1849: Detroit Helps Windsor Fight Fire

‘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.

aerial detroit windsor 1955 postcard

Postcard of  hand-tinted photo of aerial photo of Windsor showing Detroit across the river – 1955

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.


silver fire trumpet returned to windsor 1969

Detroit Fire Chief Quinton returned a silver speaking trumpet to Windsor Fire Chief Coxon in middle of the Ambassador Bridge symbolizing the link between the Canadian & U.S. cities: 1969

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.

detroit fire teams mid 1800s

undated photo of Detroit fire teams, Detroit News Blog

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.


Windsor Castle Hotel saved by Detroit firefighters

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.


Windsor Fire Department, chief holding silver speaking trumpet

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.”

first black firefighter in windsor, Eugene Steele (left) helping fight 1967 detroit riot fires

Windsor firefighter Eugene Steele, (left) helped battle fires during the Detroit uprising of 1967 – Windsor Star photo

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.) 


About Elaine Weeks

How history was taught in my day: memorize lots of boring dates and facts, watch corny old black & white history films. There was one bright spot, however. Grade 9 history at Walkerville Collegiate with Miss Falls (Georgina) when she taught a section on local history and took us on a field trip to explore some of Windsor's built heritage. Due to a series of peculiar events, celebrating local history became part of my business. My company, Walkerville Publishing Inc., (partner is Chris Edwards) launched "The Walkerville Times" in 1999 and we produced 61 issues - the last in 2016. In 2004, we began producing local history books; that year we released "Best of The Times Magazine". Our current titles include 5000 Ways You Know You're From Detroit, 500 Ways You Know You're From Windsor, Walkerville - Whisky Town Extraordinaire, and Windsor Then - A Pictorial Essay of Windsor's Glorious Past. I also wrote a novel, Time Trespasser, that blends time travel with local history. I am working on a sequel. I am a writer, editor, blogger, photographer, mother, wife, sister, activist, traveller, gardener, knitter, glass is nearly full person.
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