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GONE UP IN A HELL OF ROARING FLAME
The City of New Westminster Practically Wiped Off the Face of the Earth—Upwards of Two Million Dollars’ Worth of Property Destroyed—The Insurance
FIRE DEMON’S RAPID WORK
The Heroic Work of the Terminal City Firemen Saved the East End—A Record-Breaking Run—Relieving the Distressed—Startling Experiences—Stories of the Excitement Told by Eye-Witnesses
It was Saturday night in New Westminster. The clocks had chimed eleven and tired clerks had wearily packed away the goods which remained from the usual big night’s shopping. All evening long the crowds had walked up and down Columbia street laughing, chatting, buying, but before eleven the number of strollers had thinned out and the usual groups of young men had gathered on street corners while occasional blue-coated policemen paraded by and cast lenient glances upon the “horse play” in which such street corner groups are wont to indulge.
There was a dull boom on a near-by bell which startled everyone and the word “Fire!” came instinctively to most of the listeners’ lips. Almost coincident with the ringing of the bell a bright shower of sparks was seen to rise from the river front near the city market building. The clatter of hose carts along the almost deserted thoroughfares and the ringing of the fire gongs rapidly filled the streets again and the size of the blaze indicated surely enough to the southward hurrying crowds that the fire was going to be a big one. The more thoughtless looked upon the prospect of a “good” fire with glee, but those who recognized the seriousness of the situation hurried down the sloping streets filled with the gloomiest forebodings.
The Blaze Located.
Meanwhile the firemen had located the blaze in a huge pile of hay, about 200 tons in all, which was stored on Brackman & Ker’s wharf. The hay was as dry as tinder for it had been there since early in the season and the sultry summer had thoroughly prepared it for just such an important occasion as that of Saturday night. The nearest hydrants were located and hose lines speedily attached, but even while this was being done the whole roof of the Brackman & Ker building burst into a blaze and speedily fell in. The stern-wheeler Edgar, which had tied up to the wharf shortly before ten o’clock, was by this time enveloped in flames. Her cables parted and she drifted down the river on the out-going tide a grand but awe inspiring sight. To the Edgar many ascribe the outbreak of the conflagration. It is said that sparks from her furnaces set fire to the hay, but it is urged by others that her fires had been banked for an hour before the alarm was given. Another story debits the outbreak to some unknown man who inadvertently threw down a match on the wharf after lighting his pipe. Half a dozen different stories can be found for the origin of the fire, nor is this to be wondered at for there were at least six distinct fires blazing inside of fifteen minutes from the sound of the first alarm.
Deadly Fire Ships.
The Edgar dripped rapidly down stream but the set of the current carried her in shore and she fouled the steamer Gladys, which was tied-up to the C. P. N. company’s wharf. Despite the strenuous efforts of the crew and of many volunteers, the Gladys took fire almost immediately. The timber and buildings of the C. P. N. company, dried by the fierce heat of all this summer, took fire immediately and all the men on the wharf were forced to retreat or meet an awful death. The two boats now wrapped in a mad embrace of fire, broke clear of the upper end of the wharf together and in but a short space of time had struck the Bon-Acord. She, too, took flame. Her cables parted and away she went with the other two in this carnival of flame. By some strange ill-luck the waters, as though in league with the fiery elements, carried the fire ships close along the wharves which line the Fraser. All were ripe for the blaze and wherever the vessels touched for a few seconds there a new fire started.
But all this takes longer to describe than it did to happen.
Up at the Brackman & Ker wharf, where the fire had its origin, the firemen were driven from their hose by the awful heat. To their horror and amazement the pressure was exceedingly low and the mere dribble which came from the hose nozzles was little better than useless.
Scenes of Frenzy.
The people in the Columbia hotel, just across from the Brackman & Ker place, had speedily recognized the danger of their position, and the most desperate efforts were made to save goods and effects. Lytton Square, upon which the east side of the hotel faces was lumbered with all sorts of personal property but the fire had spread in less than no time eastward to the city wharf and market building. This was but a mouthful for the hungry fire devil and in an instant the Chinatown of the east end, which is on Front Street, east of Lytton Square, was blazing from one end to the other.
Out in the street the scene passes adequate description. Frenzied Chinamen rushed up and down in agonies of despair. They shrieked at and prayed to all the gods and devils in the Chinese mythology, but never for a moment did they cease in their struggles to save what stuff they could from their hovels and shops now rapidly being consumed. Acting Chief Watson, who in the absence of Chief Ackerman, had control of the brigade, recognized the futility of trying to save any of the wharves or property in that immediate vicinity.
