Past Tense

The Great Vancouver Fire

The southeast corner of Cordova and Carrall the morning after the fire. The Regina Hotel at Cambie and Water is in the distance, and the smaller white tent in the upper left is about where Woodward’s is today.

Vancouver was oppressively hot on 13 June 1886, a condition only made worse by the clearing fires on the CPR lands. A strong breeze provided some relief from the heat. The trees on the CPR townsite had all been felled in the 2-month old “city” and now fires were being used to clear away the stumps and the brush.

The young settlement had only been built up to about Cambie Street on the west. What exactly caught fire first depends on the source telling the story. Somewhere between Hamilton and Granville streets, according to one eyewitness. Another report said it was first discovered at the Ferguson Block at Powell and Carrall, while still others say it originated in a brush heap near the store of Messrs. Hayden & Co. or in the shed of the Colonial Hotel. Most likely, the sudden burst of strong wind that allowed the fire to obliterate the city in less than an hour showered embers on several locations.

Water Street, from Cambie looking east to Carrall a month before the fire. The forest in the distance is just past Main Street.

The heat became so intense that buildings and the clothes on people’s backs burst into flames. Eyewitness accounts get truly gruesome. By the end of it, 21 deaths were confirmed, although additional human remains were found as late as 1906. Some people, like George Bailey, the bartender at the swanky Burrard Hotel, went mad and were unable to save themselves.

Most buildings were incinerated. Among the exceptions were the Regina Hotel (on the site of the present-day Water St. Café), the Bridge Hotel by the Westminster Avenue bridge and several other dwellings near False Creek, along with Hastings Mill. The mill owner’s house was only spared because of his wife’s stubborn resolve to fight the blaze. Of the surviving structures, only the Hastings Mill Store has been preserved, which has since been moved to the foot of Alma and converted into a museum.

These three Prior Street cabins survived the Great Fire only to be demolished in the 1930s. City of Vancouver Archives REF. # GF N5.2

Refugees from the fire fled on foot and by water. Some used makeshift rafts, or were rescued by boats such as the Robert Kerr and the Dunsmuir that were in the harbour. Still more were saved by natives who paddled over from their communities on the other side of Burrard Inlet and False Creek and took survivors in for the night. Support, food, and supplies flooded in from nearby towns. The federal government immediately issued $5000 in disaster relief, and even far away Toronto sent $1000 (but it should have been “five times as much,” according to a writer for the Toronto World).

The Great Fire is almost too perfect an origin myth: the story of determined pioneers persevering through an unthinkably tragic disaster and going on to create a great city out of the ashes. Most incredibly, survivors saw their misfortune as an opportunity to build a better city – this time with bricks – and within a few short days new buildings mushroomed and businesses began reopening. “Our city is their monument,” wrote city archivist Major Matthews.

But there are some rascals in this story, too. Notably, the man in charge of the Robert Kerr, who took his job too seriously and tried to limit the number of passengers on the vessel “with all the proverbial insolence and stupidity of ‘insect authority,’” according to the Daily News. Threats of being thrown overboard quickly changed his mind.

City jailor John Clough appeared out of the woods with armloads of blankets for the survivors. No one knows for sure, but the popular theory was that he had stolen them before the fire and had stashed them in the bush.

Booze, of course, was foremost in many people’s minds in the addicted city. Barrels of whiskey were saved by tossing them into the water. Mayor MacLean created the Vancouver Police Department on the spot by recruiting and swearing in a man on the street and ordering him to retrieve three barrels that were floating away.

Map of the fire based on eyewitness accounts collected by archivist Major Matthews.

The syndicated version of the news story that was carried by the New York Times and Toronto World reported that

during the confusion which prevailed, when rowdies and roughs saw that every one was leaving, they entered the saloons which had been left entirely unprotected and commenced drinking. Many a one was seen staggering along the streets with a keg of beer on his shoulder and as many bottles of liquor as he could appropriate. Men were seen sitting completely hemmed in by the fire and apparently oblivious to their surroundings drinking liquor. They were of course then already partially intoxicated.

Architect TC Sorby similarly reported that

a rough and wild crowd held revelry, and in the lurid light hunted for plunder and sacked the ill-fated town. Whiskey casks that had escaped the fire, by being rolled into the water, had been breached and the contents lent their maddening influence to the already over-excited crowd.

The day after the fire, the Victoria Daily Times reported that “the rowdy element prevails at present, but Constable Huntly anticipates no serious trouble.”

The Great Fire coincided with the 94th anniversary of George Vancouver’s visit to the area, and in 1925, June 13th was designated “Vancouver Day.”