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Loss and heroism – the Moore farm fire

December 10, 2011

In peaceful Fraser Cemetery on a late February afternoon 1975, as Reginald Moore laid to rest John Moore, his last surviving brother, he can hardly have failed to gaze across the Fraser River to the far side, where once had stood the family home, and recalled the horrific scene they both experienced on a frosty night in November 1911.

Sixty-four years before, Reginald had struggled to pull his youngest brother in flames from their burning house near Liverpool Station. Reginald had already led from harm two other brothers, and had tried bravely to get to his sisters and his father, to no avail.  Of those he managed to rescue, little “Jack” was the only one badly burned and it was a question whether he would live a day, let alone six decades more.

Pioneer Roots

The Moore family has deep roots in British Columbia, and their story threads together names of some of our earliest pioneers.

George Green, grandfather of the Moore children, came to this Colony in 1859 with the military force of Sappers and Miners. A 2nd Corporal of the Royal Engineers, he had stayed behind at the Camp after the contingent was recalled. As did many ex-RE, he found employment in government service, and it was while serving as Constable in Richfield that he met and married Louise Christopher and there started a family.

Louise (Christopher) Green was one of the earliest of the American-born blacks to arrive in BC, making the trip to Cariboo in the gold rush of the early sixties with her father Augustus Christopher, who later resided for many years in Victoria.

Laura Green, daughter of George and Louise Green, was born in Barkerville and grew up partly in Sapperton, where her father had become the Assistant Jailor at New Westminster.

George Green went to Victoria in 1886 for an operation and never came home, dying in hospital. By 1891 the children of George and Louise were living with their aunt Emma (“Ammy,” mother’s side) and Englishman Charles Scott in Sapperton. Charles Scott died in 1892, leaving Ammy as head of the extended family.

In 1895 Laura Green married Thomas Moore, a native of Manchester, England, and a more recent immigrant. By the year 1911, Thomas and Laura had a family of nine children and were farming the flatlands on the south bank of the Fraser River at Herring’s Point, near Liverpool Station on the Great Northern Railway.

The Moores ran a farm with milk cows. On green and bountiful pastures, only minutes over the new bridge to the major city of New Westminster, it must have seemed an ideal place to raise a family. Thomas Moore had been caretaking a much larger acreage owned by absentee landlord TW Paterson, the  Lieutenant-Governor of BC.  The children were kept busy too: Reginald, the eldest boy, delivered milk to houses in City opposite.

Nearby the Moores, just over the GN tracks, was the oldest pioneer homestead in Surrey.  Tillman W. Herring, who arrived on the Point in 1861 with his parents, was still living there with his wife Mary, a British Columbia native, and her son Frederick Herrling. Another neighbor was Hugh Murray who arrived on the Thames City in 1859, son of a Royal Engineer.

Terrible Conflagration — Loss of home and family

On the last weekend of November 1911, Laura Moore and her eldest daughter, Dorothy were away visiting family in Seattle. They were due back by the late train on Monday. It is said that Thomas Moore waited up with a lantern burning to guide their walk from the Great Northern terminus. Midnight passed, they had still not arrived, and Mr Moore drifted off into a deep sleep.

It was in the early hours of Tuesday morning, November 28th, 1911 that the house caught on fire, resulting in what a Vancouver newspaper called, “one of the most terrible tragedies that has ever occurred in this section of the province.” Five family members perished in the blaze, with one, little Jack, in critical condition, badly burned.

The British Columbian headlines told the news.

“Terrible Tragedy Enacted Last Night
Father and Four Children Burned to Death on South Bank, Only Half a Mile from Big Bridge — Heap of Ashes All That Remains of Four Little Ones — Nine-year-old Boy Saves Three Lives — Mother and Eldest Daughter Were Away”

The house was a two-story wood frame building visible from the river, and stood on the  far side of the Great Northern Railway tracks. It was located about a half-mile from the south end of the Westminster Bridge, eastbound, not quite at Liverpool Station.

Witnesses say the house was consumed very quickly by the flames.

” . . . Reginald, a boy of about 15 years, was awakened by thick smoke affecting his breathing. Hastily awakening the three others, who were in separate beds, he hurried two of them out of the house by the back door. The third was apparently too overcome by the smoke to get out. . . Reginald then opened the inner door leading to his father’s room, but the flames that rushed at him drove him back, and he closed this door again, and running round to a side window, he smashed it open with an axe. By this time, however, the entire lower floor of the house was burning, and he had only time to return to the back room and drag out his brother Jack, who was severely burned about the head, shoulders and legs, before the entire building collapsed.”

