Fire insurance plans are detailed maps of buildings, businesses and neighbourhoods produced in Canada between 1875-1975. They are invaluable to the study of urban history and in the case of Lennox and Addington County, to the history of our towns and villages.
In the late 1800s, a shift was underway from agriculture to industry which meant urban expansion and development.
Heavily populated regions were left susceptible to fires spreading quickly in denser cores. In response, companies like the Charles E. Goad Company of Canada started creating detailed maps for all major cities across the country that showed building sizes and construction materials, architectural features, street widths, location of fire hydrants and alarm boxes, and even the potential presence of hazardous materials.
Knowledge of the built history of entire neighbourhoods was powerful information for companies like those that provided fire insurance. Fire insurance companies began using these maps to provide estimates to their clients based on specific details of their houses and surrounding property without the costly trip of a site visit. It was now possible to gauge the risk of fire in a particular neighbourhood with the right tool or plan in hand. Structures were often labelled with current use or business and were colour coded depending on the building material used.
Several villages in Lennox and Addington County have witnessed the type of devastating fires that spread easily in denser cores. One such disaster in Colebrook took place in May of 1877 where twenty buildings were completely destroyed by fire ignited by two young boys smoking in a shed. Among the lost buildings were two hotels, the post office building, a shingle and saw mill plus several other businesses and dwellings.
In his recollections of “The Big Fire” that tore through Vennachar in April 1903, Lorne C. Ball described what he saw: “In a very short time, it [fire] had swept across about four miles of the settled part of the community, leaving behind a path of black, smoking ruins.” (1) This fire burned the newer schoolhouse, the small store and post office, and George W. Sweetnam’s warehouse, a wholesale-retail business for stockpiled items such as flour, grain, salt pork and supplies including chains, axes, and saws, plus his personal dwelling.(2) The Vennachar house, a local hotel, and a wood frame building, burnt to the ground in this fire.
With improved fire fighting techniques, safer construction materials and building processes, companies stopped producing fire insurance maps in the 1970s. The original purpose for these plans are long gone but the present research value is immense. Fire insurance plans detail a city, town or village’s built history and have inadvertandly become very useful as business directories.
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