts and the men of Engine Companies 4 and 5 were loaded aboard the ferry Hastings and after what was recorded as an “extremely rough voyage” arrived at the Windsor village wharf. Within five minutes the Detroit firemen had hose streams playing on the fire.
The blaze was still gaining headway however and was burning toward the large, frame Windsor Castle Hotel on Ouellette Ave. For two hours the Detroit firemen took up a hazardous position between the main fire and the hotel. Their helmets “burned to cinders and their hair and beards singed”, the Detroit volunteers saved the hotel and halted the advance of the flames. They returned to Detroit late the following morning. Windsor’s grateful citizens and firemen presented the elegant ceremonial speaking trumpet to the Detroit firemen on July 2, 1849.
Detroit firefighters and apparatus have crossed the river to fight fires in Windsor many times since that memorable night 166 years ago. No one ever really expected the much-smaller City of Windsor to ever return the favor, but that is precisely what happened in July of 1967 – less than two years before the bridge ceremony — when the Windsor Fire Department immediately responded to pleas from the beleaguered Detroit Fire Department for assistance during the city’s infamous riots.”
And most likely, if there were fires of that scale ever again on either side of the border, the respective fire departments would not hesitate to offer assistance.
Because that’s what neighbours do.
(It must be noted that the 1849 blaze was fought by volunteer Detroit and Windsor firefighters. It wasn’t until years later that firefighters were actually paid.)