Canadian Fire Fighting Museum forced to close after more than 30 years in Port Hope

The Canadian Fire Fighting Museum has been a fixture in Port Hope, Ont. for 34 years, but now it's closing, packing up its historic artifacts and leaving with nowhere to go.

The museum sits on land contaminated with low levels radioactive waste

Will Lambert stands with historic fire trucks currently in storage. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

The Canadian Fire Fighting Museum has been a fixture in Port Hope, Ont. for 34 years, but now it's closing, packing up its historic artifacts and leaving with nowhere to go.

"We thought we had one more season to go, but we didn't," Will Lambert, chair of the museum's board of directors, told CBC Toronto.

The museum, located about an hour east of Toronto, sits on land contaminated with radioactive waste —  a problem affecting close to 800 other properties in the small town, with more sites still to be surveyed.

The waste comes from a uranium and radium conversion facility, Eldorado Nuclear Ltd., which closed down in the late 80s.

After years of planning, the federal government's clean-up process has now been accelerated and will start next month, and that means the museum has less time than anticipated to get out. It now has until the end of March to pack up and leave.

'Bursting at the seams'

The museum features historic fire fighting artifacts from all over the country, including 10 fire trucks, uniforms, helmets, hand-drawn and horse-drawn equipment, and much more.

One of the last artifacts in the building, a soda acid extinguisher, would have been used in a wealthy household or farm. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

There were so many exhibits that it was "bursting at the seams," said Lambert.

"My heart bleeds because I want to see them on public display, and this is not public," Lambert said as he surveyed some of the exhibits already in storage.  

The main museum is housed in a modest, unheated quonset hut and because of the lack of heating, it was only open from May until October and closed during the winter.

But museum officials say it still saw 5,000 visitors a season.

The quonset hut that houses the museum was originally used as a community garage. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)
"During the summer, there was a month we had international visitors almost every day, many of them planning to come to Canada simply to see our museum" said John Appleman, chair of fundraising.

The search for space

With more visitors, and less space, the museum started looking for a larger location, said Lambert.

They had their eye on the old Canadian Tire building in the town.

"We thought if we moved into Canadian Tire we would have had three times the space to show more things in a better way. We thought we could be looking at 15,000 visitors in our first year," Lambert said.

But after a two-year effort to buy the building, it was sold to someone else.

A 1921 LeFrance fire truck - the oldest in the museum's collection. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

And the timing couldn't be worse, Lambert says.

"Another year would have given us one last good push to find another place too, but that didn't happen. The clean-up got accelerated, and we are out," he said.

'My heart bleeds because I want to see them on public display, and this is not public,' Lambert says (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Lambert says that once they finish packing up the museum they will be on the hunt for a new space.

Once they find something they will be running a massive fundraising campaign to buy it

But the pay-what-you-can museum relies heavily on fundraising and revenue from its gift shop, and doesn't have a lot of money from other sources.

"If we could get every firefighter across the country to kick in 10 bucks, you know, it would go a long way."

Until they get their new space, Lambert encourages people to look at their virtual tour online.