The Great Vancouver Fire

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CraigBaird

In June 1886, Vancouver was only two months old and quickly growing to become one of the most important cities in Canada, and eventually, the world.

Then, all that progress was suddenly ripped away as the dreaded foe of every early community in Canada reared its head, fire.

From the 1860s until the 1880s, Vancouver was little more than a small community with a few shops and homes. It was also called Granville.

Prior to the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Granville was very remote. It required a nine-mile journey through the forest from New Westminster to reach, or 30 miles along the Fraser River from Fort Langley.

When it was announced that Granville would be the west coast terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, the entire community began to explode in size.

On April 6, 1886, Granville became the City of Vancouver. The first city council election was held on May 3, with Malcolm MacLean serving as the new mayor.

 The rapid growth of Vancouver unfortunately meant that the Coastal Salish people began to lose the land they had occupied for upwards of 500 years. Prior to them the Musqueam people lived there for at least 2,000 years. Pushed to a reserve, the Indigenous were not allowed to work at the sawmills, causing great hardship for them.

The Canadian Pacific Railway was also granted 6,000 acres of heavily forested land by the government. Loggers and railroad workers quickly got to work clearing out the trees, many of them ancient cedar that stood 330 feet tall. As the trees were cut down, the good parts of the trees were taken to the mill, while pieces of wood chips were left on the ground where they were put into huge mounds as tall as a three-storey building. Those mounds were typically lit on fire.

The Nanaimo Daily News reported quote:

“For months, large gangs of men have been employed slashing the forest on the site selected as the terminal city of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Hundreds of acres have been slashed, and the hot sun of the past few weeks, has thoroughly dried the fallen trees and prepared material for an extensive conflagration. Among the slash many buildings had been erected without apparent regard for the dangers of the situation.”

It was amid all this on June 13, as a hot breeze blew in from the Pacific Ocean, that a forest clearing fire was started to the southwest of the city. The land was being cleared in order to put in a CPR roundhouse.

A second fire was started to the west of the city to clear land for expansion of the city itself.

Due to the wind and hot dry conditions, both fires quickly began to grow out of control. The men at the fires tried to put the fires out with buckets, wet blankets and shovels, but the wind from the Pacific Ocean soon turned into a gale and the men fighting the first fire were forced to give up on their efforts and flee to the shoreline to escape the growing flames.

As the men shouted ahead of the flames, the fire overtook them by leaping from treetop to treetop. According to some reports, men dropped before the eyes of others and were consumed by fire.

The Nanaimo Daily News reported quote:

“The wind swept long forked tongues of flame before it, and carried showers of cinders and burning splinters into the heart of the city.”

An onlooker at the St. James Church nearby began to frantically ring the church bell to alert others to the fire. That bell would eventually be nothing more than a molten bit of metal after the fire had come through. That melted bell now sits in the Vancouver Museum.

In fighting the second fire, the men tried to create a fire break but this was not successful. This fire was abandoned as well, and before long, the two fires joined into one giant fire.

The Kingston Whig-Standard would report quote:

“At 2:30 yesterday afternoon the wind rose to a gale and caused fires, which were burning on the Canadian Pacific Railway reserve, to spread towards the city. A house on the extreme west end caught fire, and the flames spread rapidly to the adjacent buildings. At 4 p.m. the last house in town was in ashes.”

As the fires began to burn into Vancouver, smoke filled the area and people started to flee with whatever belongings they could carry. One man lost $1,800 in cash, while others lost upwards of $20,000 in furniture, bedding, jewelry and more.

In a private letter from an unnamed person that was published in the Victoria Daily Times, it was stated quote:

“Before I got half across the street, I met a man who begged me to hitch up quickly and save a load of boots and shoes from his store. In ten minutes his store was in ashes…A poor woman begged hard for me to take on three trunks, but she had no one to help her and the horses were so wild I could only keep them straight in the road. I stopped once, and in less than a minute, the wagon was full of trunks and then I put the horses as fast as I could manage to pass people.”

