The Great Vancouver Fire of 1886

Vancouver fire of 1886.
Map of the Vancouver fire of 1886.
On June 13th, 1886, Vancouver suffered a catastrophic fire that destroyed almost every building.

Vancouver was being cut out of the forest. It had only been incorporated a few months earlier. The CPR rail company had finally settled on the area of the tiny sawmill town of Granville as the future terminus of the transcontinental rail, and a major international port. Suddenly that tiny patch of shacks become almost as valuable as the busy city blocks many could foresee they would be in twenty years. The CPR needed it cleared and developed. It wouldn’t be enough to build a town – they were going to build a city.

The “city” at the time was actually only a small patch of today’s downtown east side near the harbour – Gastown’s Water Street, Alexander Street (then Hastings Road), etc., but much more land was being surveyed and cleared while tall forest walls still loomed within walking distance.

There were so many trees to be cleared, and so much work to be done, that loggers would half-cut a row of trees and then fell one big one into them, bringing the rest down in a shower of twigs, splinters and branches. They called it bowling pin clearing. The slash on the ground was so thick you couldn’t see the ground, and after several unusually hot dry months of spring, it had become a dangerous amount of fuel.

To the west and south, men were burning slash. They may have been clearing in preparing the site of the roundhouse in Yaletown.1 They may have been working north of there.

Although the danger was growing, wildfire was more of a summertime hazard: rainy-season clearing fires were easier to control although gales can come up very quickly. Unfortunately, the spring of 1886 had been exceptionally dry and hot.

As the men were working, a wind storm came up from the west. The winds quickly whipped the burn out of control, and as men ran to fight it, the flames blew into the dry timber and exploded, fueled and driven on by the high winds, widening out as it rushed on.

If you look at a map and consider our seasonal westerly gales, which usually includes a last good blow in June, you can see that all-wood Vancouver downwind didn’t stand a chance in the approaching firestorm.

As the cone of the fire expanded onward and outward, winds whipped the flames along the wooden sidewalk up Hastings Road faster than a man could run.

Vancouver was directly hit and destroyed as residents raced for the water. Only a few buildings on either side of the cone of fire escaped – including several behind where Science World is now.

It is estimated about 30 people lost their lives of about three thousand in the area, including an unidentified family of three suffocated by the fire after taking refuge in a well, a man incinerated in the middle of Hastings Street, and three men presumed to have died fighting the fire after their paychecks went unclaimed. Years later another skeleton was found near Prior Street. It’s not known how many people perished that day – such was the bustle and disorder of the new town. Fortunately it occurred on a Sunday when many people were already out and about.

Refugee bivouac near south end of Westminster bridge after the Great Fire - June 14, 1886.While Vancouver burned many people found refuge opposite the peninsula on the southerly point of Main Street (then the road to New Westminster, and the best way out by land) just beyond Science World at the end of False Creek. The morgue was in an unscathed hotel on the north finger. Both of those spots are about a block behind Science World on Main Street.

Despite the setback, the building boom had such momentum that Vancouver was rebuilt without pause, except to pay respects and to bury the dead.

After all, the business of Vancouver was building Vancouver – clearing land, chopping down trees, hauling them to the sawmill, making boards and building a city.

  1. The Roundhouse is beside David Lam Park on the seawall, and is one site of the annual jazz festival. It’s now a community centre. The old timers would hardly recognize the place. []

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