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Grand railway celebration and the morning after: the New Westminster fire of 1891.

October 10, 2013

The railway matrimonial  – bonds of steel

Emily Nelson - Mrs Hugh NelsonOn February 14th, 1891,  the new townsite of Liverpool, BC was formally opened by railway director TJ Trapp and Emily Nelson, wife of the Lieutenant- Governor of BC.

TJ TrappA train of dignitaries — Premier John Robson, the entire membership of the Legislature,  local Mayors and other prominent guests — had boarded the train  at Liverpool,  on their way to the great “railway wedding” at the boundary line.

There the southbound train of the New Westminster Southern Railway met a northbound train of the Fairhaven & Southern Railway, also packed with important people, including Washington State acting Governor CE Laughton and members of the State legislature.Charles E Laughton - Lieut-Gov Washington State 1891

At the border,  Trapp drew out of  fine Morocco leather cases the two silver hammers with which Mrs Laughton and Mrs Nelson  would tap the spikes driven to complete the union of Washington State and British Columbia with a “band of steel.”

After ceremonies the trains carried on, north and southbound, to New Westminster and Fairhaven.

At Fairhaven the Canadian guests and their American hosts would give congratulatory speeches and offer toasts to the success of the new railway line. The completion of this link was also important to the people of Bellingham Bay and to Seattle, which welcomed a second trans-continental railway connection.

Steamer Delaware meets the railway

Reception at New Westminster

Arriving at Liverpool, the Americans were greeted by a throng of citizens and  transported over to New Westminster on the SS Delaware, where a larger  crowd of a thousand persons assembled at the wharf to welcome Governor Laughton and about 200 others from Washington State.

The guests were feted with the best hospitality the city could offer. For those inclined to less boisterous rejoicing, there was an open house at the residence of the Bishop.

The American party stayed until 6:30 pm, when they were carried once more across the Fraser River to meet their train for the southbound journey back to the States.

The Canadians departed Bellingham about the same time and arrived back in Liverpool late in the evening.   No doubt they had thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality of the railway and their American hosts.  Captain HA Mellon of Vancouver was reported to have mounted a dining table during the Fraser River crossing, to offer thanks for a fine time.

Reason to be proud

All in all it was a grand day, a triumphant day for the City of New Westminster, which had been bypassed by the CPR mainline, and which had invested heavily in its own railway connection to the south.  First proposed in the early 1880’s by a consortium that included Ebenezer Brown,  the road had been opposed by national railway interests and the Dominion government.

The project was promoted and built by persistent local initiative and was claimed with pride by Premier John Robson  to be the only railway in Canada built without a dime of Dominion money contributed.

On the Brownsville side of the river,  northern terminus of the railway, there was optimism for the growth of a new city.

The morning after —  fire erupts in Columbia Street shop

At New Westminster in the early morning of the next day, Sunday the 15th,  with the crowds long since dispersed and revellers settled in their beds, only the watchmen of the city constabulary walked the streets.Franz Stirsky  - watchmaker -  1884

Around five in the morning smoke was noticed coming from back of the shop of watchmaker and jeweller, Franz Stirsky, located on the north side of Columbia about halfway down from McKenzie Street.

The store was soon ablaze, and by the time the alarm was given the fire was spreading to neighbouring buildings, all wooden structures.

Towards McKenzie Street was the American Hotel and the liquor store of ‘E Brown,’ now under the proprietorship of LF Bonson.

But the fire was moving fastest to businesses down the street. Among these was the shop of Henry Morey, Stationer.

Threatens Masonic hall

At the lower end of the block at Lorne Street was the hardware store of TJ Trapp & Co., and on the other side of Lorne was the brick and cement Masonic and Oddfellows block,  the pride of the city.

Masonic Temple - New Westminster - 1888 - Columbia Street & LorneDesigned by architect JW Grant and opened in 1888, some said it was the finest building in the province, superior to any in Vancouver.  With a frontage of 120 feet on Columbia street, the Masonic Temple was three storeys in height. The ground floor was occupied by three shops, the second floor had 10 offices and a music hall and the third housed the meeting rooms of the Oddfellows and Masons.

By the time the Trapp store caught fire a large crowd, numbering more than a thousand people, had gathered to watch events unfold.
Fire hoses were directed at the Masonic block and it seemed it would be saved from harm by the interceding break of Lorne Street.

Explosion felt in Ladner

Around 6:30 a.m. a terrific explosion in  the Trapp building rocked Columbia Street, blowing out the windows in buildings opposite and knocking over the crowds of onlookers, many of whom were cut by shards of flying glass.  A large wooden beam blew out of the sky and knocked off the spire of the new courthouse;  another landed in flames on the roof of the Masonic building.

At the Masonic temple every window and every locked door was blown in, with some doors ripped off their hinges. The resulting draft sucked flames from the blazing Trapp building, dooming the handsome edifice across the way.

The blast was reported to have been heard at Ladner, 15 miles distant, where windows shook and people thought an earthquake was occurring.

Fire Inquest – questions unanswered

In the aftermath of the fire, an inquest was held immediately, as was the rule in those days. There was no loss of life and only one serious injury. In all, eight premises had been levelled.

The cause of the fire was believed to have been smoldering embers from the ash-pan at Stirsky’s shop, but no one could be certain.
As for the explosion, it was well-known that the hardware store stocked barrels of turpentine, varnish, coal oil and powder, and these could have ignited. Mr Trapp said only a small amount of Giant (explosive) was on hand.

The fire chief could offer no opinion but that it must of been blasting powder, however Captain Peele, a military officer who observed the spectacle from the billiard room of the Douglas Hotel, and who had some experience with explosives, believed only nitro-glycerine could be the cause.

Beginning over

Cities recovered quickly in that time, and within days announcements were made about rebuilding.  The  city council hesitated to let any temporary structure be built of wood, vowing only brick, stone and cement buildings would henceforth be allowed.

The fire and explosion of February 1891 has been overshadowed in history by the far more devastating losses of the great fire of 1898, but at the time it was called the worst ever catastrophe to hit New Westminster.

The ferry steamer Surrey, equipped as a fire boat, was brand new and just undergoing her trials.  Some days after, they brought the ferry to opposite the spot and tested the pumps and hoses by training them on the blackened rubble of the Masonic block.  However it is doubtful she could have made much difference in the face of the explosion that occurred.

When Frank Stirsky opened his safe after the fire, all the contents were intact.  Austria-born Stirsky owned property over at Brownsville and in May offered up a lot for the use of the new Brownsville School.

Stirsky re-opened after the fire of 1891 in the new Library building on Columbia Street.

New order

A few months after the fire, in May,  Tillman Herring delivered some explosive material to New Westminster from a powder magazine located on the Brownsville side of the river.  Herring was filling orders for TJ Trapp who no longer kept such materials in his city hardware store, favouring just-in-time delivery.

Explosives were used in construction for blasting boulders and by settlers for blasting out stumps when clearing land, so they were a necessary and familiar item.

Herring kept the cargo on a scow on the city side for delivery the next morning, and in doing so ran afoul of city regulations prohibiting the storage of explosives within the city limits. Police said several cases of “Giant, Judson and blasting powder” were in the scow anchored in front of the Foundry. He was fined.

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