The terrible rapidity with which the conflagration spread simply paralyzed the brigade, handicapped as it was by the miserable water supply, while private citizens could do no more than look on.
Died in His Shop.
The fire, having obtained mastery of Front street, made the first attack on Columbia avenue by a diagonal move. The Columbia Hotel was a seething hell of flames, but the Powell block, which adjoins it to the rear and fronts on Columbia avenue, was apparently uninjured. The first building on Columbia avenue actually to take fire was the Bank of British Columbia block. The Chinese store of the Kwong Wing Lung Co., kept the oncoming flames but a few seconds and here the most tragic incident of the fire occurred. Mun Lee, the head of the firm, one of the wealthiest Chinese merchants in the Royal City, rushed into his store in some wild attempt to save his money. He reached his cash box but just as he grasped it he fell back dead. His corpse was carried to a place of safety and a medical man saw immediately that heart disease had been the cause of death.
The Lay of the Land.
To those who have not visited New Westminster it may be explained that the city is situated on the high sloping bank of the Fraser. Front street, as its name would suggest, is along the water front. Running parallel with Front, and in succession are Columbia street, Clarkson street, Carnarvon street, Victoria street, Agnes, Cunningham and First or Royal avenue. Each of these streets is on a considerably higher level than that preceding, in fact between Columbia and Clarkson streets the grade is so steep as to make the descent almost dangerous for horses.
Columbia avenue was the principal business thoroughfares of the Royal city—the past tense is used advisedly. All along both sides it was built with imposing brick and stone buildings of a description of which any city might be proud. The bank of British Columbia was one of the finest of these blocks and its speedy consumption was viewed with a spell-bound horror by the onlookers. Opposite, stood the post office and the roof of this was ablaze almost as soon as the bank was going.
An Awful Sight.
All of these things had transpired so quickly that the crowd which rushed aimlessly up and down Columbia Ave. had really no idea of the extent of the conflagration. The wharves which were blazing for the full length of the city front speedily communicated with the buildings standing citywards. All up McKenzie, Lorne, Begbie, Alexander and Eighth streets the flames rushed in a mad chase. It seemed to the paralyzed citizens as though each separate street had its own particular demons, who were working in some fiendish spirit of emulation to get first to the business heart of the city. Thus it was that the whole south side of Columbia avenue burst into flames practically at the same time. Merchants who had made desperate efforts to save such private papers as had not been put in safes or vaults were drawn from their stores in a rush for life. The Hotel Douglas in the corner of which the Bank of Montreal was located became a howling volcano of flame a few minutes after it was first noticed to be on fire. The guests had had ample warning though and all had escaped from the building though few had more of their belongings than what they stood up in.
The Dreaded Wind.
It was now that the dreaded wind, coaxed by alluring flames, rapidly sprang into being. It came like a blast from hell full in the faces of the men who were working with the desperation of despair. A sheet of living flame swept across the street and literally burst in the windows of the splendid Hotel Guichon the leading place of its kind in the city.
The noise was deafening. Above the roar of the flames repeated explosions could be heard as the fire reached the different stocks of gunpowder, coal oil and other explosives stored in the rich warehouses along Columbia and Front streets. The earth trembled with repeated shocks, and the crash of breaking glass joined with the jar of falling walls to make the night a saturnalia horror.
The Fire Brigade.
How it was that many people escaped death must remain a mystery. Many hundreds found themselves cut off on Columbia street with both sides blazing. They rushed up the side streets in a wild frenzy of excited fear and the many rumors as to deaths in the flames gained instant credence.
Small mention has been made of the fire brigade all this time, but this is not because the men did not work as heroes. They fought every inch of the ground. Fought as brave men fight though in full knowledge that all their efforts could do but little. In many instances the men stuck to their feebly trickling nozzles until they were cut off and their hose was actually burned through. The steam fire engine and the chemical were worked as never before, but in the face of such a conflagration their efforts appeared to be of as much use as a tin dipper and pail of water would have been.
But even with the fate of Columbia street sealed people found it hard to believe that the fire devil were pitiless in their strength. Up, up roared the flames and the wind carried blazing pieces of wood high into the air. Still the crowd stayed down town watching with fear stricken eyes the awful progress made by the conflagration.
Residences in Danger.
