Monday, July 30, 2012

Benefits of the Blaze

At the time of the 1910 fire, the most prestigious hotel in Victoria was the Driard, located between Broad and Douglas streets. Opened in 1872 by Frenchman, Sosthenes Driard, the hotel had changed through a variety of hands. In 1892, the Driard was completely rebuilt and it was famous far beyond Victoria due to the quality of the food, drink and service. Perhaps it was the best on the Pacific coast. Just a few weeks before the fire, a Mr. Weldon became its latest proprietor.

The fire spurted several times across Broad Street and came close enough to the hotel damage it. Fortunately, the building did not actually catch on fire although guests were advised to leave and many carried their belongings into the nearby streets. The rooms did however suffer water damage from the hoses.

There were great losses in this fire. The architect, Samuel Maclure - who was responsible for some of Vancouver's heritage buildings - had an office in the Five Sisters Block and valuable documents were lost from there. Savannah's photo studio had more than 50,000 negatives, which formed a unique record of the city's early days. Those offices were in the same building as Samuel Maclure and those records went up in smoke. Lowe's photographic supply firm was also destroyed as well as six small ships in the nearby harbour that were damaged by falling sparks.

It took until 3:00 am to get the fire under control and by dawn, all flames were extinguished. The next day though revealed a bad sight - the entire area bounded by Government, Fort, Broad and Trounce streets had been destroyed. The estimated loss of property and merchandise was $1,500,000. The streetcar line along Government Street was blocked by debris.

Fortunately, there was only one death as a result of the fire. The wife of the proprietor of the Bismark Hotel, Mrs. Samuel Shore, died of shock.
Some blackened walls still stood but those presented a danger to the public. So, in the next few days the Government Street wall of the Spencer store was taken down using dynamite. Other ruined buildings were dismantled and cleared away.

The sons of the founder of the Spencer store, Christopher and Victor Spencer, were in Vancouver at the time of the fire. Undaunted by the loss, the brothers announced they would rebuild the Victoria store on a larger scale. A few days later, the public was informed that the Spencers had bought the Driard Hotel and the nearby Victoria Theater. This is where they would be carrying out business. It also meant the end of the famous hostelry and began the Empress's undisputed leadership as the premier hotel of Victoria.

There were benefits to this fire though. View Street had previously come to an awkward end at Broad Street. Now it was extended one block west to Government Street, which improved the flow of traffic and allowed the erection of two new office blocks - the Central Building and the Union (now known as the Royal  Trust) Building.

And the unsightly telephone wires, which had snaked overhead? Those were now put underground.
Thanks goes once again to Derek Pethick and his book British Columbia Disasters for supplying the above information.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

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Friday, July 27, 2012

The Five Sisters Block

David Spencer was a leading citizen in 1910 Victoria. He had emigrated to British Columbia during the Gold Rush days and was smart enough to go into business. Initially, Spencer owned a stationery store in Victoria and later he had established a drygoods business. In fact, his store on Government Street had become a formidable rival to the Hudson's Bay Company.

On October 26, 1910, an auditor at Spencer's store was working late. The auditor left at 10:00 o'clock, leaving the two watchmen who were there to keep an eye for burglars and fire.

At 10:45 the proprietor of the Army and Navy cigar store was leaving his premises when he saw a small blazed in the center of the main aisle of the Spencer Store. Moments later, the two watchmen ran out store crying out to call the firemen.

The tobacconist ran back to his store and phoned the fire department before rushing home to wake his family and get them to safety.

The fire department arrived and the fire fighters entered the store. Or at least they tried to. Glass and debris were falling from the upper floors, which it impossible to fight the fire from the interior. So they went to street and focused the hoses on the second story. Unfortunately, the flames had already traveled up the elevator shaft and could now be seen on the roof. The store and its contents were doomed.

