Bytown FireBrigade celebrates a banner year - 1840
Historical society gives 2nd life to unique symbol of 'a city shaped by fire.
A group devoted to the preservation and celebration of Ottawa's rich firefighting history has taken on a unique project involving an artifact nearly as old as Bytown itself.
With the aid of modern technology, The Bytown Fire Brigade has resurrected an eye-catching banner dating from the mid-19th century that depicts a time when fire engines were pulled by horses and water was pumped by hand.
The banner itself was created to commemorate a rather mundane event — the corporate rebranding of what's believed to be Bytown's second fire engine in 1840.
But in an era when insurance companies sponsored local fire brigades, and those alliances sometimes determined whether a building burned or was saved, it was considered a noteworthy occasion, and the banner is today regarded as an important historical find.
It depicts two uniformed figures standing at either end of a hand-pumped fire engine called The Chaudiere, formerly The Mutual. The engine had been purchased in 1835 by the people of Upper Town, likely with financial assistance from the Mutual Insurance Company of Montreal, and was renamed five years later.
"The banner depicts that renaming," said Peter McBride, acting president of The Bytown Fire Brigade and the driving force behind the effort to lend the banner a second life.
With its crimson backdrop and gold fringe, the banner, which measures about two metres tall and three metres wide, would have been suspended from poles and displayed during parades and other ceremonies.
At some point over the intervening years, it was rolled up and placed in storage, eventually finding its way to the Bytown Museum.
When the museum handed the banner over to The Bytown Fire Brigade in 1987, it was already in "very poor condition," according to the deed of gift.
When The Bytown Fire Brigade first attempted to digitize the banner in 2013, it was already showing signs of deterioration. (The Bytown Fire Brigade)
Its materials — oil paint on silk attached to a linen backing with some sort of glue — had degraded to the point where the banner had to be handled with extreme care. Restoration was unlikely.
Then, 10 years ago, the volunteer group struck on an idea: Why not create a replica?
The initial attempt to build a "digital surrogate" of the original banner by photographing it in sections and stitching them together didn't go well, according to Paul Henry, the City of Ottawa's chief archivist.
"The technology was not there," Henry said.
A decade later, the banner was in even worse condition. 'We were shocked at how much it had degraded from 2013 to 2023,' McBride said. (The Bytown Fire Brigade)
The original banner had become so fragile it was literally falling to pieces.
(The Bytown Fire Brigade)
In an attempt to prevent further degradation, archivists stabilized the banner as best they could and stored it in a special vault where it remained until earlier this year, when The Bytown Fire Brigade decided to try again.
One day in January, the volunteers, aided by a team of city archivists, carefully unrolled the banner on a fire station floor. McBride, who retired after a 32-year career with Ottawa Fire Services, said he was "shocked" when he saw its condition.
"The difference between 2013 and 2023 was dramatic, in terms of how further it had degraded despite us having placed it in a climate-controlled environment," he said.
The image you’re seeing today of the banner is a perfect representation of what it would have looked like in 1840,' said City of Ottawa archivist Paul Henry. (The Bytown Fire Brigade)
This time the digitization worked, producing a life-size replica of the banner, but without all the holes, cracks and tears.
"The image you're seeing today of the banner is a perfect representation of what it would have looked like in 1840," Henry said.
McBride located a commercial printer in Gatineau, Que., with the expertise and equipment to reproduce such a large image on a more durable vinyl mesh, and earlier this month the replica banner rolled off the presses looking just like the original. (The Bytown Fire Brigade has also printed smaller versions of the banner to give away at commemorations and other special events.)
Serge Paquin and Carolyne Raymond of Optima Imaging in Gatineau. Que., watch as the banner's 'digital surrogate' takes shape. (Jean Delisle/CBC)
An important artifact
From his perspective as an archivist, Henry believes the project will provide a "tangible touchpoint" to an often overlooked era in the history of "a city shaped by fire," including the one in 1900 that razed LeBreton Flats.
"We would say that this banner ranks among some of the more significant early city artifacts with respect to Ottawa itself, and it is certainly a significant piece in terms of the history of the fire service," Henry said.
"Having a digital representation of that, that can be recreated and used to both teach and inform and inspire, I think is a fantastic initiative."
Paquin and Raymond study the finished product with McBride. Behind them is a test version printed on a rigid material. 'Taking something that is so old, was so near death ... and bringing it back to life is very rewarding,' McBride said of the banner project. (Jean Delisle/CBC)
McBride says the banner will be front and centre at the many parades and charity events in which his group participates. He's even sourced the poles and gold fringe.
"It's been a dream to bring this artifact back to life," he said. "We want to see it in a prominent place within the city. It is our history, and it's the history not only of Bytown, but the eventual growth of the whole city of Ottawa."