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Fire Chief W.J. Phillips: one-horse hose reel to chemical engine

Astonishing career as firefighter spanned more than half-century, continuing until his retirement at 80
Sault Ste. Marie Fire Chief W. J. Phillips served more than 50 years as a firefighter.

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library, this is part one of a two-part series:

W. J. Phillips was born in Caledon, Ontario in 1870. He lived his childhood in rural surroundings, but at the age of 17, he moved to Toronto.

A year later, the 18-year-old Phillips took a job with the Toronto Fire Department. This was the beginning of an astonishing career as a firefighter which spanned over half a century.

Phillips first spent seventeen years as a firefighter in Toronto, working at different fire halls under various Fire Chiefs. He started his career driving a one-horse hose reel. He then worked on a ladder truck. Later, he was one of several men on the chemical engine.

Perhaps the biggest moment of his entire career occurred when he helped fight the “Great Fire of 1904” in downtown Toronto.

The fire was massive, consuming over one hundred buildings in total. Firefighters from seventeen different fire halls were called in to help battle the blaze.

Phillips, whose fire hall was only four blocks away, was one of the first firefighters on the scene, and the very first person to enter the burning building where the fire started. Phillips would go on to battle many more fires over the course of his career, but recounting his part in the Great Fire of 1904 was a story he was known to retell quite often.

In 1905, Phillips left the Toronto Fire Department and moved to British Columbia, where he worked for six years as a brakeman on passenger trains and freight trains. He later worked various construction jobs and helped to build a railway in the Klamath Mountains.

He then returned to his career as a firefighter, working one year for the Fort William Fire Department.

Around this time, he heard about an opening for the position of fire chief in the town of Steelton, Ontario. Phillips applied for the job, despite the fact that he didn’t know exactly where Steelton was because it was evidently not even on the map. Phillips was hired for the position and moved to Steelton in 1914.

In 1917, Fire Chief Wetmore of the Sault Fire Department passed away.

It was then decided to amalgamate the fire departments of both the Sault and Steelton, which technically made Phillips the fire chief of two different towns. But it was only a few months later that citizens voted to officially amalgamate Steelton and the Sault, and Phillip became fire chief of the City of Sault Ste. Marie, a position he held for the next thirty-two years.

There were quite a few major blazes in the Sault during Phillips' tenure as fire chief, including the Great Lakes Power Plant fire of 1918, which caused $126,137 in damages ($2.2 million in 2022 dollars), the Marshall Motor Company fire of 1924, which caused $183,750 in damages ($3.2 million in 2022 dollars), and the McKie & Co. fire of 1947, which caused $112,000 in damages ($1.7 million in 2022 dollars).

The equipment available to firefighters changed a lot over the course of Phillips’ career. When he got his start in the late 1880s, fire engines were not motorized vehicles. They were either horse-drawn or had to be hauled to each fire by manpower alone. The engines themselves were steam-powered. There were also no masks available to firefighters back when Phillips was starting out, which means he undoubtedly inhaled more than his share of smoke over the years.

Under his watch as fire chief, the Sault Fire Department grew significantly, “from a staff of only four full-time firefighters to a well-organized, well-trained staff made up of dozens of men”.

In addition, he served as President of the Dominion Fire Chief’s Association in 1930. It should also be noted that at least two firefighters who worked under Chief Phillips eventually became fire chiefs in other places.

He was known to be a favourite with his employees, who described him as “a real firefighter”.

A 1928 Sault Star article stated that “the list of Sault’s most pleasant people would be far from complete without the name of Fire Chief W. J. Phillips”. His successor, Fire Chief C. I. Matheson (who worked under Phillips for many years) remembered him as a man who was never content to direct from the sidelines. “He’d rush in,” said Matheson, “leading his men like an officer in battle”.

Chief Phillips was known to be very passionate about his calling. Perhaps that is why he continued in his position for so long.

He finally retired in 1947 when he was 77 years old. All told, Phillips spent fifty-three years as a firefighter, thirty-five of which were spent as Fire Chief in Steelton and the Sault.

Phillips died in 1957 at the age of 87.

After his passing, Mayor Walter Harry Sr. acknowledged that Phillips deserved credit for building the Sault Fire Services into a highly efficient organization.

To this day, Phillips holds the record in Sault Ste. Marie for the longest tenure as fire chief.

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at and look for more Remember This? columns here

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