The Great Fire of Vancouver
When Vancouver was Destroyed
By Andrew Farris
On a quiet Sunday in June 1886, the newly-incorporated city of Vancouver was completely destroyed. A raging fire, whipped up by relentless winds and fueled by tinder-dry conditions, swept through the city, consuming all but a handful of buildings and killing some 28 people. The dramatic opening chapter in Vancouver's history is often glossed over, but thanks to Lisa Anne Smith's recently published book, Vancouver is Ashes, that has changed. Her meticulous research allows us to pinpoint where individuals were on that day and follow in their footsteps as they fled the raging inferno. In this tour we will follow in those footsteps. We'll learn about life in Vancouver's pioneer days, hear the harrowing tales of the people who lived through the fire, and see how Vancouver recovered and prospered, laying the groundwork for the city we know today.
We'd like to thank the Vancouver Archives for generous use of their historic photo collection. We also owe thanks to the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association who partnered with us to develop the Stories of Granville Street tour.
1. Birth of a City
The first European settlement in modern Vancouver was the Hastings sawmill, founded in 1867 on the site of today's container port. You can see part of the mill in the distance at the far left of the old photo. In those days it was little more than a small clearing in the forest, a lonely outpost on the edge of the vast wilderness. The arrival of John Deighton, or Gassy Jack, changed that. John Deighton's nickname "Gassy" came from his talent for endlessly telling stories. Gassy Jack's eventful life meant he had no shortage of material to captivate his audience. Born in Yorkshire, England, Jack's adventures included captaining ships around the world, prospecting for gold in two gold rushes, winning a vast fortune and losing it in San Francisco's red light district, and opening the Globe Saloon pub in New Westminster. Going on vacation in 1867, he entrusted his beloved saloon to an American friend. Unfortunately, this his vacation coincided with the July 4 weekend, and when Jack returned he found that the Independence Day party had gotten out of control and his saloon had been destroyed. So Jack got in a rowboat with his wife, and a barrel of whiskey, and rowed all the way around to Burrard Inlet. He spotted a beautiful patch of maple trees just west of the mill and determined that this was to be the sight of the second Globe Saloon. Calling the workers over from the mill, he declared that if they would build him a pub, they could drink as much whiskey as they could handle in a sitting. The thirsty men needed no encouragement: that very same day the new Globe Saloon was complete and open for business. The seed of Vancouver had been planted.1
2. Pushing Back the Forest
The old growth forests of Vancouver were truly awe-inspiring. The temperate rainforest climate caused the stands of Douglas fir, cedar, hemlock, and spruce to grow to mind-boggling dimensions, astonishing European immigrants who had never seen anything like it. Some were over a thousand years old and stood over 100 metres tall (300 feet). Their trunks were often so thick that lumberjacks had to ascend into the canopy just to find a section narrow enough to saw through. The loggers would find a particularly big tree and fell it in such a manner that it would knock down smaller trees on its way down, like felling a line of gargantuan living dominos. The branches would then be sawed off and dumped into piles of 'slash', like the one you can see in the foreground of the photo above. Some of these slash piles eventually stood three storeys tall.1 The trunks would then be fired down a skid that led to the water so they could be floated to the mill for harvesting. Logs this large were highly prized, especially for ship's masts. Some of the finest were shipped to Beijing to renovate the Forbidden Palace. All the while a trickle of enterprising pioneers began to settle around Gassy Jack's saloon. Slowly the nucleus of a community took shape. In honour of Gassy Jack, the new inhabitants took to calling the place Gastown.
3. The Clearing Fires
In 1886, with the imminent arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway, settlement quickened its pace. The population jumped from about 900 in 1885 to several thousand. and immigrants from around the world opened all manner of new businesses, including 16 real estate offices.1 2 Vancouver was officially incorporated as a city on April 6, 1886 (though many people kept to calling it Gastown). The new city's future was looking very bright (no pun intended). The new arrivals set to work clearing the debris left behind by the loggers: The piles of slash were burned, the tree stumps were filled with dynamite and blown up, and the ground was flattened out. In those days the acrid clouds of smoke from the clearing fires constantly filled the city. For Vancouverites the smoky morning of June 13, 1886, was little different from any other. Crews worked diligently on two clearing fires, one at Cordova and Cambie and another near the Yaletown Roundhouse, gritting their teeth as a fierce south-westerly wind blew blinding, choking smoke into their faces. Equipped with pails of water, wet blankets and pick-axes, their job was to control the fire as it burned. The Cambie and Cordova crew had to keep pulling more and more water from the pump at the nearby Regina Hotel as their fire grew bigger. You can see the Regina Hotel in the photo above, the taller three-storey building on the right side with the dark walls and light roof. As the wind began to blow harder the men began to get worried.
