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The final fate of Nelson’s first fire chief

Updated: Mar 8, 2019

Nelson’s first fire chief following the city’s incorporation in 1897 was also the youngest chief ever — and the shortest serving. But for a long time, I didn’t know what happened to him.

Nelson firefighters in front of the fire hall at the corner of Victoria and Josephine streets, sometime prior to 1913. Samuel Calkin worked out of this building.

Touchstones Nelson 59-09-017

Samuel Frank Calkin (or Calkins — the S appears as often as not) was born in February 1871 or 1872 in Hillsborough, New Brunswick, the fifth child of Samuel J. Calkin (1831-1909) and Mary Gross (1827-1906).

I don’t know when he came west or why, but in the spring of 1892, he became a hoseman of the Vancouver fire department at a salary of $45 per month. By the fall, he was a driver and received a $10 raise. A year later he was up to $60, but in 1894 he appears to have left the country for parts unknown.

The first sign of him in Nelson is in The Tribune of July 17, 1897, when he and James Smart applied for a liquor license for an unnamed saloon on Vernon Street. However, the license commissioners deemed the application “not in accord with the provisions of the statute in that the signatures of the wives of the owners of the property had not been secured.” So a decision was delayed one week, but ultimately it was granted.

A little over a month later, they transferred their license to E.C. Cordingley. Calkin then applied to city council to be chief of the fire brigade. The city hadn’t actually advertised the position yet, but upon receiving his offer, decided to put out a formal call.

Nelson Miner Nov. 6, 1897

Five other applications came in: A.M. Seaton, who was anxious to have the job. He said “he had experience in China, and having been a sailor, he could climb.” John W. Cowan had been a firefighter in St. Paul, Minn., while James Kirkup had fought fires in New York, and E.B. Irving served in Victoria and came strongly recommended.

Ald. J.J. Malone thought there was no hurry to fill the post, since the new water system had not been established, but mayor John Houston figured the chief could fill his time inspecting buildings. Two votes were held, which each resulted in one vote apiece for Irving and Seaton and two for Calkin. The matter was adjourned until the next meeting on Oct. 27 and in the meantime another application was received from D.A. McBeath (or McBeth).

In the third vote, Calkin received three votes and McBeth and Irving one each. Calkin was declared elected to the offices of fire chief, fire inspector, and patrolman. He was only 25 or 26, by far the youngest chief the department has ever had. His salary was $80 per month.

In an interview with the Miner, he called for 15 to 20 men to join his department. On duty volunteers would be provided accommodation in the fire hall, at the corner of Josephine and Victoria streets. However, the department had no horses to draw the hose reel, nor a chemical fire extinguisher, nor any alarm boxes.

“The new fire chief has entered into the spirit of his work and will probably give Nelson a service that will have a tendency to reduce insurance rates,” The Miner wrote.

An early Nelson fire wagon is seen on Baker Street in this image from the Nelson Fire Museum. Samuel Calkin didn’t even have the luxury of a horse when he became fire chief in 1897.

The fire department had not yet been formally organized when the first call came shortly after midnight on Nov. 20. It broke out in J.H. Gibbon and G. Cleland’s steam laundry on Ward Street, within a few feet of the Hume Hotel (then under construction) on one side and the Traves-McDonald block (also known as the Broken Hill block) on the other.

Nelson Miner, Nov. 20, 1897

For a time, the Tribune reported, it looked like the city’s whole business district would be wiped out. Water could not be turned on from the new mains, so the fire department had to use “a puny stream of water from the old water system” and a bucket brigade passing water from Ward Creek.

Despite these disadvantages, Calkin’s men and other citizens — including the mayor and Dr. E.C. Arthur — soon saved the Traves-McDonald building. But the Hume Hotel looked like it might perish before it opened.

From the basement to the eaves it was afire in a score of places and few of the spectators expected to see the building saved. By sticking hard at their work, however, the fire in the hotel was kept under control until the frame work of the laundry building fell in, after which it was speedily stamped out.

Damage to the hotel was pegged at $500, while the laundry was destroyed. In gratitude for their efforts, J. Fred Hume donated $100 to the fire department.

A week later, the department was officially organized with a membership of 13. At the first twice-monthly drill, a dozen men responded, during which time several hydrants were found to be in working condition. One reel was taken out and about 150 feet of hose laid.

