The Ronald - Glimpses of the Past with Karen Webster
Fire! Fire! These are words that cause terror no matter when they are heard, but in the19th century in rural Huron County, the choices to combat a fire were limited to a bucket brigade, or, in a village, volunteers with a manually powered pump. Both of these options had limitations.
Around 1829, John Braithwaite invented the steam-powered fire engine in London, England. This was a huge advancement from the manually pumped fire engines. Perhaps not many people know that, at one time, Brussels had a factory that built such engines.
The man behind this enterprise was John Downie Ronald. He was born in Paisley, Scotland around 1830. He, his parents and siblings immigrated to the United States in 1851, landing in New York City. After living in Detroit, where their three children were born, John and Laura Ronald and family moved to Chatham, Ontario where Ronald became a junior partner in the business of his brother-in-law, Andrew Hyslop.
Hyslop and Ronald was an engineering and shipbuilding firm. In the 1860s the organization also turned its attention to building steam fire engines and reportedly was the first company in Canada to do so. However, financial difficulties, and an acrimonious dispute with the town of Chatham over its choice of steam fire engine, led to the sale of the Hyslop and Ronald Company in 1877.
Dr. J. W. Shaw, at one time the chief of the Brussels voluntary fire brigade, recalled one of the disastrous fires there that destroyed several buildings. Not long after that fire, a Hyslop and Ronald pumping engine was purchased. It was through that purchase that negotiations began to bring the engine manufacturing enterprise to Brussels. Ronald was approached with the offer of a loan of $20,000 to locate a foundry there. The foundry was built in 1879. In addition to steam fire engines, the newly-established Brussels Steam Fire Engine and Agricultural Works built separators and castings for implements, such as reapers and mowers. A “Buckeye mower” made there was purchased by J.N. Knechtel for his Brussels-area farm. At one time, 65 men were employed by the Ronald foundry.. The only parts for the fire engines not produced in Brussels were the suction hoses which came from Cleveland, the boiler domes from New Jersey, headlamps and lanterns from New York and copper boiler pipes which were shipped from England.
John D. Ronald was an enterprising promoter of his product. He travelled extensively throughout Canada, meeting with municipal officials to tout the steam-powered fire engine. Ronald displayed the fire engine at various exhibitions and fairs, such as the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. In the Brussels Post of Oct. 2, 1891 there is a report that in Toronto, the Ronald steam fire engine was capable of raising steam in five minutes and 45 seconds and pumping water with great force from two hoses.
At London’s Fall Fair, the Ronald engine was the only one entered in a competition for a gold medal and a $100 prize. In a news release, obviously penned by the engine’s manufacturer, it is stated that “Mr. Ronald now boldly challenges a side-by-side competition with any fire engine in the world”. This feisty characteristic of Ronald was demonstrated in an advertisement he placed in the Toronto Evening Telegram after that city opted to purchase two fire engines from a competitor at a price of $2,200 above the Ronald tender. Ronald put up a purse of $500 challenging the other manufacturer to a public competition of the two engines. Apparently, the challenge was not taken up.
Ronald had been in communication with the newly incorporated city of Vancouver before it suffered a devastating fire on June 14, 1886. In those days, most structures were made of wood, with wooden shingles, and were likely placed closely together. All of those factors served to give any fire the possibility of destroying multiple buildings at one time.
Confirmation of the purchase of a Ronald steam-powered fire engine was made on June 22, 1886 and the city received it on Aug. 6, 1886. The city was very appreciative of Ronald after the fire, as he not only gave them advice about firefighting but he also suggested ways of financing the purchase and ideas about salaries and working conditions for the firefighters. Vancouver was to pay $6,905 over a 10-year period at seven per cent interest for a 5,000-pound Ronald steam pumper with four hose reels and 2,500 feet of two-inch and two-and-a-half-inch hose. The engine was to be drawn by two horses, however, horses were not purchased until six to eight months later and thus the firefighters had to pull the engine themselves. Considering the weight of the machine, the brigade was not very successful in controlling fires in the interim.
The same year, Calgary purchased a medium-sized Ronald fire engine for $5,000 after that municipality suffered its first major fire in November of 1886.
Several municipalities in western Canada, as well as many in Ontario, such as Durham and Sault Ste. Marie, owned Ronald fire engines. In 1888, Blyth purchased a Ronald steam fire engine for a price of $2,000.
In 1901, the Canadian Steam Engine Company Limited purchased the equipment in the Ronald factory and moved it to London, Ontario. The factory building was taken over by John Cober, who, with his sons, was in the business of making buggies. Ironically, the building was destroyed by fire in May of 1905, at which time several other businesses and homes were also lost.
In retirement, John and Laura Ronald moved to Stratford to live with their daughter Annie and son-in-law Rev. W. T. Cluff, and, as well, made several visits to California. John Downie Ronald, manufacturer and promoter, passed away in Hamilton in 1927 at the age of 96 as the result of contracting pneumonia.
As part of his legacy some examples of the Ronald fire engine still exist. The Firefighters Museum of Calgary displays a fully-restored 1900 Ronald engine that is similar to the one purchased in 1886 and the Chatham-Kent Municipal Museums Collection has a Hyslop and Ronald steam fire engine encased in a display shelter at its Civic Centre.
With references from Our Story: From Ainleyville to Brussels 1977.