The firemen applied their efforts to preventing the loss of nearby buildings. However, this was not to be. The Five Sisters Block (named for the five daughters of Sir James Douglas) was ablaze by midnight and it didn't take long for it to be a total loss.  The Victoria Book and Stationery Company and Henry Young's drygoods store soon succumbed to the fiery monster though the office of the Times (the Colonist's afternoon rival since 1884) were damaged but not destroyed. For a while it appeared that the impressive new Pemberton Building (now known as the Yarrow Building) at the corner of Fort and Broad might also catch fire but it was saved.

It was now midnight and the blaze had lit up a large area as though it were daylight. Which was a good thing because the fire had destroyed the overhead electric and telephone wires.

At this time, the business district was an unsightly jungle of overhead wires and the citizens had been pleading for some time to place them underground. Now the fire had not only destroyed communications, the electric wires were a danger to the firemen. If a live wire fell, a person could be electrocuted. So the electric current was intentionally cut for safety reasons.

Because the wires were down, the fire fighters were unable to reach the Work Point Barracks in Esquimalt for help. Therefore, a motorcar was sent speeding to the barracks for help and soon 150 members of the garrison arrived to lend a hand.

As we see happen so many times in disaster situations, a crowd had gathered around the business area to watch by midnight. Some had been attending the theatre so were in evening clothes. Although most spectators were content to watch, a few did help the firemen haul hoses.

Monday I will tell you a bit more about the fire as well as the aftermath.

I hope you have a great weekend and find the beauty around you.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

1910 in Victoria

I may be the Vancouver Vagabond and I enjoy writing on Vancouver and it's history. Sometimes though I like to take a look at other areas of the province - as anyone who reads my blog knows - and today I want to tell you about a fire in Victoria in 1910.
1910 was a happy, prosperous time for Victoria. The exciting age of science and industry replaced the fur trade days and it was seen all over the capital city. The 1860s heralded the arrival of the telegraph, the telephone in the 1880s and the first streetcar in 1890. In 1895, the first moving picture was seen by residents. The dawn of a new century heralded so much promise.

The first decade of the twentieth century seemed like a magical time. The first automobile arrived in Victoria in 1902, university work had begun, in 1904, the cornerstone of the Carnegie Library was laid. CPR announced in the early 1900s that a large modern hotel would be built on the Inner Harbour and on January 20, 1908, the Empress opened its doors. (My mother and I were in Victoria in early 2008 or 2009 and we went for high tea at the Empress. A beautiful experience.)

The entire western world was in an economic boom and Victoria was no exception. A young premier, Richard McBride, vowed to cover Vancouver Island with a network of railways; fine private residences and ornate public and commercial buildings were rising on all sides. A stock exchange opened in the city. Not even the death of King Edward could depress the citizens of this great city for long. For a short time, houses and streetcars were shrouded in black and purple but work continued on the Dunsmuir's mansion "Hatley Park".

For fifty cents a month, a person could get the Colonist newspaper delivered and read ads from such as the tobacconist E.A. Morris who proclaimed "I am the man who imports cigarettes for ladies," while clothiers W. and J. Wilson advertised "sox" for fifty cents a pair. The "Ideal Provision Company" was ready to sell sirloin of beef at 12 1/2 cents a pound and if someone thought that was too expensive, pot roasts were 9 cents.

A Colonist editorial predicted that Winston Churchill was "almost certain to become an exceedingly formidable factor in the public life of the empire"; someone else predicted that women would get the vote by 1920. (in case you are wondering B.C. women got the right to vote on April 5, 1917; federally, we were given that right on May 24, 1918) The paper also declared that all motorcars should carry lights after dark. 

A noteworthy event in Victoria happened in the autumn of 1910. The conclusion of a financial agreement with the residents of the local Songhees Indian reserve - the reservation was 115 acres across the harbour to the west of the city. In return for a payment of $10,000 to head of each of 43 families on the reserve, the Songhees agreed to cede the area to the white man and move to a new location.

So life was good in Victoria, B.C. in 1910. Life was prosperous and the future was bright. It seemed as if everything was perfect and always would be. Alas, as we all know, nothing lasts forever and tragedy was soon to strike. Friday I will tell you what happened.

I would like to thank the book British Columbia Disasters by Derek Pethick for the information I am relating to you.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

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