Remembering the Fire

Posted by Daniel on Jun 11, 2011

Monday marks the 125th anniversary of the Great Vancouver Fire which destroyed the city almost before it was born.

It was a Sunday afternoon, June 13, a hot day with a fairly strong breeze blowing. Work crews were burning slash to the west and south of the small townsite of Gastown. Suddenly a gust of wind picked up some sparks and blew them helter skelter into the adjacent underbrush and remaining stands of timber. Flames shot up and in a matter of minutes fire reached the cluster of wooden buildings that formed the core of the city and devoured them.

"The city did not burn," said eye-witness W.H. Gallagher, "it was consumed by flame; the buildings simply melted before the fiery blast." Residents ran for their lives. "The fire travelled down the wooden sidewalk faster than a man could run," recorded Gallagher. Some people threw themselves into the harbour to escape. One group tore up a wharf and used the planks to build a raft; others took refuge on the sailing ship Robert Kerr which was anchored in the harbour; still others were rescued by Squamish people who paddled over from their villages. Eyewitnesses reported looters breaking into the saloons in search of free booze.

In less than a hour the wind dropped and the flames faded, leaving 3,000 people homeless. More than 20 people died in the fire, among them a mother and child whose bodies were discovered in a well where they had taken shelter, then suffocated as the fire passed over them, sucking all the oxygen out of the air. When evening came, Gallagher described "a mass of glimmering lights in the darkness of the night, smouldering embers and smoke. The city had been swept clean..."

Yet before dawn the city began to rise from the ashes. By three o'clock in the morning horse-drawn wagons were delivering lumber from New Westminster to begin rebuilding. The next day the sounds of hammer and saw indicated that a new Vancouver was on the rise.