june 13, the day of the great fire

120 years ago today vancouver went up in flames. fanned by high winds, the slash burning CP rail workers were doing on land in what is now downtown vancouver turned into a raging fire that consumed almost all of the young city. a number of people (some say 8, some say 28) died, and about one thousand wooden buildings were destroyed; they “simply melted before the fiery blast”, according to one eyewitness.

a huge flame a hundred feet long burst from the deighton hotel, leaped maple tree square and swallowed up the buildings where now stands the europe hotel. the fire went down old hastings road faster than a man could run. two iron tires and some ashes were all that was left of man, horse and cart which perished in the middle of carrall street." (from http://www.citytalks.ca/sun_article.htm)

many of the stories i’ve read focus not so much on the fire as on the amazing feats of support and rebuilding that followed immediately afterwards. maybe that’s because the fire itself was very short – between twenty and forty-five minutes, according to various accounts. but maybe the experience of rising up from this catastrophe was also stronger than the devastation.one of the many heroes was jailer john clough who, rumour has it, was deep enough into the sauce to have had intimate knowledge of jail from the inside of a cell. at any rate, after the fire, he appeared out of nowhere with armfuls of blankets, which he gave to the people who had not coats. another rumour has it that he had previously stolen the blankets from the jail – but hey, who’s asking questions?

it looks like in the downtown eastside, only three cottages in the prior street area were still standing. the houses on carrall street were all gone. but that didn’t prevent the mayor from erecting a tent at the foot of carrall street, to serve as a temporary city hall.

the citizens of new westminister sent food and all the help they could, and the survivors were fed by one of the many bridges that seemed to have been in existence back then.

for a few years in the 1920’s, june 13 was celebrated as “vancouver day”, to remember the devastation and rebuilding that happened on that fateful day. too bad they dropped that – i think it would be a great idea to reinstate it. i for my part am inspired by the spirit of strength and neighbourliness that raged through the city on that fateful day.

isabella mori


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