Despite the smoke filling the air, and the warnings from others, various residents did not believe the fire was that dangerous and they did not leave. Many did not leave until the very last minute. Some chose not to leave, and instead went into the hotels to drink the liquor that was now sitting unguarded as the owners had left.

The Victoria Daily Times would report quote:

“During the confusion which prevailed, when rowdies and roughs saw that everyone was leaving, they entered the saloons, which had been left entirely unprotected and commenced drinking. Many a one was seen staggering along the street with a keg of beer on his shoulder, or carrying as many bottles of liquor as he could appropriate. Men were seen sitting completely hemmed in by the fire and apparently oblivious of their surroundings drinking liquor.”

The speed of the fire approaching shocked many who did not see a fire as someone came running by yelling for them to run away.

The Nanaimo Daily News reported quote:

“For two or three minutes they heard the roar of the approaching torrent of fire and then they saw it rise like a long wall high above the tall trees of the forest, and then it bounded down like a wild beast on the devoted city. I saw it strike one of the churches which disappeared in half a second, the air appeared to be impregnated with gas and in two minutes the city was on fire.”

This account from an unnamed correspondent continued, stating quote:

“The chickens that were out in the streets feeding on grasshoppers were roasted alive and several persons shared their fate. The smell of burned flesh was horrible.”

The correspondent would also come across the body of a woman and her child, both burned beyond recognition in the street.

As people fled the flames carrying what they could, many began to drop what they had to run faster, littering the streets with household debris. 

Many fled into the water to escape the flames. A young man named Johnson and his mother, an elderly woman, jumped into a well to survive. The woman survived but was badly burned and would die a few days later.

The Indigenous on the reserve saw the smoke and flames spreading and took their canoes out into the water to view the fire.

As residents fled into the water to escape the flames, the Indigenous began to help the survivors who were floundering, or had fallen out of boats that were filled with people. They would then canoe the people to safety.

The Regina Leader reported quote:

“In some cases there was only enough time to place them on improvised rafts which were pushed out from the shore beyond the reach of the flames, which literally seemed to fill the air.”

The Robert Kerr also came as close to shore as it could so that people jumping into the water could be hauled aboard and to safety. The steamer Dunsmuir did the same, and transported people to Moodyville where they found temporary shelter.

Amid the danger, the Vancouver Volunteer Hose Company No. 1 went to Scoullar’s General Store to remove explosives that had been stored there, while Thomas McGuian, the city clerk, saved the city records that detailed the short history of the community.

The fire brigade had only been formed on May 28, 1886, and with no engine and still waiting for equipment to arrive from Ontario, all they had were axes and shovels to fight the fire.

The fire would eventually burn through the community and with nothing left to burn, began to grow under control.

By the time the fire was finished, 600 to 1,000 buildings were completely destroyed in Vancouver. Very few buildings survived. One building that did was the Bridge Hotel, which was then turned into a makeshift morgue for the 21 people who died in the fire. Although, the exact number of dead is unknown and due to the transient population of the time, the exact number is likely higher. Often, it was hard to even identify the bodies as human. The Victoria Daily Times reported quote:

“Alderman Balfour, who is in the city, says there was a report that what was believed to be the remains of two bodies had been discovered but it was impossible to determine that the debris had ever been human bodies. It is scarcely probable that it will ever be known positively whether all the fatalities have been discovered so complete was the cremation.”

One man was identified by his wife by his watch chain as it was the only recognizable thing on his body.

Some of the dead had drowned escaping the flames, and most of the dead were working class.

The Kingston Whig-Standard reported quote:

“A whole city ablaze and a panic-stricken population describes the scene. Numbers sought refuge in the water. One was found in a well. The horrible holocaust defied description. Few people have more than the clothes they stand in.”

The Hamilton Spectator wrote quote:

“Our promising, plucky little metropolis at the Pacific end of the Canadian Pacific Railway is in ashes, not half a dozen houses remain out of 500. The worst of all is the heavy loss of life. One short hour did the whole work. Ten bodies have been found and numerous persons are inquired for. The property saved is insignificant.”

