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Fire alarm box No. 25

Updated: May 27, 2022

Touchstones Nelson has an exhibit on until Feb. 20 called 20 Objects, which asked 20 people to each pick an item from the museum’s collection and explain its significance.

My contribution was a fire alarm call box, once a common sight in many communities. They were distributed throughout the city and in an emergency you opened the box and pulled a lever which rang an alarm at the fire hall. Each box had a different ring sequence, alerting firefighters to the location of the call.

(Courtesy Touchstones Nelson)

The reason I picked this item was because they were frequently mistaken for mailboxes, especially by people who could not read English. Crews would rush to the

scene only to discover a letter jammed in the box. This happened regularly and, for some reason, most often at alarm box 25, at the corner of Baker and Falls.

The first alarm system in Nelson was purchased in 1903, following a major industrial fire. The Nelson Daily News wrote on April 23 of that year:

Since the burning of the sash and door factory the subject has been discussed pretty thoroughly by the merchants of the city, and the general opinion seems to be that some steps should be taken at once in this direction. Ten alarm stations would be all that would be required, and might at any time save the city from a dangerous conflagration.

That fall, the Kootenay Electric Co. won a contract to install ten alarm boxes, which were numbered as follows:

24 — Baker and Ward

25 — Baker and Falls

26 — Stanley and Silica

32 — Latimer and Stanley

33 — Stanley and Innes

34 — Observatory and Josephine

35 — Mill and Hendryx

42 — Vernon and Hall

43 — Front and Hall

44 — Front and Park

Two bells followed by a pause and then four more bells meant box 24, sending fire crews to Baker and Ward.

The boxes were attached to lamp standards and, much later, to traffic light standards. The Daily News helpfully provided directions for their use: each box came with a key in its door. Turning the key to the right opened the box, and pulling down a hook inside sounded the alarm.

The paper added that while there was no box near the fire hall (then at the corner of Victoria and Josephine), it was possible to ring 21 to indicate a fire in that neighbourhood.

False alarms were subject to a $50 fine, of which “the informer gets half.”

The first instance I can find of an alarm box being mistaken for a mailbox was in May 1904, when an Italian man tried to mail a letter in box 25.

He opened the door, but finding no slot to insert his letter, pulled the hook, “hoping to open still another door which would disclose an aperture into which he could thrust his letter.”

Moments later, the fire brigade “came tearing along” and found the astonished man still holding his letter and trying to comprehend what was going on. The police talked to him but were satisfied it was just a misunderstanding.

Fire box No. 25 (later renumbered 26) is seen outside the Savoy Hotel at Baker and Falls streets, ca. 1930. For some reason, it was the most troublesome of all the fire boxes. (George Meeres photo/Courtesy Touchstones Nelson)

In June 1906, fire chief Thomas Deasy was testing box 25 when he discovered a letter inside addressed to a woman in Vancouver. It had probably been deposited two or three days earlier. He handed it over to the post office.

Three more such instances occurred in 1907, all at box 25, which had become a notorious “receptacle for numerous letters and postcards.”

Another Italian man trying to mail a letter was treated less kindly than his countryman: a magistrate fined him for causing a false alarm.

The details of the second incident are unknown, but in the third case, someone tried

to mail several letters to Raccoon Ford, West Virginia. Chief Deasy found them and forwarded each with an appended postcard reading: “Found in a fire alarm box at Nelson, BC.”

In 1908-09, the number of fire boxes was doubled to 20. There was one available on every corner of Baker Street from Josephine to Falls. A renumbering was proposed as follows:

9 — Mill and Hendryx

14 — Silica and Hendryx

15 — Hall and Carbonate

21 — Baker and Josephine

23 — Baker and Ward

24 — Baker and Stanley

25 — Baker and Kootenay

26 — Baker and Falls

28 — Falls and Silica

31 — Ward and Carbonate

32 — Stanley and Silica

33 — Stanley and Latimer

34 — Stanley and Robson

35 — Stanley and Innes

37 — Hall Mines Road and Kootenay

41 — Cedar and Vernon

42 — Hall and Vernon

43 — Front and Hall

44 — Front and Park

49 — Victoria and Cedar

Under this plan the troublesome box 25 was to become box 26. Yet it seems like this numbering scheme was not wholly or immediately adopted, for in October 1909, when a chimney fire was reported at the Sherbrooke Hotel, the alarm was “turned in from box 25, at the corner of Baker and Falls,” i.e. the same place as before.

With the completion of a new fire hall in 1913 came the installation of a new Gamewell electric fire alarm system. It appeared to retain the same locations and numberings of the earlier fire boxes, but enjoyed some key advantages.

When a call came in, the system automatically threw open the gates of the fire hall and released the horses to be hitched. It also switched the lights on if the call was at night, and it boasted a better battery system.

It was possible to telephone the fire hall with the location of a fire, but this was discouraged. In 1918, chief Donald Guthrie explained that pulling the alarm box was much more efficient, as it immediately rang the gong in the fire hall and the bell on the tower, whereas none of that happened on the phone.

