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The 1915 Russell Fire

In keeping with the theme of this year’s fair we will take a look back at a pivotal event in Russell history; the 1915 fire. Russell’s version of “The Great Fire” began on June 6th 1915. Around 9 am on a quiet Sunday morning a fire broke out in Murray’s tinsmith’s shop, the fire immediately began to spread rapidly. The residents of Russell formed a bucket brigade to try and keep the fire under control, unfortunately this was not possible. Considering the construction of old wood framed buildings they really were fighting a losing battle. About an hour after the fire started, the residents knew the fire had grown to a point where they were risking losing the entire village unless more help arrived, so a call for assistance was put out to Metcalfe and Ottawa. The Ottawa Fire Department along with the New York Central Railway responded in what was then remarkable speed, they loaded a Silsby steam pumper, other firefighting equipment and a firefighting crew onto a rail car and rushed to Russell at what is long believed to be the fastest rail trip ever made between Ottawa and Russell. Within two hours of the call for help being made, the steamer was on scene beside the Castor river pumping water. The fire eventually destroyed twenty five buildings, but without the speedy response and the Silsby steamer the entire village would have surely been lost. It is often told that the railway engineer who made the breakneck trip to Russell was reprimanded by his superiors for taking such risks on the trip. The irony of this story is that the Village Trustees passed a motion only a month before the fire happened to purchase two chemical fire engines because they were concerned about the lack of fire protection.


At this year’s fair, residents of Russell will have a wonderful opportunity to see an important part of our past. The actual Silsby steamer that fought the 1915 fire will be at the fair grounds and will be presented by the Bytown Fire Brigade. After the great fire, the Silsby steamer stayed in Russell and believe it or not remained in service until 1955.  After the steamer was removed from active service it was sold and used as a display in front of numerous restaurants throughout Ottawa for thirty years until the Bytown Brigade purchased it in 1985. The steamer has since been restored to the condition it was when it first rolled off the factory floor in 1885. During this year’s fair make sure to take the time to see this piece of history and appreciate the great leaps and bounds we have taken as a society to protect ourselves from fire.


The Russell Fire Department and its members would like to congratulate and thank the current and past organizers of the Russell Fair on the 150th anniversary of our annual celebration.

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