The entire city had been destroyed in 45 minutes and the cost of the damages was $1.3 million or $40 million today.

One eyewitness said quote:

“Vancouver did not burn. It exploded.”

In the letter published in the Victoria Daily Times, the individual states quote:

“The whole thing was over so soon it was impossible to realize exactly what had happened. One man said to me, it was like a dream, and I don’t think he could have described it better.”

News quickly began to spread across Canada via the telegraph. The Montreal Star reported quote:

“Vancouver, the new city on the Pacific coast which, as the Pacific terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway, is expected to be second in Canada only to Montreal in the near future, is burned down. Let it be rebuilt as befits a city with a great future before it.”

Mayor MacLean would telegraph both the Mayor of Toronto and Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and state quote:

“Our city is ashes, three thousand people homeless. Please send us aid at once.”

Toronto council immediately offered $1,000 to the relief committee. Waterloo would send $300 to help the relief committee as well. Hamilton would send $500, and send a telegram to Vancouver stating quote:

“The citizens of Hamilton deeply sympathize with you in the great calamity which has befallen your city.”

Montreal would receive criticism for not sending aid. Mayor Beaugrand would state the reason was the they were not notified by the Vancouver authorities. The Montreal Star would respond to this in an editorial stating quote:

“When a town is swept out of existence, and only two houses left standing, the facilities for telegraphing are not of the best description and the mayor of the terminal city should be pardoned for neglecting to notify every city in the dominion.”

Over a week later, Montreal would give $2,000 to the relief committee. An official telegram stated quote:

“That the citizens of Montreal, in public meeting assembled, desire to express their sympathy with their fellow-countrymen on the Pacific coast in the great disaster which has befallen them in the entire destruction of the city of Vancouver.”

The CPR gave $3,000 to assist people who lost everything in the fire.

The messages had to be transported by horse to New Westminster, and then sent on the telegraph.

Citizens and the government of New Westminster began to send aid upon hearing about the fire.

Residents of Vancouver, who had lost everything, were told to gather at Westminster Bridge to await relief supplies.

After the fire, the correspondent from the Nanaimo Daily News related what he saw in the city, stating quote:

“Today, I crossed over the site of Vancouver city, it is a dismal black waste in the woods. The fire ate up everything.”

Only days after the fire, work began to rebuild the community. Free lumber was provided from the Hastings Mill to anyone rebuilding their home or business.

The Kingston Whig-Standard reported quote:

“A thousand men will go to work clearing up tomorrow for the CPR. Twenty contracts for rebuilding are already let. Many men are ruined by determined to start in their old localities.”

By 3 a.m. the next day, lumber wagons were heading towards Vancouver and were unloaded by the light of lanterns.

A tent city hall was set up, and three constables were appointed to prevent looting in the ruins. One of the first bylaws passed was that building had to be made of brick or stone.

One man said quote:

“In 20 minutes, Vancouver had been wiped off the Earth. In 12 hours, it was rising again.”

White canvas tents were visible across the city, where residents were living and business was being conducted.

The first building to be rebuilt was the CPR Hotel. Within two weeks, businesses were reopening in basic structures.

It also did not take long, mere weeks, for businesses to take advantage of the fire. One safe company published the following testimonial that may have been fabricated, stating quote:

“After the fire, we examined the safes sold by you, some of which were put to the most severe test, having been surrounded by large quantities of lard and bacon and we are pleased to testify to the remarkable manner in which every safe sold by you preserved its contents, not only books and papers, but also thousands of dollars in paper money that were taken out in perfect condition.”

On June 24, the first through train arrived in Vancouver after the fire.

Six months after the fire, 500 buildings had been rebuilt, with many of the new buildings now made of brick.

A year after the fire, the population of Vancouver had reached 2,000 people. Within six years, there were 13,000 people living there.

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Vancouver Is Awesome, Culture Trip, Macleans, Wikipedia, GasTown.org, Montreal Star, Montreal Gazette, Kingston British Whig, Hamilton Spectator, Nanaimo Daily News, Regina Leader,

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