Brian Hadland is the caretaker and story-teller behind the Prince Rupert Fire Museum.

Heart of our City: Brian Hadland’s hall of history

As the caretaker of the fire museum and its curator for the past number of years, Hadland is a walking wealth of fantastic stories

If you’re a passing pedestrian or motorist on First Avenue West, you might get a chance to see a little Ford Model A in the parking lot of the Prince Rupert Fire Museum.

If you do and you have the time, meander into the museum itself.

The car signifies that inside, its owner Brian Hadland is on scene.

He’s not on scene battling fires in the same way he was years ago as a 32-year veteran of the Prince Rupert Fire Department, but Hadland now provides a different kind of service – one that honours the past and propels it into the future with his stories, memorabilia and vehicles located within (and outside) the walls of the museum.

“I love to putter on old things,” he said last week, as the rain that beat down outside prevented Hadland from showing off the Model A on this day.

“I usually have it out here, but today was too wet. I didn’t bother.”

As the caretaker of the museum and its curator for the past number of years, Hadland is a walking wealth of fantastic stories, with topics ranging from the city’s biggest fires of all time, to the origins of Rupert’s docks and lighthouses, to war-time citizen patrols all the way to prohibition-era rum-runners along B.C.’s north coast.

Fire helmets from historical Australia, Austria, England and Prince Rupert line the walls and old street alarm boxes, firefighter paybooks (with $90 monthly salaries), newspaper clippings, firehose nozzles, ancient portrait photographs and old police rifles occupy the museum. Visitors quickly learn that these aren’t just mere objects they’re looking at, but fragments of time, complete with a story from Hadland to enrich the significance of every item.

Many artifacts predate even the incorporation of the city in 1910.

“I’ve got a lot more,” said Hadland.

“[Not here are] wooden hose carts and chemical hose wagons, air packs, you name it – I just haven’t gotten rid of it.”

Hadland’s pride and joy and the most symbolic piece of his artifacts, is a working 1925 R.E.O. Speedwagon.

As its sign propped up against the old vehicle states, the Speedwagon served the Prince Rupert Fire Department from 1924 to 1950 and was the first truck with inflatable tires, electric lights and a starter.

“The main reason why the Fire Museum is here, is because we did a search for the truck and we found it on Oona River, on Porcher Island [after it was sold to the community as a sand truck and lumber carrier]. It took about 1,250 hours roughly or two-and-a-half years to bring it back to driving condition … In 1985 we towed it out of the salmonberry bushes and there wasn’t much of it left, but there was enough that we were able to bring it back,” said Hadland, who can tell you just as much about the interior of the car as well as the shining exterior.

“I did the engine for it at home. [It’s] made from three different engines to make it run again [including parts] from Chatham, Ontario,” he added, motioning to the valves, cylinders, plugs and small cups used to intake fuel.

The bright red luster that the Speedwagon emits helps cement itself as the central “gem” in the museum’s collection of riches and it leads visitors through a walk around it, engulfing them with pieces of the historical timeline of Rupert’s brave men and women, who served both with the fire department, but also with the various police forces in town.

“When the city was incorporated in 1910, they went from man-powered [hose carts] to motorized and the reason was the damp climate. They couldn’t have horses here because they developed hoof thrush (an infection of the hoof) on the mountain. So, in the winter time, they shipped the horses into Smithers where it was dryer … We beat out Ontario – they were still using horse and wagons and Prince Rupert was fully motorized,” he said.

Hadland learned most of these tales from his great grandfather, who came to Rupert in 1908 and worked for the city.

“He used to tell me stories about different things and that really got my interest going and unfortunately I was too young – I wish I had more time to talk to him, I’d have more stories,” said Hadland.

Over the years, the museum caretaker saw the nature of calls change drastically as fire prevention became more entrenched in the public conscience.

“We get more medical calls now than we used to. When I first started, we were getting calls about garbage fires, car fires … fire prevention slowed that system right down,” he explained.

“It’s amazing how kids can tell mom and dad ‘You can’t have that paper near the stove or you can’t have that candle burning anymore!’ because we used to get a terrific amount of candle fires … and of course, wood stoves were a bad thing. There’s not so many … anymore.”

Also making an appearance at the museum are relics from the prohibition days when rum-runners would do anything and everything to transport illegal alcohol up the coast.

“You can see the deer carcasses and they all have liquor bottles in them and they would smuggle those up to Alaska during prohibition,” said Hadland, motioning to a black and white photo of bodies of deer, who had been cut open to hide bottles.

More guns are displayed, showing the “Gumboot Navy’s” artillery, a reserve of fishermen and civilian Pacific Coast Rangers, who patrolled the beaches and Skeena River for Japanese submarines during the  Second World War.

Perhaps one of the best tales behind the many museum’s old photographs, is Prince Rupert’s oldest police station, which was composed of a tent and an old tree, residing where the City Hall fountain now lies.

“Inside the tent, the criminals were leg-ironed and handcuffed to the tree until court the next morning. Finally, they got a wooden structure with a regular jail cell in it [later],” said Hadland.

Never satisfied with the status quo, Hadland has kept an ongoing restoration schedule of a black Mercury BC Police car, in use in Rupert from 1946 – 1950. He’d like to expand the museum to include the car, as well as the existing fire truck outside the building, dedicated to volunteer fireman Mike Martin, who used the 1950s vehicle for training. It’s whole front was destroyed in an August 1958 upheaval when former Mayor Peter Lester read the riot act to a 2,000-strong, uproarious crowd one night.

He’s also always looking to fix up the C.R.C., a 44-foot wooden tugboat, owned and operated by Capt. Charlie Currie and currently stored at Wainwright Marine.

It transported goods to isolated communities, helped construct docks and carry school children after being built in 1929.

“It’s so precious in my mind, to save that boat because of Charlie,” said Hadland.

“[All of that] was done with his little tug and pile driver. It’s so cool, you know?”

 

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