City council ordered helmets, boots, rubber coats, and belts for 18 men and decided to pay firefighters $2.50 per drill attended, plus $25 for the first team and $15 for the second team getting water on a fire.

But just as the brigade was getting off the ground, Calkin resigned — for he’d been struck by Klondike fever. The members of the fire department suggested William J. Thompson to city council as Calkin’s successor.

Calkin’s tenure lasted two months and five days, the shortest of any chief in the department’s history — by three days. Jack Ballantyne would have a similarly brief stint in 1923.

Calkin appears to have been in the Yukon or Alaska for about a year and a half. He returned to Nelson in August 1899, but enlisted for the Boer War and left for South Africa. He soon tired of his service, and in August 1901 was discharged as medically unfit. According to the Tribune, “He immediately applied to join Kitchener’s scouts, and was one of the 50 who made names for themselves as daring carriers of dispatches and general scouts.”

He returned to Nelson, but departed again for South Africa on Christmas Day 1902, where he was entitled to 320 acres of land near Pretoria. “His discharge is written on sheepskin,” the newspaper added, “and it is prized by its owner more highly than that 320 acres of veldt will be if Sam is compelled to live on it.”

The next four years of his life are a blank, but he eventually ended up working as a miner in Shoshone County, Idaho. There, on June 8, 1907, he married Christine Ritter. Their first son, Cornelius (also known as Howard) was born in June 1910. By then, Sam was a police constable in Prince Rupert.

Tracking his peripatetic movements and occupations over the next decade is dizzying: in 1912, he was stationed in Aldermere, then transferred to Hazelton as an “Indian constable.” Another son, Samuel Frank Jr., was born in Prince Rupert in 1913.

The Vancouver Daily World of Feb. 9, 1916 reported his next move:

Sam Calkins, who has had his share of adventure in pioneer days in Rupert, and more recently when a fire dispossessed him of house and home, is leaving for Wallace, Idaho, where he will start in business.

He doesn’t appear to have stayed in Wallace long, for he moved to Trail, then back to the US in November 1917. The 1920 US census finds the family living in Portland, where Sam was a valve grinder for a street car company and a pipe fitter.

They came back to Canada in July 1921, initially to Prince Rupert and later to Vancouver, where Sam worked as a doorman at the Capitol Theatre. They returned to Portland in May 1924. On the border crossing document, Sam gave his occupation as quartz miner.

And for a long time, that was the last trace I could find of Nelson’s first fire chief. In fact, he was one of only two chiefs whose date and place of death I didn’t know.

But I finally established that for some reason, the family picked up again by 1928 and moved cross country to Camden, New Jersey. The 1930 US census finds them there, with Sam working as a factory watchman. He died at Camden in 1933, age 62 or 63, and was buried at Arlington Cemetery at Pennsauken.

However, I still can’t find the exact date of his passing. Even though the Camden newspapers have been digitized, there is no sign of his obituary. His wife Christine died at South Merchantville, NJ on Oct. 23, 1956, age 84. Samuel F. Calkin Jr. had a long career in the US military. He died in 1978 and was buried at Pennsauken with his parents. I don’t know what became of his brother.

Another mystery regarding Nelson’s fire chiefs has also been solved: the interim chief from March to April 1906 was W. Phillips. But I never knew anything about him. He didn’t show up in the Nelson civic directories and I didn’t hold out much hope of ever identifying him. But a breakthrough came in the Vancouver Daily World of March 23, 1906:

Five applications were received for the vacant position of chief of the fire department of Nelson. By general consent only two were considered by the council, those of ex-Chief T. Deasy of Victoria and of the present acting chief, W. Phillips. Mr. Deasy’s record is well known and his references were all highly commendatory. Mr. Phillips’ record is also a splendid one and his testimonials from Toronto, where he was lieutenant of the central station for eight years, were excellent. His application was endorsed by every member of the present brigade. No decision was reached.

Deasy ultimately got the job and Phillips soon moved on. I checked the Toronto civic directories and found William J. Phillips had indeed been a firefighter there.

From Nelson he went to Fernie, then Spokane, where in September 1907 he applied for US naturalization. But he seems to have rejoined the Toronto fire department. He later became chief in Steelton, Ont., a town that amalgamated with Sault Ste. Marie in 1918, and in 1922, he was appointed chief in Sault Ste. Marie — a position he held for 31 years.

Phillips was born Feb. 28, 1870 in Caledon, Ont. and died on Aug. 28, 1957 in Sault Ste. Marie.

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