4. Losing Control
Showers of sparks soared through the air towards the city, setting off mini fires everywhere. With astonishing speed the situation had grown desperate. The work crew's leader dispatched the young George Cary into town to get help, and fast. Cary burst into one of Water Street's many saloons in a state of high excitement: "Some men better come out and fight the fire!"1 The men at the bar, used to frequent fire alarms, murmured and returned to their pints uninterested. Only after intense pleading was Cary able to get a few of them to finish their beers, roll up their sleeves, and step outside. What they saw shocked them: A wall of flame towered over the edge of town and the work crew had hastily withdrawn from the leading edge of the fire. They were now frantically scraping a futile firebreak between the flames and the town. Others were atop the Regina Hotel covering it in a mosaic of wet blankets to protect it from sparks. The situation was quickly growing dire. As Cary and the men from the saloon sprinted back up the quiet street to help confront the city's impending doom, curious heads peeped out of doorways to see what all the ruckus was about.
5. Run for Your Lives!
Harry Devine was an enterprising photographer who had recently arrived in Vancouver and set up a studio. He was keen to document the early days of the promising city. Seeing the fire, he ran to his Cordova Street studio to find his parents and sister already bundling his precious photographs and equipment into a wheelbarrow. He carefully gathered up the blank plate glass negatives and followed them down Abbott, pushing the wheelbarrow through the wild-eyed crowds that now choked the streets. We are very lucky that he escaped, as he saved most of the photos that comprise this tour. In those chaotic minutes as the city burned, Devine was unable to set up his bulky camera and take any photographs. After the flames had died down however, he was created an invaluable photographic record of this historic event. Just eleven days after the fire on June 24 he placed an ad in the Vancouver Daily News, which had remarkably succeeded in re-establishing itself only a few days after the fire. "Photographs of the City of Vancouver before and after the fire can be had at our tent on Cordova street."1
6. Saving his Photographs
The sleepy town was quickly waking up to the dire threat. Water Street filled with terrified men and women, grabbing what possessions they could bundle up while ushering crying children towards the east, away from the flames. Alan McCartney was the owner of W.E. McCartney and Bros Chemists and Druggists on the southwest corner of Water and Abbott. He saw the flames begin to consume the first homes on the edge of town and was appalled. His shop was stocked at great expense with every sort of toiletry and medicine a person in 1886 could need. Fearing the imminent loss of his inventory, he hurriedly started gathering up all the bottles and boxes he could and lugged them down to the water's edge, just on the other side of Water Street. He did not have much time: the fire was coming fast.
7. Vancouver Burns
Packs of refugees fled east along the winding forested trail that is now known as Alexander Street, seeking refuge on the ships moored at Hastings Mill's wharves. For many there was no time to run east and they made for the inlet, commandeering every seaworthy vessel on the waterfront (and some that weren't) so they could frantically paddle away from the fiery shore. Hundreds of others just waded into the inlet, keeping their heads just enough above water to find gasps of breathable air as the smoke enveloped them. The first issue of the Vancouver Daily News published after the fire described the scene at Hastings Mill: "On the steamers and wharves, while the city was a mass of roaring flames, where gathered hundreds of frightened and excited men and sobbing women and children. Anon, there emerged from the dense smoke one and another, GASPING AND BLINDED, with singed hair and blistered hands and faces, who had struggled almost too long to save property…"2
8. A Close Shave
Vancouver's volunteer fire department had only been established 16 days before the fire, and one of the volunteers, Hugh Campbell, had been lounging in the Sunnyside Hotel when the shouts and smoke drew him outside.1 The blast of heat hit him like a punch in the stomach, and he gaped at the towering wall of flames that was heading his ways. In his 16 days as volunteer firefighter, the little training he had undergone placed priority on getting all the stumping dynamite out of town. He knew most of it was in Scoullar's General Store, back up Water Street in the direction of the flames. Campbell wasted no time. He ran to his wagon and hitched up his horse, covering its eyes to keep it from seeing the terrifying flames and bolting. Together they galloped up to Water Street to Scoullar's and loaded up as many crates of dynamite as they could fit. Hopping back on the wagon, Campbell ushered his blinded horse down the chaotic street, swerving crazily to avoid hitting panicked people running every which way. All the time showers of sparks rained down on him and his volatile cargo. Vancouver's surgeon Dr. McGuigan had ignored all the shouting and settled down in the Sunnyside Hotel for a relaxing Sunday nap. Suddenly his friend John Blake burst into the room: "What in the world are you doing! The town is burning down all around us! The roof next door is on fire! Get your stuff packed as quickly as you can or you'll be burned right here with your boots on!"2 McGuigan blinked disbelievingly at Blake for a moment and was about to open his mouth to say something when, as if in answer to his question, the roof suddenly caved in and flames burst through the ceiling, showering the two in sparks and burning splinters. McGuigan was now fully awake and leapt to his feet. Making for the exit, he ran for his office to grab his doctor's instruments—they were sure to come in useful in the days ahead.
