Not long after Courtenay was incorporated as a municipality in 1915, the only way to extinguish a fire was with buckets. They didn’t do the trick in 1916 when a fire that started at Fifth and Cliffe wiped out 15 buildings and 33 businesses (except the building where TAB Imports now sits on Fifth). Nor did a bucket brigade help when a second fire broke out at Fourth and Duncan in 1919. But by 1921, water was piped in.
“Now we had fire hydrants,” said local historian/former fire chief Lawrence Burns, 86. “That’s when the fire department got on the wagon. The city ordered 1,000 feet of 2 1/2-inch hose. They borrowed a hand-drawn hose reel from Cumberland — Cumberland was a booming town by that time. It was kept in the chief’s workshop.”
A church bell, where Hot Chocolates is located on Fifth, served as the fire alarm. A 1921 Cole chain drive with hard rubber tires was converted into the first fire truck that would be parked at one of two bays at the City’s first firehall, built in 1922 at Sixth and Duncan where the art gallery now sits. Across the street was the Comox Creamery, which is now the library.
“To me it’s (downtown) been the hub,” said Burns, who was there July 1, 1949 when the outdoor pool opened at Lewis Park. Before that time, he took swimming lessons in the Tsolum River.
“That was a real community effort,” he said, noting the installation of heating equipment in 1954.
Burns joined the fire department as a volunteer in 1950, was appointed chief in 1968 and retired in 1995. He was born and raised in Courtenay, as was his father Cyril, who acquired a garage at Fourth and Duncan from Joseph McPhee, known as the Father of Courtenay.
“He was a very shrewd businessman but he was a good guy,” Burns said of McPhee. “He developed downtown Courtenay.”
McPhee had won a contract to build the first bridge across the Courtenay River in 1875 when the rail line and steam locomotives ran through downtown (construction of the Fifth Street Bridge as we know it started in 1959). McPhee also put in the first subdivision in the Old Orchard area.
“He had foresight to see that this was going to be a good place,” Burns said. “He subdivided what we know now as Fifth Street from the river up to England Avenue. He planted 1,000 trees in the area. His idea was people would buy property with fruit trees. He actually laid out the first town site of Courtenay.”
Downtown gradually started to grow after the city’s incorporation. The post office was built in 1925 and the Native Sons Hall in 1928. City Hall was built on what is now Duncan Avenue before moving to the corner of Simms Lane and Duncan.
In 1952, the police station on Cliffe Avenue was renovated into City Hall. As fate would have it, it burned beyond recovery at the time of Burns’ retirement. The new City Hall was built in 2000 on property that had once been a Ford dealership.
Fire destroyed other Courtenay landmarks including the Fechner Building at the corner of Fifth and Cliffe, the Riverside Hotel and the Palace Theatre — originally built as the EW Theatre in 1940.
Over the years, Burns recalls the parades and characters — such as Wong Chee, the man with an assortment of headgear who would ride his bike along Fifth shouting at pedestrians in his path and using his ‘vociferous voice’ to direct traffic — who brought downtown Courtenay to life.
“It’s been the centre of everything,” Burns said. “A lot of history. During the war, the army used to come in. The Slough was where they kept the landing barges. They brought all the different units for training before they sent them overseas before D-Day.”
Former mayor Ron Webber is chairing a committee that has organized a host of events to celebrate Courtenay’s centennial year. Homecoming Week, which spans 10 days June 26 to July 5, marks the pinnacle of the celebrations. The week begins with a sports festival and tailgate party at the Sports Centre June 27. Further activities include free nightly concerts at Simms Millennium Park, and six neighbourhood block parties on the final day.
Courtenay’s own Red Robinson will be the honorary Canada Day parade marshall July 1. That morning, Freedom of the City presentations will be held at City Hall.
“We’re going to be re-honoring the Scottish Regiment and HMCS Quadra and 19 Wing Comox,” committee member Randy Wiwchar said. “We’ll be reconfirming their citizenship just to show our long-term history and partnership with the military.”
The celebrations include Citizens of the Century Awards that honour volunteers — past or present — for outstanding contributions since the City’s incorporation. Recipients will be announced July 4 at the fireworks symphony concert at the Airpark. The committee, which has received more than 350 nominations, anticipates 300-plus people will be honoured.
A few fall events are in the works, including a finale and a volunteer appreciation night.
“The one unique thing about our centennial is it’s not just one event, we’ve been doing things all year-long,” Wiwchar said. “That’s the key. We started off December 31st and we’ll probably be running activities all year long. Besides the centennial committee, we have a bunch of community partners running events as well.”
Groups such as Elevate the Arts, the Sid Williams Theatre Society, the art gallery, the museum and the Arts Council have received some of the $93,800 that the federal government chipped in to support the celebrations. Proceeds from centennial celebrations will be added to a legacy endowment that will be donated to the Comox Valley Community Foundation, which will direct money to fund programs that specifically support youth.
For more information visit www.courtenay.ca, or on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #Courtenay100.