Historicist: Burning Down the Jailhouse
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Historicist: Burning Down the Jailhouse

Every Saturday morning Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

The Don Jail at Toronto, 1860s. Wikimedia Commons

It was 2 a.m., Sunday, January 19, 1862. Cooney, the caretaker for the soon-to-be completed new city jail overlooking the east side of the Don River, was awakened by the reflection of light on the window of his cottage near the building site. Rushing over to the jail, he noticed that the lock on the main entrance had been violently removed. Pushing the door open, he attempted to run up the stairs but was stopped by a cloud of dense smoke. He rushed away from the building and, in the midst of heavy snowfall, ran towards the city, yelling, “Fire at the new jail!” as he made his way to the fire station on Berkeley Street.

Bad luck plagued the construction of the Don Jail from the time it was commissioned in 1857, as if, in the words of the Leader, “a strange fatality” had attached itself to the building. It was intended to replace a prison that had operated at the southeast corner of Front and Berkeley since the late 1830s, which had quickly become run down and overcrowded—the facility was designed by John Howard to hold 40 inmates, but held 180 by 1857. The design contract was given to William Thomas, whose other notable buildings around the province include St. Lawrence Hall and Guelph City Hall. The original contractors, said to be favoured by Mayor William Henry Boulton, proved inept and tried to cover their behinds by having Thomas replaced with a friendlier engineering firm, a move that failed. With Thomas retained and a new set of contractors, the cornerstone was laid on October 29, 1859. Further design changes and delays ensued over the next three years, including cost overruns, the elimination of two of the four proposed wings and Thomas’s death in 1860. By January 1862, all that remained to be done was minor touch-up work, mostly plastering in the staff offices and quarters. Officials were confident that the first prisoners would arrive within two months.
Accounts of the fire-fighting effort once Cooney alerted the fire officials sound like a comedy of errors. The chief fire engineer initially turned back a steam engine dispatched to the jail around 3 a.m. when he was unable to observe any flames rising from the site. An hour later, the engine went back out, only to have a slow trudge eastward due to the snowstorm. Attempts to cross a bridge across the Don River were stymied when the engine lodged itself in the snow, which required a team of horses to tow it out. Once it reached the jail along with smaller hand-pump engines, firefighters discovered they did not have enough hose to reach the jail from the pumping site along the river. By the time intense hosing of the fire began at 7 a.m., the centre block was considered a lost cause and all efforts were focused on preserving the outer wings. A backup steam engine had to be brought in when the first one broke down after a few hours.
By the time the fire was extinguished at 1 p.m. the roof and upper stories of the centre block, including the chapel, were destroyed. The concrete and stone construction of the wings prevented heavy structural damage in those areas. Damage was estimated at thirty thousand dollars. The Leader praised the efforts of the firefighters, though it was noted “that some of them got intoxicated during the afternoon and behaved in a rather unruly manner.”
Theories on the cause of the blaze ranged from arson to careless workmen who had not fully extinguished fires lit to keep themselves warm during the working day. One bone of contention was Cooney’s assertion that the chapel floor was strewn with wood shavings, which prompted a letter in the Leader two days after the fire:

SIR – In your report this morning of the fire at the New Jail, you state that “the flames had apparently commenced in the chapel on the second story, and were fed by the large quantity of shavings the workmen had strewn about the room.” Permit us, through the medium of your journal, to inform the public that we were the last persons to leave the chapel on Saturday evening, and there were not any shavings on the floor at that time, because all the shavings had been burned about four o’clock the person appointed for that purpose by Mr. Walsh, the contractor.
Patrick Egan, John Reilly, Thomas Sayer

Construction resumed after the fire and the Don Jail housed its first prisoners two years later.
Sources: the January 20, 1862 edition of the Globe, the January 20, 1862 and January 21, 1862 editions of the Leader, and Toronto Observed by William Dendy and William Kilbourn (Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1986).