Fire box No. 24 (later No. 23) is seen at the corner of Baker and Ward, ca. 1920s. (Greg Nesteroff collection)

Given the frequency of accidental false alarms due to the alarm boxes being mistaken for maiboxes, you would think that some solution would have been found. They could have written “fire” in several languages on each box, for example. But no action, it appears, was ever taken.

In July 1908, a false alarm came from box 43 when a Chinese man mailed a letter. In August 1918, the same thing happened when another man who spoke no English mailed a letter in box 42. And in September 1933, it happened again at the corner of Ward and Baker. I am sure many other incidents have been lost to time.

Nelson was hardly the only place this was a problem. I found 15 other newspaper reports of fire boxes being mistaken for mailboxes around North America between 1900 and 1956. Sometimes the alarm sounded, while other times the letter was only discovered long after the fact.

Most cases resulted in embarrassment, sheepish apologies, and a few lines of amusing copy, but at least one person was arrested for their mistake.

In Tulsa in 1917, a woman had no luck mailing a letter in one alarm box so tried a second one, equally unsuccessfully, but set off both alarms. In Vancouver in 1937, a man was found trying to shove a large bundle of Christmas mail into an alarm box. Similar things happened in Ottawa in 1939 and 1941 and in Billings, Montana in 1925, and so on and so forth.

In 1917, a resolution passed at the Dominion Fire Chiefs convention (and reported upon in the Nelson Daily News) called for mail boxes to be painted a different colour than fire boxes. This was already the case in the US, where mail boxes were blue and fire boxes red.

Fire box No. 23 (now on the opposite side of the street) is seen at Ward and Baker, 1929. (Nick Ahlmark collection/Courtesy Touchstones Nelson)

This was the line-up of 21 alarm boxes as reported in the Nelson Daily News of Aug. 4, 1915:

21 — Baker and Josephine

23 — Baker and Ward

24 — Baker and Stanley

25 — Baker and Kootenay

27 — Baker and Falls

28 — CPR Flats

29 — Josephine and Silica

31 — New fire hall (i.e. Ward and Latimer)

32 — Hall Mines Road and Observatory

33 — Stanley and Innes

34 — Ward and Observatory

35 — Hendryx and Latimer

36 — Hendryx and Hoover

37 — Silica and Park

38 — Carbonate and Hendryx

39 — Victoria and Ward

41 — Vernon and Park

42 — Vernon and Hall

44 — Water and Park

45 — Front and Poplar

53 — Hume Hotel

Another box, numbered 39, was installed at Victoria and Hendryx in 1918. I don’t know what the old No. 39 (Victoria and Ward) then became. A later, undated list shows 36 locations, including several in Fairview and one in Rosemont:

(Greg Nesteroff collection)

Even when the alarm boxes were not being mistaken for mail boxes, they were vulnerable to pranksters, a major headache and waste of time for the Nelson fire department.

On Halloween 1935, they tried to ward this off by stationing members at all of the boxes. When a bell tolled at 9 p.m. at the Cathedral of Mary Immaculate, many of them mistook it for an alarm.

In later years, an ingenious tactic was adopted to prevent false alarms of the malicious kind: indelible dye was placed on the boxes. Local teachers were warned that any students with green fingers had likely been up to no good. The punishment was spending a Saturday polishing fire trucks.

In 1973, fire chief Elwyn Owens reported 34 alarm boxes then covered 55 per cent of city. “The central control system is obsolete yet operative and the alarm boxes are strategically placed,” he said. “They are operating efficiently and all boxes may be considered reliable.” 

The fire box at Ward and Baker is seen not long before its removal, ca. 1980. (Courtesy Touchstones Nelson)

The alarm box system was finally retired in Nelson in 1980 even though it still worked well. I’m not exactly sure what spelled its demise. I don’t know how commonplace they were elsewhere at that point, but I did find a report of alarm boxes being abandoned in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin in 1980 because they were made redundant by a new 911 system. (West Kootenay did not have 911 service until the early 2000s.)

Amazingly, alarm boxes are still part of the emergency infrastructure in places like San Francisco and Boston — where they were invented in the early 1850s.

With thanks to J.P. Stienne. Updated May 26, 2022 to add the quote from Elywn Owens.

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At the risk of changing the subject slightly, I note in the '29 picture of Ward & Baker a signpost that includes Cranbrook and CPR Ferry. But it also has an arrow to "Kuskdrook," with which I'm not familiar, and Google search coughs up nothing. Any idea what/where that was that was worthy of an indicator?

Nathan Wilkinson
Nathan Wilkinson
Dec 16, 2021
Replying to

Try Kuskonook (AKA Kuskanook)--a sternwheeler that served the lake till 1931:


Ron Verzuh
Ron Verzuh
Dec 13, 2021

Fire prevention was also a major concern in Trail in those years. In the early 1920s, Elmer D. Hall, the last editor of the weekly Trail News, campaigned vigorously for an electric fire siren and a fire truck for the smelter city. City council acted on his advice, but not always to his satisfaction. I'm not sure whether council ever opted for fire boxes. Thanks for the post. RV


George Manson
George Manson
Dec 12, 2021

Very interesting. One would think the repaint of Mail boxes would have been proposed right away.

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