Friday, June 22, 2012

Rising from the Ashes

Darkness fell on the evening of June 13, 1886. Survivors of the fire lay in the relative safety of the ships in the harbour. Others were on the boards of a floating fish reduction plant called 'Spratt's Ark". Yet more huddled under the False Creek ridge. As they shielded themselves from the night wind, they watched the remnants of the great fire glow angrily in the darkness. What had been a blossoming city just a few hours ago was now a pile of ashes.

However, help was on its way. Telegraphs and telephones trasnsmitted news of this calamity to surrounding districts and nature provided a more dramatic signal. Someone in New Westminster  saw a great column of black smoke rising to the sky not long before carriages and wagons carrying survivors arrived. Another person recalls being in church in Port Moody and ashes falling on the hymnbooks.

The destruction was almost total. The only buildings left standing were Regina Hotel and about half a dozen homes.Flames had consumed most of the city records as well as the wooden stakes that marked property lines. The city's main sources of food - livestock and gardens - had vanished.
Then there were the dead. The exact number of people who perished that Sunday afternoon will never be known for the city had many newcomers, single men whose relatives didn't know where they were. Some victims were buried where the bodies were found and others were shipped to New Westminster for burial - Vancouver didn't have a cemetary or a coroner at this time.

Now that could have been the end of the city of Vancouver. A fire like that was devastating and rebuilding was an arduous task. However, spirits had been so high before the fire that even a disaster such as this couldn't get the people down.
The Hastings Mill as well as the Brunette Mill in Burnaby survived the blaze so lumber was available for rebuilding. Two hardware merchants were able to get fresh supplies from Victoria and within  24 hours of the fire, were back in business.  The city was humming!

Walter Gravely, the real estate broker, had many of his important documents - including the deed to the first lot sold by the CPR in Vancouver, which he had purchased and kept to his dying day - in a trunk in the Sunnyside Hotel. The hotel burned to the ground but the papers had been sucked up by the tremendous wind that accompanied the fire then the papers were deposited, still tied together and basically unharmed. They were returned to him.

Mayor Maclean set up city hall in a tent and got to work. He telegraphed the Dominion Goverment for government aid to help and received a prompt reply promising $5,000. He even wrote a friend in Montreal and invited him to come out and see the spirit of the people. In the space of two weeks, two hundred homes were under way.
Can you imagine what these early Vancouver citizens went through and what courage and determination it took for them to start rebuilding? Before the ground had even cooled, the cleanup had begun and enterprising individuals were doing what they could to bring normalcy back to the city. Papers in New Westminster applauded the spirit of Vancouver citizens and Mayor Maclean was certain that Vancouver would have a population of 10,000 by the end of the year.

On May 23, 1887 the first transcontinental train pulled into a thriving city that bore little resemblance to the fire ravaged community it had been less than a year ago. Our journey to becoming a metropolis of a million souls had begun.

I love this story. It shows the heart and passion of the early settlers of Vancouver. The determination and willingness to make things work. I just wish we saw more of that today instead of people complaining and looking for a handout.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

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1 comment:

  1. Wonderful blog!! We loved the pictures, so very beautiful. We live in Atlanta Georgia now and we never tire of the beauty, the trees, the absolute peace we find in nature. Thank you for sharing yours with us!!