The Lacombe community – evolution by fire

From a log cabin in 1889 to town status in 1902.

HOWARD FREDEEN

From a log cabin in 1889 to town status in 1902.

Such was the growth of the community of Lacombe during its first decade. In the decade that followed, fire would shape and reshape the downtown core. Frame construction, grass growing tall along streets and alleys, plank sidewalks, ashes from kitchen stoves deposited near the back alley, careless smokers in the backyard privy, shortage of water; all combined to make fire a constant threat. Volunteers manned the Burris fire engine, with the water carried in pails from nearby residents, from the tanks of rainwater collected by Cummings from the roof of his skating rink, or hand- pumped from local wells.

A latecomer to these wells was drilled in 1917 – through the sidewalk at the northwest corner of the Merchants Bank (Flatiron Building).

Long before this, however, a public well had been drilled adjacent to the Town office. Water storage tanks were located in the downtown and water was available from the CPR water tower erected circa 1905 near the present day intersection of the CPR tracks with Hwy. 12.

A ‘fire brigade’ bylaw was enacted by the Town council in 1907 but hand pumping of water continued until 1924 when the town negotiated with the CPR to locate three hydrants along the new water line from Barnett Lake.

The Town experienced its first major fire in September 1906. Save for a single building, the entire business block from Nanton St. east along the south side of Barnett was destroyed. The triangular shape of this block earned for the site the title by which it is known today, the ‘Flatiron Block’.

The survivor of this conflagration was the Merchants Bank, the brick structure completed in 1904.

Town fathers enacted ordinances requiring that all new construction in the downtown core be of brick and that frame buildings there be sheathed in brick.

This decree was a boon to the local brickyards, and it appeared to have the desired effect as three years passed before the next major fire. Then in 1909 there were two fires only one month apart. Both were on Barnett Ave. west of Nanton St.

On Aug. 7, 1909, the Royal Hotel, three adjoining businesses and three residences were lost to fire and on Sept. 12 the Russell Block and adjoining buildings were destroyed.

These 1909 fires did not test the efficacy of brick construction for the conversion to brick had not reached this area of the Town. Realization that bricks were not the solution to fire control was brought home by the fire that destroyed the Victoria Hotel on Jan. 1, 1911. This was after the hotel had been remodeled, expanded and sheathed in brick but by dawn of New Year’s Day it lay in ashes along with the Puffer-Chung block to the north.

Two more major fires would occur before 1911 was history. One was the Lacombe Produce building which stood at the intersection of Glass St. and Barnett, just east across the street from the Day Block. This was a case of arson for the bookkeeper was convicted of embezzlement of company funds.

The other fire was Cummings rink. This multipurpose rink was constructed in 1901 by Tom Cummings, owner/operator of the logging operation and sawmill located on the southeast shore of Gull Lake. The site chosen was the northeast corner of the block now occupied by the Lacombe Memorial Centre.

He tore it down in 1903 to replace it with a larger building. That building was destroyed by fire in the fall of 1911 and the Town built the next arena in 1912. This unit served all ice sports for 36 years. The roof collapsed in 1948 shortly after a junior hockey match had concluded before a capacity crowd. Outdoor rinks were used for the next three years for skating and hockey. Then came construction of the Memorial Recreation Centre with attached arena to accommodate 1,500 people. The arena was completed and in operation in 1951 one year before the Memorial Centre itself. The latter, although not quite complete, opened early in 1952.

Then on Nov. 23, 1953 came the final fire that would reshape the town, a conflagration that destroyed the newly opened Lacombe Memorial Centre and its attached arena. The main facility was rebuilt in situ but the replacement arena was erected several blocks distant on the site occupied today by the Lacombe Ice Centre. It opened in 1955. Although it too was lost to fire (June 18, 1968) it was replaced on the same location and the town’s footprint remained unchanged.