The photos from before the fire look like a fire inspector's nightmare: a city built almost entirely of wood, surrounded by mountains of dead, dry brush and stumps. The threat of fire had been one of the first issues discussed by Vancouver City Council, and just 16 days before a volunteer fire department had been established. It was generally agreed that small fires could be dealt with. A major fire on the other hand, was too frightening to contemplate. When that major fire came there was nothing to do but flee. After the fire Vancouver took firefighting much more seriously. A stringent fire code was implemented, the latest fire engines were acquired and the fire crews were trained to an impressive degree of efficiency. Before World War I, an international commission ranked Vancouver's fire department the third best in the world, after London in England, and Leipzig in Germany.1 On this windy day in June however, the volunteer firefighters were no better equipped to save the city than any random bystander.
10. Maple Tree Square
The building at left was the respectable Ferguson Block, Vancouver's first multi-business building. The Canadian Pacific Railway's surveying office was on the top floor and housed all the maps the surveyor Lauchlan Hamilton had created. Hamilton managed to rush inside and save the maps. In doing so he preserved the street layout of Vancouver we have today. Hamilton Street is named after him.
11. The Aftermath
Even as the fire raged, the communities around Vancouver geared up to send aid. The Squamish people living in villages on Stanley Park and False Creek watched in horror as the great pall of smoke spread across Burrard Inlet. The men immediately canoed towards the flames, plucking people from the water and giving whatever aid they could. Boats came over from Moodyville (today's North Vancouver) and Port Moody, bearing hastily assembled food and supplies. New Westminster was connected to Vancouver by a long, rutted road, today's Kingsway. That city's inhabitants, learning of the fire via telegraph, immediately set about filling wagons of relief supplies, including food, clothing, and tents for shelter, and dispatched them to the burning city. The supplies would arrive just before nightfall, a gratefully welcomed succour for the Vancouver's homeless citizens. In the days that followed steamers from Nanaimo, Victoria and even the United States poured into the harbour loaded with supplies. People all along the West Coast came to Vancouver's aid, a kindness that would not soon be forgotten by the city's beleaguered inhabitants.
The damage had been nothing short of catastrophic. Almost all Vancouver's businessmen had lost everything, to say nothing of the hundreds of homes consumed by the flames. The heat was so intense that practically nothing survived: the bell of Saint James Church, valiantly rung by Father Clinton until the last possible moment, had been melted into a heap of bronze slag. Few people had insurance and those that did found its coverage distinctly lacking. In response a relief fund was immediately established and succeeded in raising thousands of dollars within days. Help came too from the CPR, which donated $3,000 to reconstruction. Hours after the fire Mayor MacLean sent a telegram to Prime Minister John A. MacDonald pleading for aid. "Our city is ashes," it read. "Three thousand people homeless. Can you send us any government aid?"1 To our modern eyes it is almost shocking that the prime minister did not immediately reply. The mayor sent another telegram, and then another. Finally, eleven days later, the mayor received a short telegram from Ottawa, announcing a contribution of $5,000. It's a reminder of how much less responsibility the federal government felt it owed to its citizens 130 years ago.2
13. Vancouver is Ashes
The first issue of the Vancouver Daily News, printed in New Westminster and rushed to Vancouver's fire refugees only three days after the fire, eloquently summarizes the mood. It makes for surreal reading today. "Probably never since the days of Pompeii and Herculaneum was a town WIPED OUT OF EXISTENCE so completely and suddenly as was Vancouver on Sunday… "Like nearly all others who had started business in the new city, however, we perceive that the fire, whatever may be its effect upon individuals, is to the city as a whole not a very serious matter, in fact it can scarcely impede the progress of Vancouver at all. A few months, or even a few weeks, will restore the city to as good a basis as it was on before the fire. "
1. Birth of a City
- 1. Bannerman, Gary. Gastown: The 107 years. 1974. P. 12.
2. Pushing Back the Forest
- 1. Smith, Lisa A. Vancouver is Ashes: The Great Fire of 1886. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2014. P. 5.
3. The Clearing Fires
- 1. Macdonald, Norbert. "A Critical Growth Cycle for Vancouver, 1900-1914." BC Studies. No. 17, Spring 1975, 26-42. P. 26.
- 2. Donaldson, Jesse. "Land of Destiny." The Dependent Magazine. 18 Jan. 2012. Online.
4. Losing Control
- 1. Smith, 13,
5. Run for Your Lives!
- 2. Smith, 118.
7. Vancouver Burns
- 1. Davis, Chuck. The Chuck Davis History of Metropolitan Vancouver. Vancouver: Coastal Publishing, 2011.
- 2. Smith, 118.
8. A Close Shave
- 1. Davis.
- 2. Smith, 37.
- 1. Davis.
- 1. Smith, 72.
- 2. Smith, 105.
- Bannerman, Gary. Gastown: The 107 years. 1974
- Davis, Chuck. The Chuck Davis History of Metropolitan Vancouver. Vancouver: Coastal Publishing, 2011.
- Donaldson, Jesse. "Land of Destiny." The Dependent Magazine. 18 Jan. 2012. Online.
- Macdonald, Norbert. "A Critical Growth Cycle for Vancouver, 1900-1914." BC Studies. No. 17, Spring 1975, 26-42.
- Smith, Lisa A. Vancouver is Ashes: The Great Fire of 1886. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2014.