Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

November 2, 2013

NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: The Great Fire of 1854

The Great Fire of 1854 left Lockport canalside in ashes

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Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Today marks the 159th anniversary of the Great Lockport Fire of 1854.

On a windy Thursday evening at about 8 p.m., in the Lockport Hotel (now the site of City Hall) on Canal Street, a lighted lamp was knocked over and started a fire in that building. The strong southwest wind carried the flames along the street, taking one structure after another. 

When the fire reached the corner of Canal and Niagara streets, a large three-story brick building was at that intersection. The building was no match for the fire and the flames spread down Niagara toward Transit Street. Before reaching that intersection, the fire turned northward and headed for the Congregational Church across Niagara Street.

The wooden church soon met the fate of the other buildings and the fire continued its relentless march. Next came the Methodist Church (present site of Zimmie’s) and several buildings on the east side of Church Street including Fire Engine House No. 3 and those structures behind them on Canal Street.

The next building in the fire’s path was the stone Universalist Church (now the Erie Canal Discovery Center). By this time, the exhausted firemen and volunteer citizens of Lockport had stopped the fire from making any further progress. The Universalist and Presbyterian Churches sustained damage but were not destroyed.

The wind that night played a major role in allowing the fire to spread so quickly, but primitive firefighting techniques and equipment also hampered the efforts to bring the blaze under control sooner. 

By village law, every home and business was required to have one bucket of water near every fireplace. By 1854, several fire companies had already been established throughout the village that had extra buckets for residents to use against the fire. There were also “pumpers” available to fight larger fires. However, these pumpers had low hold capacities and ran out of water quickly. Refilling the tank required a nearby water source, such as a well or even the canal. A suction hose would draw the water into the pumper and six men would be needed to pump the water on to the fire. This activity would have to be repeated over and over again until the fire was under control.

That evening, when it became evident that the fire was going to be widespread, a telegram was sent to Buffalo requesting immediate assistance. Three companies of Buffalo firemen, and several who were visiting from Erie, Pa., arrived by train with much needed manpower and equipment. After several more hours the fire was finally out. 

When dawn came the next morning it revealed a quarter-mile stretch along Canal Street had been destroyed. Despite all the destruction, no one was killed in the fire, but property losses amounted to $200,000 (about $5.5 million today).

The fire of 1854 created an opportunity for Lockport to rebuild its canalside area. Three new churches were built to replace those damaged or destroyed by the fire. New stone and brick buildings that would stand for more than a century were erected in place of the former wooden structures. 

But probably the most important event to come out of the fire was that inventor Birdsill Holly came to Lockport and in 1859 invented the fire hydrant. Lockport would have other fires over the years, but thanks to Holly’s invention, none as devastating as The Great Fire of 1854.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.