Then there came the rumor that the residential portion of the city was in danger, reached the on-looking thousands and with the customary panic a rush was made for the upper heights. The news was too true. The myriad flying sparks had covered the sun-dried shingles and there were houses blazing everywhere. The scenes along the upper avenues and the intersecting streets beggar all description. Men and women rushed about in desperation, dragging furniture from their doomed homes. All thought of checking the progress of the flames was cast aside. Carpets were torn up, furniture was flung into the streets and all the while children ran about screaming with fright or sobbing to themselves in a terror of all things unknown. The broad lawns about the city hall and court house were deemed by many to be havens of refuge and these were piled high with a most wonderfully heterogeneous collection of goods and chattels. The sight was pitiful in the extreme but it was not sufficiently so to deter the malignity of the already glutted flames.
The Court House Goes.
The court house, which stood on Clarkson street, was not spared for an instant. It was on fire before the flames from below had really reached it, owing to the intense heat of the air and the sparks which had fallen on the roof. The records had been put into the safe but the building itself was soon a screaming hurricane. Those who had piled their furniture on the lawns made frantic efforts to get it away again. All around were blazing houses, screaming women, shouting, fighting men. And in the thick of this roaring hell with the flames above and the red hot cinders flying fast, upon a public thoroughfare a woman sad-eyed, pale and wan, passed through the agony of motherhood, while beside her nestled in silent fear her two children of tender years.
Street upon street fell victim to the rush of the fire. Furniture was piled up in front of houses and was burned where it was piled. The Baptist Church, the reformed Episcopal Holy Trinity Cathedral and the Central Methodist Church all stood within two blocks, and all were alight together. The flames made short work of the sacred edifices indeed, they seemed to roar with an increased delight as they rushed through the windows, pulled down the roofs and burst open doors in their frenzied riot.
The Fire’s Revel.
But while the fire made rapid progress northward amid the lightly constructed dwellings, it revelled among the business blocks and factories, which, by reason of their more solid construction, gave greater opposition to the flame’s desire. Perhaps the most remarkable scene, from a spectacular standpoint, was the burning of Wintemute’s huge furniture factory, which stood almost at the extreme eastern limit reached by the fire. The building was erected in a deep ravine, which extends up past Carnarvon, Victoria, and Agnes streets. The ravine is crossed by bridges at these streets and the scene from these points was grand. The factory, with its big stock of oils, varnishes, dry lumber and similar inflammable materials, was a rich morsel for the fat fed fire. The flames poured from every window in the place until the upper stories were utterly lost in a perfect sea of flame. Every now and again some ominous detonation, followed by a burst of brighter flames in the surrounding fire would indicate the explosion of some carboy of oils. The final scene was superb. The brick and stone foundations, thoroughly calcined, appeared to give way at all points simultaneously and with a dull roar the huge building fell into itself. The flames fairly out leapt themselves in a wild attempt to pierce their smoke environed prison. Millions of embers flew high into the air and that pit-like wind carried them far over the doomed city to spread further destruction among the suffering inhabitants. The ruins sunk down into a conical heap of blazing white-hot ruins. Mount Vesuvius in its angriest mood could present no more awful picture.
The Climax Reached.
This was the climax of the fire. Flame began to give place to smoke and blaze became ember. Slowly, all too slowly, the demon of fire, drunk with the awfulness of his own excesses, moaned himself into a troubled sleep. Houses burned on all sides and to those whom these houses meant all in all the crisis was yet to come. But the mind grows callous to misery, and after the sight of many hundreds struggling fruitlessly against a terrible fate, the distress of a few more makes but little impression.
The Vancouver firemen, who had made their gallant trip in the darkness of an awful night across as rough a road as any man would want to travel, arrived in time to take up the fight which the New Westminster men, with their poor appliances, had fought so faithfully with so small success. The needed help was more than welcome to the jaded men of the Royal City. Just how well the Vancouver fire laddies fought is told in another column. That they saved two valuable sections of the city from utter destruction is a fact beyond peradventure, a fact to which none more gladly testify than do Westminster firemen and citizens in general. They worked until they had nothing more to do, and they were satisfied merely with the knowledge that they had done their duty.
It was shortly before six o’clock Sunday morning that the fire was “under control.” There is a grimly jocular suggestion about the term quoted fort the fire was “under control” very much as a champion prize fighter is not inclined to be nasty after he has licked everything in sight.
Men, women and children were not tired. They were simply dead beat. The murky dawn broke to find a distressed city in all the nakedness of her first grief. On all sides ruin and desolation had laid their deadly hand.
The scene was appalling.
In the glare of her brilliantly awful flames of the night before, the city of New Westminster was beautiful as she had never been but in the feted, brown-red dawn she was ghastly, naked and dead.
Men rose from their chance-found couches thinking perhaps that they had merely dreamed some awful dream but the first glance told them that all the nightmares that ever were could suggest more heart-breaking.
