Friday, June 29, 2012

Blistered but Not Busted

When we left off on Wednesday, New Westminster was on fire but help had arrived and citizens and fire fighters alike were working to put out the blaze. The next day, Monday, September 12, 1898, residents woke to find the flames extinguished but the ravages of the fire were everywhere. Sidewalks were gone, replaced by paths of greyish brown dust. It looked like the marks left by a carpet rolled up after sitting in place for a long time.

This fire was the worst in British Columbia history to date. The Vancouver fire of 1886 was sudden and violent yet the wooden buildings there were a lot smaller and the community quickly rebuilt. Granted, there were more losses of life in the earlier fire – the only recorded death in the New Westminster fire was a Chinese merchant who died of a heart attack and there were at least thirty fatalities in Vancouver – but the structures lost in New Westminster were more extensive.

All the major hotels, every church but one, the CPR station, the city hall, the court house, the offices of the Daily Columbian, two canneries – one of which had a whole season’s pack – a warehouse full of coal and another full of feed for livestock were just some of the property casualties of the fire. Add to that list the public library, two fire halls, the opera house, two banks and the post office. As well, the fire devoured many businesses firms and private residences. Three hundred in all! And to make matter worse, few people carried fire insurance.

Other important items lost include maps of the Fraser River that were being prepared to prevent any replay of the great flood of 1894. Relics associated with Captain George Vancouver and Sir John Franklin vanished. Another loss of the fire was $20,000 worth of opium. (At that time, it was legally available for sale in British Columbia.)
Mayor Ovens sent a wire to Premier Semlin in Victoria asking for help. And assistance was quickly delivered. The premier ordered tents and blankets seen immediately. James Dunsmuir, a coal baron, had a special trainload of relief supplies sent north from Victoria to Nanaimo then put on his company’s steamer, Joan. Joan waited to cast off for New Westminster as soon as she was loaded.

Several high government officials rushed to the stricken city. Relief committees were set up in Victoria and Vancouver to raise supplies and money for the victims of the fire. What had once been the centre of a thriving city was now 20 acres of ash. Over a thousand people were now homeless and had spent one or two nights sleeping in blankets under the stars. These people now lived in tents or resided with families in homes that had escaped the wrath of the fire.

The city began to return to live quickly. Hope had survived the fire. Makeshift shacks appeared in the city hall square and merchants offered new stock to the impoverished citizens.  A 12 x 10 tent now represented city hall.

The CPR had donated $5,000, James Dunsmuir $3,000 and this helped the recovery begin. The dominion government announced it would rebuild its buildings in the city. The opened vaults of the banks of British Columbia and Montreal reveal that the contents were still intact. As well, the great exposition scheduled for the next month was not cancelled even if visitors had to finding lodgings in Vancouver.

Not everyone was nice though. Walter Nichol who was editor of the Vancouver Province and later became Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, wrote soon after the fire that New Westminster was a city of yesterday and that its dreams of greatness had been scattered to the heavens. He also stated that the citizens should now move to Vancouver. A group of New Westminster citizens weren’t that happy with his editorial and made their way to the offices of the Province, burst in and the leader proceeded to beat up Nichol.

I have written on Walter Nichol before. Go here if you would like to read more about him.

New Westminster was far from over. Once shopkeeper advertised that, he was ‘blistered but not broken’ a few days after the fire. As well, New Westminster’s tragedy led to improvements in how communities handled fire and improved the province’s emergency services

Last week, when I wrote on the Great Fire of 1886 in Vancouver, I commented that I wish people nowadays would show the same determination and willingness to make things work as they had in times of strife like this. A reader of the Stanley Cup riots reminded me that last year when a group of losers damaged the downtown area, there were many citizens who showed up the next morning to help clean up the mess.  I guess we aren’t lost after all.

Thanks goes again to Derek Pethick and his book British Columbia Disasters for supplying the information. There are some interesting facts and accounts from survivors in his book so, if you can find it, it makes a good read.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Flames of New West

September 1898. Our former provincial capital, New Westminster, prepared for an elaborate exposition that was happening later that season. People went to sleep on Saturday, September 10 no doubt filled with excitement for the future.Then disaster struck.

The terrifying sounds of fire alarms roused the citizens around 11 o'clock the next morning.

New Westminster is built on the side of a hill that rises from the north bank of the Fraser River so anyone who looked his or her window could see the horrendous fire that had broken out along the waterfront. (It is quite a hill as well, I used to live in the historic city and walking up the hills was good exercise)

Brackman-Ker feed company owned a large hay-filled warehouse on Front Street.Perhaps the fire was caused by a spontaneous combustion or maybe sparks from a passing steamer fell on the roof of the building. Whatever started the blaze, the warehouse was soon a mass of flames that also destroyed the nearby city market. From there, the fire roared in several directions and was soon ravaging its way up the hillside.

