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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