From the early 1900s the rapid and overwhelming influx of pioneer families into the Ponoka district resulted in an exciting population explosion that began with a tiny village of 206 citizens in 1901 and boomed into a thriving town of more than 1,000 by 1904. Over the decades that followed there would be countless successes and milestones for growing families, farms, and businesses throughout our town and county and there would also be many sudden set-backs, hardships and challenges along the way.
There is no doubt the onslaught of the impact on both our rural and urban areas and along with unpredictable climate changes, unexpected disasters also came in the form of severe fires and floods.
In the early settlement the massive sawmills in the district made it easy to purchase the thousands of board feet of fashioned lumber used to build homes, schools, churches, businesses, barns, and all-purpose structures of all sizes and shapes. Most of these buildings were heated during the frigid winters by roaring wooden stoves and countless fires would result from sparks or hot chimneys. Out on the surrounding lush farmland, fields and forests, it might have been the heat, drought, a hot box on the train, or lightning that often presented ideal conditions to create ravaging prairie fires, which blackened everything in sight for many miles in all directions and were almost impossible to stop.
Another ever-present seasonal danger, which usually struck with little warning, was the flooding of our lazy old Battle River, usually spawned by heavy rains and run-off or ice jams. The most damaging floods occurred in 1912, 1948, and 1990, affecting families and livestock in both the Ponoka and the county, washing out bridges, roads, and railway tracks, flooding businesses and homes, and making travel possible only by trusty horse and wagon or boats.
One of Ponoka’s first and finest stores was the now historic Algar’s Dry Goods building. It was constructed on the corner of 50th Street and 51st Avenue in 1902 and destroyed by fire in both 1914 and 1944, then replaced by a brick and steel structure that stands proudly to this day.
The community’s first fire department consisted of several horse drawn pumper and hose wagons, manned by volunteers who worked in the area, and rushed to sight after the alarm was called into the local telephone office. There were no hydrants in those days and water was drawn from the Canadian Pacific Railway water tower near the main station. Response to these emergencies also came quickly from everyone who was nearby, while others rushed in by horse and buggy with shovels and other tools to help their neighbours to put out the fire, quite often by forming a bucket brigade.
Early one Sunday morning in March of 1905, the town school bell awakened everyone to the shock of the most destructive fire in Ponoka’s long and colorful history. It had started in Fairley’s Store on 50th Street and despite the efforts of many citizens the lack of the proper firefighting equipment in those days made it impossible to cope with the massive blaze. Everything in the block was destroyed, including Fairley’s Store, Spackman’s Hardware, a livery stable, a bowling alley and restaurant, a lawyer’s office and the headquarters of the Canadian Bank of Commerce.
Miraculously the only building saved by the bucket brigade was the Royal Hotel on the corner. If you take a little time to browse through our history you will discover this palatial building has somehow managed to survive several fires over its colorful 113-year history of offering thousands of patrons from near and far a good night’s sleep, a fine meal and a jolly good time. Growth continued at a fever pitch and a 1940’s milestone included a fully modern three-storey Town Hall that would be the new home of the police, the judge, the jail, the dog catcher, town council and administration, a social room, and the humble beginnings of our first volunteer fire department, complete with a noisy 24-7 siren and new motorized equipment. The huge Provincial Mental Hospital also formed its own fire department and on many occasions, especially grain elevator fires, these crews would work together to fight the flames and assist those in need of assistance.
There have been many serious fires over the years, including the IGA building (old arena), Great West Feeds, and the dorms at the PMH farm, to mention only a few. The Ponoka Volunteer Fire Department is now serving the Ponoka and the county with 25 members and 12 pieces of fully modern firefighting and safety equipment, working closely year-round, day and night with all other emergency services personnel.
We can all do a little to help our first class emergency teams through good safety and prevention practises, including cleaning fireplaces and chimneys, safe storage and disposal of volatile materials, making sure that your smoke detectors are working, and taking part in annual programs. If you have any questions or concerns, please give them a call at 403-783-0112.