When fire destroyed Vancouver in 1886, city hall moved to new air-conditioned premises. Photo by H.T. Devine, Vancouver Public Library #1090.
Vancouver began in the 1860’s as a logging and lumbering community on the south shore near the mouth of Burrard Inlet. Giant Douglas fir and cedar logs were dragged by oxen along skid-roads to tidewater, where Hasting’s mill cut them into timbers and lumber. Loaded aboard the tall-mast sailing ships, the sawn lumber and spars were shipped to markets in Australia, South America, Mexico, China, England, the Hawaiian Islands, and California.
In mockery of incessant rain, the future city was a dry camp—there was no liquor—until Captain John “Gassy Jack” Deighton arrived in 1867. He brought with him a wife and a barrel of whisky. Within 24 hours, lumberjacks built Deighton’s saloon, followed later by the Deighton hotel.
The growing community was fondly known as Gastown until April 6, 1886, when it was incorporated as the City of Vancouver, named after George Vancouver, the British naval explorer who had entered Burrard Inlet 94 years before.
Barely two months after it was incorporated, 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 dug-out 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 saw mill, a planning mill, a hotel, and a few shacks. No one knows how many perished; estimates range from 20 to 50.
Among the ashes were the former offices and plants of the city’s three newspapers: the Weekly Herald, Daily Advertiser, and Daily News, which had first appeared June 1, less than two weeks before the fire. Daily News publishers James Ross, his wife and child found safety on a wharf at the 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.
“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. All the morning the usual pleasant breeze from the ocean was spoiled by smoke from fires in the portion of the townsite owned by the C.P.R. Co., west of the part of the town already built, 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.
“Of course, this being the case, 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 where in 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 streams and wharves, while the city was a mass of roaring flame, where gathered hundreds of frightened and excited men and sobbing women and children. Anon there emerged from the dense some one and 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 made their way toward that body of water, and had a hard struggle to escape with their lives. Mr. Joseph Templeton got through only with the assistance of others. Mr. Martin, of the Burrard hotel, barely escaped with his life, and was prostrated when he reached a place of safety. 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. The disaster was one of the most sudden and terrible which even in the history of the earth has overtaken a community.”
Rebuilding the city
Undaunted by the great fire, Vancouverites began rebuilding before the ashes had hardly cooled.
For the future of the city, the fire ” is not
a very serious matter; in fact it can scarcely
impede the progress of Vancouver at all.”
“The general sentiment of the people appears to be one of hopefulness and determination to begin at once the reconstruction of the city,” Toronto’s Globe reported in a dispatch dated two days after the fire. “Some had already got building material on the ground.”
Mayor Malcolm MacLean assembled his council in a new city hall—a hastily erected tent.
Daily News publisher James Ross, who found “not even a scrap of paper” to save, assured his readers that the fire was no impediment to the city’s progress. In a brief editorial note in his special June 17 edition on the fire, he wrote:
“Like nearly all others who had started in 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. We have therefore determined to continue the publication of the Daily News.”
The optimists were right. “With the first rays of light” on the morning after the fire, “workmen began to reconstruct the city,” writes historian Margaret A. Ormsby. “By Wednesday evening, a three-storey hotel was open for business, and within a month, fourteen new hotels and hundreds of new stores were erected.”
Vancouver seems to have been growing ever since, and downtown, near the waterfront, an area pock-marked with restaurants, bars, offices, and a statue of Captain John Deighton, is still known as “Gastown.”
Sources: The Daily News, Vancouver, June 17, 1896; the Globe, Toronto, June 16, 1886; Bessie Lamb, “From ‘Tickler’ to ‘Telegram’: Notes on Early Vancouver Newspapers, British Columbia Historical Review, Vol. IX, No. 3; Margaret A. Ormsby, “British Columbia: a History,” Toronto: Macmillan, 1958; “Vancouver’s Great Fire in 1886, The Beaver, No. 84 No. 4, August-September 2004.
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