The business and government sections of the city, which were concentrated near the river, were the first areas severely damaged. This six block square district contained most of the city's finest buildings. There were three steamers tied to the wharves and when they caught on fire the mooring ropes parted and the vessels began to drift downstream, spreading the fire with them. The Gladys and Edgar soon sank but the Bon Accord kept going. As the fiery vessel approached an important lumber mill, smart thinking citizens scuttled her.

Flames engulfed six blocks along the river as well as areas on the hillside. Columbia Street looked like a mass of flames and sometimes the fire would zigzag across the street. In a few moments, another building would disappear as the fiery monster fed.

By this time, the fire department had gone into action but as we have seen with many disasters, the emergency forces were not ready to deal with the crisis. In fact, when Vancouver went up in flames in 1886, we didn't even have a fire department!  In New West, fire destroyed both fire halls. The city reservoir had  fallen to dangerously low levels - panicked householders reduced those levels further by pouring water from garden hoses on their homes. Horses were not immediately available to haul the fire engines; a fire boat stationed on the river was not ready for action. In addition, fire hydrants had been opened  and hoses attached but the flames were advancing so rapidly that many times these hydrants were abandoned without turning them off.

This was this city's greatest hour of need and they found themselves virtually defenseless.

Mayor Thomas Ovens telegraphed Vancouver and told them of the disaster. In a remarkably short time Chief Carlisle's horse drawn engines arrived and started helping. They tore down the small buildings, which might have spread the blaze and began pumping water from the river. By doing this, the fire fighters were eventually able to confine the blaze to an area of about seven blocks square. Yet, at the inferno's height - about 3 o'clock in the morning - the city's center was an inferno. People were on the roofs with pails of water, trying to prevent their homes from catching fire from the myriad of sparks that were dropping from the sky.
Next time I will tell you of some of the acts of heroism and how other communities rallied around the stricken city. These stories are coming from the book British Columbia Disasters by Derek Pethick.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

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Monday, June 25, 2012

Babes in the Woods

January 15, 1953 is a day that remains in the memories of many people. On that winter day, a park Board employee found a cheap, woman's raincoat and when Albert Tong moved the garment, he made a horrifying discovery. Beneath the shelter of the fabric were two skeletons.

Tong had worked for the Parks Board for fifteen years and on this day, he and a gang of workers were busy clearing brush from the area near Beaver Lake in Stanley Park. The employees were working about 100 yards off the main park driveway and 500 yards from the causeway.

Brush and leaves covered the skeletons although it wasn't apparent to Tong whether the remains had been buried. The skeletons were thought to be either a woman and a child or perhaps two children. One skeleton, the larger of the two, wore an aviator type helmet such as the type a boy would wear.

Found near the skeletons were a few items. A small, broken hatchet, a man's shoe, a lunch bucket, a child's belt, a woman's shoe, a child shoe. Not much that could lead to the identity of the skeletons.

The bones were taken to the city morgue where they were examined by the coroner's pathologist, Dr. T.R. Harmon, the coroner, Dr. John Whitbread, and detectives. Due to the discovery of a hole in the head of one of the victims, this is now a murder and the hatchet believed to be the murder weapon.

At the time of the discovery, the skeletons were labelled a boy and a girl and thought to have been in the area for about a year, maybe two. Police started scouring missing person's reports for a boy and a girl but the case remained unsolved.

In 1997, Detective Brian Honeyborne decided to reopen the cold case. He took the bones from storage and took them to Dr. David Sweet at the Bureau of Forensic Dentistry at UBC. Dr. Sweet removed teeth from each skeleton and drilled them for DNA. Remarkably, he was able to gather DNA and test it. That's when the case of the Babes in the Woods was turned on its ear.

It was long thought that the remains were that of a boy and a girl but DNA proved that theory wrong. The skeletons were actually half brothers.

Dr. David Honeyborne has since retired though I did read an article in which he speaks of how this case has haunted him.  He would still like to find an answer to the question of who killed those babes.

It is likely that the murderer, or most of those who were directly involved in this murder, are dead now. It is also more than likely that this case will probably never solved. Yet we can hope that one day a secret will be revealed and this cold case will be solved.

I found a great blog with some photos of the evidence and the original newspaper articles. If you are interested, visit The "Babes in the Woods" blog. There is also information all over the web. Just do a search for Babes in the Woods Vancouver.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

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