Mr Williams, a section hand on the railway, and his wife were returning home late at night when they saw the blaze. They began to run, thinking it was their own home. They arrived on the scene in time to see the roof collapse.  Around the burning remains three of the children were running in the cold night air, dressed only in sleepwear.

Devastation and aftermath

The burned boy was taken to the Herring’s house under the care of Mary Herring, where he was attended by Dr Rothwell. The Murrays took in two of the survivors, with Reginald staying at the Williams. Other neighbors contributed care and necessities.

Mrs Moore and eighteen-year old daughter Dorothy returned from Seattle on the morning train to find their home destroyed and their family decimated.  Provincial Constable Wilkie met them at the train to tell them the news and escort them to the site.

On the morning after, the Columbian reporter came across an eerie scene of desolation, while nearby the family carried on, Reginald continuing his duties, albeit is some state of shock.

“When seen by a representative of The British Columbian this forenoon, the surviving children of the dead man did not seem to realise the full significance of the terrible catastrophe. Reginald, who runs a milk route in the city, was milking cows in the barn near the smoking ruins, and the two others played with the other children of the neighborhood apparently unconcerned. Viewing the spot where once stood a home, a spectator is impressed with the utter completeness of the tragedy. Practically the only recognizable object is a cook stove.”

Of the family of eleven persons, five were lost.
Dead in the fire were the father, Thomas Moore, 46 and children Kathleen Moore, 11; Sarah Moore, 4; Joseph Moore, 3; and Alexander Moore, about a year old.
The living were the mother Laura Moore about 40 years of age, and daughter Dorothy Moore, 18 who had been away at the time of the fire, and survivors Reginald Moore, 15; Gerald Moore, 12; Albert “Robbie” Moore, 7; and the injured boy John “Jack” Moore, 6.

A funeral was held at St Peter’s Cathedral, New Westminster, and those who perished were interred in the Roman Catholic Cemetery. Young Jack Moore passed a good night at Royal Columbian Hospital, though his chance of full recovery was still in doubt.

Surviving family were being looked after by neighbors Hugh and Margaret Murray, who lived not far from the bridge on the south side of the river.

Benevolent Fund for Laura Moore and children

Citizens of New Westminster started a fund to accept donations for Laura Moore and her five remaining children. Mayor Lee of New Westminster and Mrs AJ Hill opened the fund, and donations were accepted at City Hall, at the office of the British Columbian newspaper and at the drug store of Frank J MacKenzie, MPP for the district.  The intention was to raise five hundred dollars, enough to house the family in a new scow house (floating home) on the river bank near their farm, in order that they could carry on the dairy business as before. (At the time many such houses were moored along the river from Liverpool to South Westminster, and the Moores would occupy one next to the home of TW Herring.)

Among the earliest donations came in from Johnny Wise, hotel keeper at the bridge-end, JE Murphy of South Westminster, a fellow dairyman who had also suffered a tragic loss of children. TW Herring contributed, as did the Biggar family, shopkeepers at South Westminster. Individual donations came from Judge FW Howay, his wife and daughter, who contributed a dollar. Amounts donated ranged from 50 cents chipped in by “a wee boy who wants to help,” to $25 dollars from the Brunette Saw Mills.  In just a few days the fund had grown to almost $600 and the list was closed.

Post Script

Laura Green eventually remarried and lived until 1940. She  is buried in the Fraser Cemetery.  At the time of her death she had six grandchildren.

Reginald Moore who, at the age of 15 had rescued three brothers from certain death in the fire of November 1911, was still listed resident in the area in 1990. He is held in the highest esteem by those who know his story.

Location of the farm of Thomas Moore and site of the tragedy of November 1911

Today the area southeast of the bridge crossings on Fraser River is known as Bridgeview, a community in Surrey, BC.  Industry took over the strip of land along the river and the railway in the 1920s and the flatlands back of the river were subdivided and developed over the years as a residential district. The entire area has since the 1970s been in transition to industrial use. A new freeway is being constructed along the river, passing through the old Moore dairy farm.

Moore farm location - Click to open Bingmap view

Location of Thomas Moore family dairy farm shown on current view

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