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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