From the upper hills of New Westminster the sight was one never to be forgotten. Where there had been a thriving bustling city there were smoking ruins. Not one building stood in all the vast fire-swept space! Not one!
When All Were Kin.
In all scenes of disaster, though the strong hand of human kinship is always found lifting and helping, and no more strongly was it in evidence than in New Westminster in her hour of trial. A merciful Providence so ordained that while, perhaps, most of the houses of New Westminster many still remained, and when the absolute dangers were over the homeless were quickly domiciled with those more fortunately situated. Not one of the houses left standing in New Westminster had its doors closed on Sunday morning. People got back to first principles and many who had never felt the touch of poverty before were glad enough to stretch themselves on a carpeted floor with a rolled up coat for a pillow and a blanket for a covering. Nor was the shelter received with any less welcome than it was tendered. It was one of the soul-trying times, when people are brought closer to one another, and to God.
List of Buildings Destroyed.
Andy Ross, inspector for the fire underwriters, went over the burned district with a Province representative and gave a complete description of the fire’s ravages.
The following is the list of buildings completely destroyed by fire:
It is roughly estimated that between 150 and 200 dwelling houses were burned in ashes. From Mary to Eighth streets and from Columbia to Royal avenue were many fine residences. Particularly did this apply to the residence of Alexander Ewen, the canner, on Carnarvon street, between Alexander and Begbie. It was the finest house in that part of New Westminster and stood on its own grounds. Hardly a single thing was saved. James Cunningham’s fine house on Agnes street did not escape. All that can be seen to-day is the tall chimney towering on the hill side, surrounded by others of lesser magnitude.
Mr. Cunningham lost 34 houses in all, besides several blocks and stores. He was one of the heaviest owners of buildings in New Westminster. All the houses on the Milligan estate were consumed, and James Cunningham’s two brick and two wooden houses on Agnes street. West of the city hall square to Eighth street, and beyond, extending south, there is not a house to be seen. The flames licked them up as if nothing and were only spent when Royal avenue, with its wide expanse of street was reached, but not before many more houses had been wiped out of existence. On Royal avenue, east of Eighth street, five more of James Cunningham’s houses were burned down. The residence of George Turner did not escape, and the family only succeeded in securing a portion of the furniture. Mr. and Mrs. Bloomfield, father and mother of Edgar Bloomfield and Miss Bloomfield, of Vancouver, were rendered homeless. The home of Mrs. William Johnson, on Agnes street, where her family had resided for 35 years, was leveled to the ground, while the Reformed Episcopal church on Seventh street was totally consumed. The residence of Ald. Burr, on Royal avenue, just escaped destruction. It is situated just east of where the church stood, and was undoubtedly saved through there being a row of trees on the west side. Two of W.J. Armstrong and two of C.G. Major’s cottages on Agnes street, were burned, while across the street the large furniture store of Mr. Fales, with his residence adjoining, did not escape.
The Clinton block, at the corner of Sixth street and Agnes street, was gutted, while the house in the rear was also burned. Here the fire stopped, the residence of ex-Sheriff Armstrong being saved.
Eastward, along Agnes street, the Olivet Baptist church stands to-day a gutted ruin. Southward, Mary street does not contain a single house below Agnes street. All the houses on the Trew estate, Herring’s drug store, Herring’s opera house, Holy Trinity cathedral, Herring’s house on Carnarvon street, and dozens of others were burned.
Loss and Insurance.
The full extent of the losses and insurance will not be known probably for a day or two. The books of most of the insurance agents doing business in the city were locked up in the still warm safes, and no reliable figures could be obtained. Andy Ross, inspector of the fire underwriters, informed The Province that the loss would probably be two and a quarter to two and a half millions, covered by an insurance of about one million dollars, distributed amongst the following companies:
Speaking of the losses, Mr. Ross said: “The London Assurance company is probably the heaviest loser, as it carried nearly all the business of the Sun Life of Canada. The provincial and civic buildings, I believe, carried very little insurance. Many of the large merchants carried fair insurance on their stocks, but, as usual, the small ones suffered.
“It is impossible to give any reliable details in regard to either the losses or insurances at present as the books of the various agents cannot be got out. Probably to-morrow morning, we will be able to total up the losses and know just to what extent the various companies are affected.
“Most of the companies are strong ones, and the losses will not affect them much, as they are divided among about 26 concerns.”
A. Maline, representing the North British and Mercantile, Royal, London, and Lancashire, and Sun of London, said that these companies would have to pay out about $400,000 in insurance.
