Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Our Darkest Hour

1886 was a special spring for Vancouver - it was an exciting time to live in this little logging community that was known officially as Granville and unofficially as Gastown. Earlier that year local citizens had petitioned the provincial legislature to become a city and on April 6, a bill became law. Granville became Vancouver. By June, with a population of barely a thousand people, this small community had schools, churches, a police department and a post office. One executive even had a croquet lawn.

The railway was coming, the newborn Vancouver had to be ready. The sounds  of hammers and saws filled the air continuously. Situated along the southern shore of Burrard Inlet, the task of clearing space for future homes and businesses had begun in a large area to the south. Every tree on the higher ground was being cut down and dragged oxen along 'skid-roads' to the mills. Some attempts to burn the great piles of brush that were being left behind and although some attempt to burn them was made; it was generally thought that this chore could wait. More pressing matters had to be completed.

Disaster struck on a sunny afternoon on Sunday, June 13, 1886. Church services had been completed for the day, as had the midday meal. Some people went on picnics at a military reserve established by Colonel R.C. Moody. (Today we call that reserve Stanley Park but it wasn't named yet) Others strolled around the town,site and dreamed of what this little village could become. It was a carefree time. That is until about ten minutes past two. That is when a shout went up, fire.

According to this book I am referring to by historian Derek Pethick, British Columbia Disasters, cites the reason for this fire to be the tinder dry brush left behind after the tree removal. Other reports claim it was clearing fires that had been set the day before that got out of hand.

Whichever story is true, it doesn't really matter anymore. The entire hillside above the city was on fire. A wall of flame was sweeping its way to the community on the inlet and there was no hope of extinguishing the blaze. Only flight could ensure safety.

Many citizens headed for the water. Boats and hastily improvised rafts carried Vancouverites out onto the water and away from the roaring inferno. However, the flames were so fierce that they swept across the inlet and some who thought they were safe still lost their lives. Other people, who knew they didn't have time to make it to the water, jump into their wells for safety. With most fires this would have protected them but the fire that raged on June 13, 1886 wasn't a normal fire. It was so intense that it sucked up all the available oxygen and many died of suffocation. One survivor recalled that 'the city did not burn; it was consumed by flame. The buildings simply melted before the fiery blast.'

One woman recalled that she had just entered a bedroom and suddenly a great wall of flame went down the narrow passageway between her home and the next house. Panicked, she grabbed her husband's hat which lay on the dressing table and seconds later the windows crashed in.

Charles Gardiner Johnson - the city's first poll clerk - and John Boultbee - Vancouver's first police magistrate - found themselves cut off by the fire. They, and a bartender named Bailey, took shelter in a big hole where the roots of a giant tree had been blown down by a wind. The three men covered themselves with dirt as best they could. The clothes on their were burning and Bailey couldn't stand it so he decided to run through the fire but didn't get far before the fire consumed him.

The two men left in the hole were there with a pouch of live cartridges. A wave of heat caused the cartridges to explode and although the rounds could have fatally injured either of them, they didn't. Boultbee though carried three bald spots where live coals had landed in his hair and singed his scalp.

One family hid from the flames in a ditch, using the little water they found there to help shield themselves from the incredible heat. All around them men burned to death yet this family survived.

Jonathan Miller, the first postmaster, managed to travel across the inlet to Moodyville with some of the department papers; his wife saved only her prayer-book. The city clerk, T.F. McGuigan, was able to save some of the documents he was responsible for as well. One of the city's first real estate brokers, Walter Graveley, was able to get to his office and save its ledgers. Then, when he left and abandoned the building to the flames, Graveley locked the door behind him.
There was one citizen, an eccentric to say the least, who sat calmly on the roof of his house. A house that happened to be directly in the path of the fire. His Japanese houseboy and a friend passed this man wet blankets from below and the man on the roof would repeatedly fired his pistol into the turbulent sky. He explained that he was creating air currents that were favorable to his dwelling. It may seem ridiculous but his house was one of the few left standing the next day!
On my next entry, I will tell you how Vancouver survived its darkest hour and went on to flourish.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

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  1. Karen, this was a very intricate read for me, as I have had prior knowledge about this terrible incident. It was awesome that you posted pictures of all types of beautiful flora and fauna. God bless, and happy gardening!

    -Carlos Hernandez

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