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5 things you (probably) didn't know about the Great Vancouver Fire

It's unknown how many people died in the blaze.
Clockwise from top left: the melted remains of a church bell, the city on June 14, 1886, the impromptu city hall set up after the fire, Vancouver as it was just before the fire.

For those not familiar with the City of Vancouver's earliest days, there's a defining event that drastically changed the course of the city.

Often called the Great Vancouver Fire, it utterly destroyed (up to 1,000 buildings burned to the ground) the young city on June 13, 1886; the city was mere months old at the time, having officially been incorporated in April. Systems we consider commonplace and essential today hadn't been built. For example, there was no real firefighting equipment or way to pump water around the city.

The city was small, as well. Settlers had built up the area around Gastown somewhat, but beyond that much of the land was still forested. However, there were plans for growth, and that's what led to the fire.

Much of the land was owned by Canadian Pacific Railway and was being cleared so the city could expand. Often that meant two very destructive processes; explosives were used to remove stumps and fire was used to remove anything else that wasn't deemed valuable (Vancouver's main export at the time was lumber).

On June 13, 1886, two of the clearing fires west of the city, in what is now downtown Vancouver got out of control as a "fierce wind" blew across the peninsula, moving west to east.

While initially some tried to fight the fire they were overwhelmed. All but a handful of buildings were completely destroyed, leaving the city's earliest settlers without food, shelter or any belongings.

1. It spread faster than people could run

Decades after the fire accounts of the fire were collected; in one of them William Henry Gallagher, whose company was building a roadbed, described the fire, which saw at its beginning.

He describes returning to his office to secure the company's money and seeing people running from the centre of town at Water and Carrall streets. He went to investigate.

"I went out in the road, walked up towards 'Gassy Jack's' but by the time I got there the Sunnyside Hotel across the street, built partly over the inlet, was a mass of flame, and, before I could get back to the office I had just left — a mere block away — that was on fire, too," he recounted in archival interviews.

He goes on to describe how fast the fire moves through the city. The city had wooden sidewalks people were running down, to get away from the flames, but the flames moved faster, and people had to leap into the dirt street.

2. Indigenous folks helped with the evacuation

As people fled the fire there were few places to go. To the south False Creek hadn't been filled in as it is now (120 years ago Science World would be in the middle of a boggy wetland, depending on the tide), to the north Burrard Inlet created a barrier and the huge fire was moving from the southwest of the city to the east.

For those who made it False Creek there was some help to be found. Gallagher says a group of Indigenous people were camped on the south bank and came across in their canoes. They helped rescue many of the men working for him and took them back to their camp.

At the same time members of the Squamish First Nation on the north shore of Burrard Inlet saw the smoke and sent dozens of canoes across to help those in the water, bringing many to their community of Ustlawn.

3. They had to build an impromptu morgue

After the flames died back the city's residents returned to their town now in ashes. It was later in the evening, according to Gallagher, and a gruesome task needed to be done.

Survivors went out into the city to see the extent of the damage; along the way they discovered bodies of those that hadn't made it out.

One of the buildings that survived was the Bridge Hotel; it wasn't actually in the city but located a fair distance away beside the bridge that crossed over False Creek at its narrowest point. A small adjoining building was turned into an improvised morgue lit with candles and one table around 30 feet long.

In Gallagher's account before the morning at least 21 bodies had been brought in, though many couldn't be identified. In fact, there's never been an official death toll. While 21 is the minimum, Gallagher notes that remains continued to be found well after the break of dawn. He lists off at least three more specific victims that were found the next day and another was found two weeks later, bringing the minimum death toll to 25.

"It was never known, and never will be, how many lost their lives. Of all the remains found three only were recognizable by their features," Gallagher recounted.

4. It completely melted a church bell

St James Church stood along the shore near Alexander and Main streets. When the fire arrived the bell was used to warn people about the incoming flames. It was the last thing it did.

When the fire arrived it burned the church with such an intense heat the bell melted and fell from the tower. It solidified and was later recovered. The hunk of metals, with the bolts still distinguishable, is part of the Museum of Vancouver's collection.

5. They only had one phone to call for help

The telephone was a relatively new invention in 1886; Alexander Graham Bell got his patent in 1876, only a decade prior.

As such, there was only one in Vancouver. Hugh Keefer, who had been contracted to build a road from Port Moody to Coal Harbour, was able to call the outside world to let them know what had happened. 

This was important since the city was suddenly without any supplies and around 1,000 people left hungry by the destruction.

Luckily word reached New Westminster (also known as the Royal City) quickly; at the time it was a much larger town with several thousand residents. Supplies were sent immediately.

"As soon as the news reached the Royal City, the city officials sent out young men on horseback and they galloped up and down the streets shouting that Vancouver had been burned, and the people were without food," Gallagher recounts. "The housewives hurriedly put up food; hard boiled eggs in a baking powder tin; fried bacon between two thick slices of bread."

New Westminster was also able to alert Port Moody, where four sailors grabbed medical supplies and were able to reach those who sought refuge along the Burrard Inlet.

From there word reached Victoria and Seattle, where more relief efforts could be organized.

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