F.J. Coltart, of Lowenburg, Harris & Company, thought that the total insurance losses would amount to about a million and a half. The Sun Life Company would lose about $500,000. “I believe,” said Mr. Coltart, “that the merchants generally had their stocks insured for about half their value. In some cases they carried full insurances. The small merchants, as usual, did not insure to any extent.”
A number of Vancouver insurance men went over to New Westminster early in the morning, among them being J. J. Bankfield.
“I don’t think that Vancouver agents will be affected by the losses. In fact I know of no insurance which they placed on Westminster property destroyed. I had a $20,000 risk, but fortunately the building on which it was placed did not burn. It will take some time to arrive at the losses and insurance. The insurance men will probably meet to-morrow. Any figures given out at present would be from memory and until something definite can be obtained it would be unwise to mention amounts.”
D. R. Ker, of Victoria, of Brackman & Ker, stated that the insurance on their building and goods amounted to $7,000, a one-half of the total loss.
The Terminal City’s Prompt Response to the Call.
It was about midnight that the first rumors began to spread in such parts of Vancouver as were not asleep, of the existence of a big fire in Westminster. The telephone and telegraph people had been apprised of it in the ordinary course of business and some few individuals had received private messages, but it was the furious drive of Chief Carlisle down the main streets that roused some few more people. There was a momentary clatter at different of the fire halls and Vancouver sank into slumber.
It was not known that 12 miles away men and women were fighting for life and property.
Before one o’clock message began to pour into the city and even on the messages themselves the print of heroism stood fast and true. Telegraph and telephone operators told the men at this end of their lines of the progress of the fire. Now it was across the street, now it was creeping closer, now the very building was on fire! Then would come the final warning that it was a case of getting out for dear life! But before the final evacuation it had been made known that the city was doomed and this knowledge had been conveyed promptly to Mayor Garden and a few others. The call for relief was not long waiting an answer. By five o’clock Sunday morning messengers had been sent hot foot to every alderman’s house, and to the house of every prominent merchant in the city, requesting their immediate
Seattle, Sept. 11, 1898
We have notified Mayor Ovens, of New Westminster, that Seattle stands ready to be of any desired service to the unfortunate people of New Westminster. Kindly ascertain if there is anything we can do. POST-INTELLIGENCER
attendance at the C. P. R. telegraph office. By 7:30 they had started to drop in and by 8 o’clock a thoroughly representative meeting of Vancouver’s best men was in session. It was not a question of charity that they had to consider, but a straight subject of common decency. The prompt manner in which they went about business was more than commendable. Committees were struck immediately and these committees were: Bread, Messrs. Tapprell and McIntosh; utensils, Messrs. Buscombe, Foreman, Dunn and McFeely; tents and blankets, Messrs. Skene, Townley and Dr. Robertson; provisions, Messrs. McMillan, S. Oppenheimer, Webster and Lockyer; receiving, Messrs. Martin, Foreman, McQueen, Burns, I. Oppenheimer and McMillan.
Mayor Garden took the general superintendence of committees and Frank Robertson acted as secretary.
The C. P. R. offered to place a special train at the disposal of the committees, but it was deemed best to send the supplies over by the tram. By nine o’clock a string of heavily laden drays standing at the corner of Carrall and Hastings streets testified how nobly the committees had worked. In one short hour everything was in readiness for shipment.
One thousand loaves of bread, tubs of butter, cases of corned beef and of condensed milk, barrels of sugar, boxes of tea, bags of rice and oatmeal, and sacks of hams and bacon made up the first emergency load, with the necessary accompaniments of tinware and hardware. The Vancouver and New Westminster Railway company provisions were rushed through immediately.
The arrival of this much-needed provender was received with earnest thanks in the fire-swept city. The place was simply done for provisions. There were the meagrest details of provender left and the fact that over 300 families, hitherto independent, applied for relief is sufficient to show how acute the want was. The question of money had nothing do with it. There was nothing to buy there for money. Even men who had been up all night fighting the fire could get nothing eat until the relief came.
The first necessities having been attended to, the Vancouver committees took up the measures for more permanent relief. The second load sent over was composed of flour, sides of beef, pickles, mustard, potatoes, coffee, cheese and a hundred other et ceterae which go to make life sustainable.
The mayor, the alderman and the citizens who worked so indefatigably have been repaid by their knowledge of the good their hard work did, but they are none the less entitled to the hearty thanks of all Vancouver people for their untiring energy and for the gratifying way in which they represented Vancouver during a sister city’s hour of distress.