Here in Kingston, at 251 Ontario Street, is a building that, today, houses one of the city’s most popular family restaurants. But over 125 years ago this building was the home of one of Kingston’s most important services – the fire station. By looking around the restaurant today, a few clues can still be seen that let us in on the building’s past stories, and with a little more information, you just might see a part of Kingston’s history come to life the next time you sit down to eat a fajita at Lonestar restaurant.
“You know, over in the corner one of our relatives was killed by a horse,” my dad calmly stated as I was about to bite down on a chimichanga at Lonestar on summer afternoon a few years ago. Caught off guard, I nearly choked on my bite. I had no idea what he was talking about. My dad likes to dangle bits of family lore and history to start a conversation, hoping that I take his bait. Intrigued and confused (did the Lonestar used to let horses into their restaurant?), I told my father to go on with his story. Throughout the rest of the meal, I heard the story of my great-great-great grandfather and how this building played an integral role in the early days of Kingston.
The property was acquired by the city in the late 1840s and a new fire hall was built on the site in 1873. Steam powered engines driven by horses and led by a driver would blast through the streets to the infernos that so often blazed in the city dwellings. My great-great-great grandfather, William Lemmon, was the driver of these horses and a firefighter for the city of Kingston.
William, owner of the team of horses, was responsible for bringing the engines to the fires. Prior to 1873, hand pump engines would be pushed by firefighters to the scene. Imagine the time wasted in getting the equipment on scene of the fire, especially on a cold winter night. When William joined, the city of Kingston would rent the horses from him, which he owned, and they as a team would bring the newly purchased steam powered pumps to any location in Kingston.
Imagine the focus and skill needed to drive a team of horses through the Kingston streets while hauling a steam powered fire pump. Think of how fast you would need to be moving to haul the equipment, the nerve you would need to drive a team of horses hoping you would get to the scene of the fire in time. This is what William Lemmon did for a living. He was a firefighter, responsible for the team of horses that he attached to the water pump and drove through the back doors of 251 Ontario Street night and day, racing against time.
With its proximity to Brock, Johnson, and Princess Street, the fire hall was ideally located to access the major roads in the city. Being next to Lake Ontario, water was readily available to fill the pumper, and easily accessible for the needs of the horses.
For 10 years he lived and worked out of the fire hall, serving the citizens of Kingston and responding to major fires. He would have responded to the 1875 County Courthouse fire when half of the building was destroyed, and the 1876 Princess Street fire when fifty buildings would either be damaged or lost in a blazing inferno.
When he was not driving his team of horses, William would have been in the stable tending to the horses, which is now where the outdoor patio, Margaritaville, waits for customers to enjoy the warmth of the summer. William would work with his horses, ensuring they were cared for and rested, but ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice.
As my dad relayed the tale that afternoon we ate at Lonestar, I learned that William was supposedly crushed to death by a horse in one of the stable stalls. According to the Daily British Whig of August 28, 1883, “last night shortly before 10 O’clock, William Lemon, who was injured some days ago while attempting to saddle an untamed horse, died from his wounds inflicted by the animal. His death is regretted.” For the service he gave to the city, they regretted his loss – too bad they didn’t spell his last name correctly. William’s son John would take over his father’s role with the fire department and the horses would continue to call 251 Ontario Street home for years to come.
The next time you are dining on some delicious meal or dipping your chips in some spectacular salsa, look around Lonestar and take in what you see. Look at the walls and imagine the other life this address use to have. This place is more then just a restaurant. It’s a place where firefighters lived, raised their families, and for some, even died in service to the city.
Bill Gowsell was born and raised in Kingston. With an interest in history, food, wine, and all things Disney, Bill has been writing for the last eight years on a variety of topics. During the summers he can be found at the family cottage north of Kingston, or at the bottom of Lake Ontario… scuba diving.