James “Cappy” Smart came to Calgary from his native Scotland in 1883 after his father, a sea captain, was lost at sea. He apprenticed as an undertaker with his uncle and may have been the first person in Alberta to do so (the Alberta Funeral Services Association calls him, “Alberta’s First Undertaker”).
In 1885, Smart signed on as a hookman with Calgary’s fledgling volunteer fire department. He worked his way up the ladder (so to speak) and was elected Fire Chief in 1898 and served the city in that capacity until 1933.
As chief, Cappy smart would never send a man into a situation into which he himself would not go. He was thus injured several times on the job. He also had a rather interesting way of assuring that spectators never got too close to a fire: he would turn the hoses on the crowd.
He was much beloved in the city and served as the official starter at all the car races and referee to all the major boxing matches. When fighters got in a clinch, he would bellow, “Break or I’ll fight you myself!”, a threat which he was quite capable of carrying out. Cappy also led the Stampede Parade yearly until just before his death.
Smart had good relations with the native people in the area and helped organise their participation in pre-stampede country fairs. In 1904 the Duke and Duchess of York visited Calgary and were introduced to a number of local dignitaries, including a number of native leaders and Cappy Smart. When the Master of Ceremonies for the event got to the appropriate point in the reception line, he introduced the fire chief as “Chief Smart”. The Duke responded by turning to his host and saying, “My, what a magnificent savage!”. According to the old timers, Cappy Smart set the Duke straight in typical Scottish fashion.
Cappy Smart saw the Calgary Fire Department change from a volunteer bucket brigade to a modern mechanised force. In the days when fire fighters still relied on horses to get them to emergencies, Cappy Smart personally chose all the animals. Calgary Fire Department horses were legendary and were trained to run into their harnesses when the fire alarm sounded. Fire fighters could harness, hitch and be out of the hall in a matter of a couple of minutes. One horse, Old White Wings, once arrived at a fire with no one at his reins. The driver had been thrown from the wagon when it hit a bump, but Old White Wings could see the smoke from the fire and knew where he was needed.
Cappy was a great lover of music and the Fire Department band still bears his name, as does an elementary school in the city. Cappy Smart Elementary School is also partnered with the Calgary Fire Department.
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