History | Norfolk Hotel Fire, 1957 | Back

From pages 1 and 7 of the 20 Feb 1957 Simcoe Reformer.


Loss Valued at $250,000
In Ruinous All-Night Blaze
Firemen Put Up Great Battle

by Dick Pearce

The Norfolk Hotel stands in smoking ruins this morning, devastated by the biggest fire here since Falls Department Store burned down in 1937.

A spectacular blaze that defied firemen for six hours and then took another four hours to subside, completely burned out the hotel and threatened to spread to adjacent buildings before firemen from six departments brought it under control.

The total loss was estimated at approximately $250,000. Cause of the fire was unknown.

Numb, ice-coated firemen stayed on the job throughout last night and this morning as the stubborn fire continued to flare inside the hotel.

Fortunately no one was seriously injured. Only a frantic warning by Fire Chief Gord. Dickson of Simcoe saved the lives of three local firemen who were on the fire escape in front of the main entrance. They got down in the nick of time, seconds before the large eave trough tumbled from the top of the building and landed where they had been standing.

Two stores were cleared out early in the evening, a move that saved thousands of dollars worth of merchandise. Citizens pitched in to help Reg. Westbrook and Murray Pond remove all the goods from their appliance and sporting goods stores.

A continuous concentration of water on the south side of the hotel building saved the King Apartments and business block from destruction. Morrison's Appliances and King's China Shop, immediately south of the hotel, escaped serious damage.

The battle put up by firemen to confine the raging inferno was nothing less than heroic, Time after time, fire fighters entered the flaming, smoke-filled building to get at the source of the fire. Sometimes they wore air packs, sometimes they didn't.


Simcoe firemen soon ran out of air packs and emergency calls were put in to other fire departments. Trucks were dispatched under the county-wide mutual aid plan by the Port Dover Fire Department under Fire Chief Alex. Spain, Delhi Fire Department under Chief Max Bertling, Waterford Fire Department led by Chief Clare Tench. Air packs were received from Chief Stan Seaton of Teeterville Fire Departments and Chief William Lambert of the Brantford Fire Department. Several Jarvis firemen also assisted.

Their hair frozen, hands numbed and [covered by] sheets of ice, the firemen saw the turning point about 1.30 a.m. whe the flames began to die down. However, it was 5.45 a.m. before the hotel was in total darkness.

Hundreds of people from the town and district gathered on Norfolk and Sydenham Streets to watch the spectacular blaze, which was discovered about 7.30 p.m. by the Proprietor Joe Dumsha and Manager Bob Combe.

"We smelled smoke and opened the door to the beverage room," related Mr. Combe. "It was completely filled with black smoke. By the time I telephoned the fire department, the smoke had blocked off the hall and stairway. I couldn't get through to warn the guests upstairs."

There were about 20 guests registered at the hotel last night, Mr. Combe said. Six of them were upstairs and managed to get out via fire escapes. Two went down the fire escape at the front and the other four descended the fire escapes at the rear of the building.

Historical records show that the hotel was built in 1863, following a disastrous fire which wiped out what was then known as the Norfolk House Hotel and the adjoined Music Hall. The hotel  was one of the finest in the district, the home away from home for many commercial travellers and a downtown landmark.

The loss to Mr. Dumsha was a severe blow. He had made many improvements, including redecoration of rooms and better beverage room and diningroom facilities, in recent years.

The proprietor, who marked his 63rd birthday yesterday, said last night that the loss would exceed $175.000. Real estate sources, however, told the Reformer that they thought $250,000 would be an accurate estimate.

One of the hotel guests, Leland M. Smith of Chicago, had just checked into the hotel. He came here to see his mother and had gone to her home when the fire broke out.


Two other guests in the 40-room hotel, Nils Olsson and Gord. Burton, maintenance men for Cities Services, were out for dinner when they heard about the fire. Rushing back to the hotel, they went up the back stairs but smoke barred their way to the rooms. Like the other guests, they lost all their possessions.

Other hotel guests included several employees of the Comstock Company, contractors for the Hydro Conversion in this district, and a few commercial travellers.

Two hours after the fire started, Mr. Dumsha climbed a ladder to his second floor apartment and brought out a quantity of his wife's jewellery and other effects. Fireman Herb. Hause assisted him.

Free coffee was supplied to firemen by several firms and organizations, including Royal Simcoe Restaurant, Hi-Way Restaurant, Olympia Restaurant, Salvation Army and Speedie Snack Service. Individual citizens also provided light refreshments and a coffee bar was set up in the garage of J. W. "Jake" Chase, chairman of the fire, light and water committee.

Simcoe Police, County Police and Ontario Provincial Police directed traffic and combined to keep the crowds in check. Several officers helped handle the fire hose.

Cause of the fire was not immediately known. It was believed to have started above the bar between the men's and mixed beverage rooms. Flames crept into the partitions out of the reach of firemen.

Two young Simcoe Firemen who recently returned from their honeymoons, Larry Hause and Dave Harriott, were on the job with their fellow firefighters.


Mrs. Bob Berger and four children, ages six months to five years, were forced from their apartment in the Norfolk Hotel building by last night's fire and lost all their possessions.

Bob Berger had left earlier in the day for the United States to get a job and the family had planned on joining him. Mrs. Berger lost a sum of money which was burned in the fire. It was to have been used for the trip to the States.

All furniture in the apartment, which was owned by Berger's father, Sam Berger, was destroyed. His loss was about $6,500 and there was no insurance.

"I don't know what to do," Sam Berger told The Reformer this morning. "We've got no place for the children and my daughter-in-law, and no money."

Considerable water damage to the King building was reported this morning. Goods in the basement were soaked, as well as some appliances in Morrison's store.


From page 1 of the 20 Feb 1957 Simcoe Reformer newspaper.

Plenty of Water for Fire As
Standpipe Overflowing

Nearly 400,000 gallons of water were supplied for the Norfolk Hotel fire last night, according to 
G. Earle Maxwell, superintendent of the waterworks department of the Simcoe Public Utilities.

From 7.35 p.m. to 2.55 a.m. the waterworks department pumped 513,675 gallons of water. Normal pumpage is 123,000.

Immediately upon being notified of the fire, J. A. Montross and W. S. McCall at the Cedar Street pumping station turned on two extra pumps.

The standpipe was overflowing at all times while the extra water was being supplied. At the pumping station, the clear well dropped only five inches during the fire.

Pressure of water actually increased during the night, although no additional pressure was applied by the pumping station staff.


From page 7 of the 20 Feb 1957 Simcoe Reformer newspaper.

Fire Cancels Sale

The one-cent sale at Westbrook Electric, as advertised on page 10 of today's Reformer, has been cancelled due to the Norfolk Hotel Fire last night.

All the contents of the Westbrook store were removed in the early stages of the fire, making it impossible to carry on the sale this week.

This morning, Mr. Westbrook asked The Reformer to thank the many people who assisted in removing the appliances and other goods from the store. A rival appliance dealer, Al Morrison, was one of those who helped clear the Westbrook store.


Firemen identified 
in accompanying 
photo captions:
Ed Bell
Tommy Stewart

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