RSS .92| RSS 2.0| ATOM 0.3
  • Home
  • Subscribe
  • Privacy Policy

    Fire demolishes Vancouver in 2 hours

    Barely two months after it was incorporated, the City of Vancouver was demolished within two hours, as fire roared through its one thousand wooden framed buildings while its 3,000 residents ran for safety to the water of Burrard Inlet, throwing themselves on rafts, boats, anything that would float in a stormy sea. Indians of the Coast Salish Squamish arrived in their dugout canoes to help rescue people, sheltering them in their nearby village church. Before dusk on that Sunday afternoon, June 13, 1886, only seven buildings remained among the ashes—a sawmill, a planning mill, a hotel, and four shacks. No one knows how many perished; estimates range from 20 to 50.


    “Maple corner” at Vancouver, shortly before fire demolished the city.

    Among the ashes were the former offices and plants of the city’s three newspapers: the Vancouver Weekly Herald, Vancouver Daily Advertiser, and The Daily News, which had first appeared less than two weeks before the fire. Daily News publisher James Ross, his wife and child found safety on a wharf at Hasting’s saw mill, before they were taken by boat to the north shore of the inlet, where they spent the night at a fisherman’s shack. Mrs. Ross is said to have later died as the result of exposure to the fire.

    The day after the fire, Ross dashed to Victoria to buy a secondhand replacement press, then to nearby New Westminster, where he produced a small, single-page issue at the Columbian newspaper. The following excerpt from his Daily News, dated June 17, 1886, provides a vivid firsthand account of The Great Fire.

    [All that Sunday] morning the usual pleasant breeze from the ocean was spoiled by smoke from fires… but no alarm was felt in consequence.

    The place wherein these fires existed was until two or three months ago covered with forest. A large force of men had been engaged in clearing it. The trees were felled, and the fallen trees, stumps, etc., were disposed of by burning here and there in separated heaps. A few weeks ago, during a gale from the west, the city was filled with smoke and cinders from these fires, and fire reached close to several outlying buildings, but after some fighting, danger was averted. This, doubtless, tended to lull the people into a sense of security on Sunday.

    It was about two o’clock in the afternoon that the breeze, which had been blowing from the west, became a gale, and flames surrounded a cabin near a large dwelling to the west of the part of the city solidly built up. A few score men had been on guard with water and buckets, between this dwelling and the cabin, but when the wind became a gale they were forced to flee for their lives, and in a few minutes the dwelling was a mass of flames and the whole city was filled with flying cinders and dense clouds of smoke. The flames spread from this building to adjoining ones with amazing rapidity. The whole city was in flames in less than forty minutes after the first house was afire…

    A number inevitably perished in the flames. It is to be feared that the seven whose bodies were recovered constitute only a fraction of the whole number who perished. The total number of victims and their identity will probably never be known. With the exception Mrs. Nash and Mr. Craswell, the bodies recovered were all burned to crisp and barely recognizable as human remains. Mr. Craswell’s body was found in a well wherein he took refuge and died of suffocation. A young man named Johnson, and his mother were found in the same well. Johnson was dead and Mrs. Johnson has since died.

    Persons living near the Harbor and in the eastern part of the city hurried toward the wharves at the Hasting’s Mill, and crowded upon the steamers moored to the wharves. On the steamers and wharves, while the city was a mass of roaring flame, were gathered hundreds of frightened and excited men and sobbing women and children. Anon there emerged from the dense smoke someone and [then] another, gasping and blinded, with singed hair and blistered hands and faces, who had struggled almost too long to save property.

    A considerable number of people were surrounded by the fire and cornered near the J.M. Clute & Co’s store, and their only means of escape was to make rafts of the planking in a wharf at the place, and push out into the harbor. The wind was blowing fiercely, making the water rough, and the party were in no little peril of drowning. They made their way to a vessel which was at anchor in the harbor, and the watchman on the vessel, with all the proverbial insolence and stupidity of “insect authority,” refused to let the party come aboard. He very soon perceived, however, that his refusal “did not count,” and that his very life would “not count” for much if he attempted to keep the people off the vessel, and surrendered unconditionally.

    Those who witnessed the conflagration from the water describe the sight as appalling and wonderful beyond description.

    Many of the large number who lived nearer False Creek than the harbor, and made their way toward that body of water, had a hard struggle to escape with their lives… John Boultbee and C.G. Johnson saved their lives by lying down and burrowing their faces in the earth. Both are still suffering from the injuries.

    Everyone suffered not a little from the blinding and suffocating smoke. Families were separated, and agonized women ran wildly about crying for missing children or husbands. Many men were completely crazed and did not recover their senses for hours.

    About Canada, my latest book, is crammed with more “Amazing stuff” about our great nation, says popular historian Christopher Moore. “I’m a fan,” he adds. For a free sampler copy, more information and accolades, or to order your copy, click here.

    TAGS Vancouver, Fire disasters, Natural disasters, Canadian disasters, Vancouver newspapers, James Ross, Burrard Inlet, False Creek

    Leave a Reply

    You must be logged in to post a comment.