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Fire aftermath: the torch of public opinion

April 23, 2015

In the days after the great fire of New Westminster in 1898 many residents were in shock,  while others were gripped by a passion to  blame someone. Among the latter, feelings ran high. A few local men went over to Vancouver and roughed up a newspaper editor because they did not like what he wrote.  As to the cause of the fire, a couple of theories dominated the rumor mill, one having to do with a steamboat,and the other, which raised the most ire, had to do with a pirate flag and suspected incendiarism.

Sparking rumor – The Captain of the "ill-fated steamer Edgar”

The owner and Master of the steamer Edgar was well-known in New Westminster and along the Fraser.

Captain Richard H Baker -  SS EdgarCaptain Richard Henry Baker was an Englishman with extensive marine experience, having first seen this coast in 1865 while serving in Her Majesty’s Ship Zealous.

In 1868 he was a member of  the ship’s company of HMS Topaze that placed a plaque on Juan Fernandez Island commemorating the solitary sojourn there of the privateer Alexander Selkirk, prototype of "Robinson Crusoe."

On taking his discharge Baker remained in British Columbia and worked on a number of well-known vessels.

In 1892 he and engineer Joseph E Oliver,  another Englishman, who started his career on the Thames, formed the Lower Fraser River Transportation Company. They first operated the steamer Telephone on the South Arm run to Ladners and the following summer put into service a new "handsome vessel," the sternwheeler Edgar.

"With Capt. Baker in the wheel house and Mr Oliver in the engine room a very nice business was built up, chiefly through the courage of the captain, who never considered it any trouble to oblige those who were dependent upon the steamer’s service."

On Saturday night, September 10, 1898 the Edgar was tied up at the Brackman & Ker wharf where the fire that laid waste to New Westminster first started.  The most popular theory going the rounds as to the cause of the blaze was a spark from the smoke-stack of the steamer Edgar.

The captain of the vessel was interviewed by a Vancouver newspaper reporter, but not identified by name,  presumably for his safety.

(It would not have helped that Captain Baker of the Edgar  had some few years earlier been fined "for allowing ashes to be thrown into the river." )

Here is what "the captain of the ill-fated steamer Edgar" said:


"We got into Westminster at 3 o’clock and tied up at Brackman & Ker’s wharf.  We always put out our fires on Saturday nights, as there is nothing for us to do on Sundays. This was done on Saturday night as usual and I went to my home.

From what I have learned from the men on the boat there was a sudden burst of flame from the side of Brackman & Ker’s warehouse. It was so intensely hot that the ship was on fire before they had time to cut the cables and they had to drop into a boat and row away down the river before they could find a place to land.

The Edgar was the first on fire but the Gladys and Bon Accord caught immediately afterwards and a scow load of coal was next in a blaze.

It doesn’t make much difference now, I suppose, but the fire couldn’t have started from the Edgar. We burned only small coal and used no wood at all. Sparks from our smoke stack were out of the question."


A Black Flag; Incendiary Talk

Jolly-Roger - imageThe second most prevalent theory as to the "mysterious origins" of the New Westminster fire, was that it was deliberately set and connected to the display of a "black flag, adorned with a skull and cross-bones," that was seen flying from the mast of the Central Public School on Saturday night.

1898 09 10 Capt KiddCuriously, on the very day in question, Saturday September 10th, the local newspaper, the British Columbian, ran a short feature about  "buccaneers and pirates,"  specifically Captain Kidd and treasure he had buried on an island on the eastern seaboard.

This was to be the last issue of the Columbian to be printed for a while, as its premises and plant were also destroyed by the fire.

No one connected in print the story of  pirates with the appearance of a Jolly Roger on the school ground flag pole. 

Rather, they connected the flag and the fire with any persons who had recently been exhibiting "suspicious" behavior,  notably three men who "were seen walking quickly away from the city"  and another two men who "were taken across the river by Indians."

In the aftermath of the fire the story of the black flag with the skull and cross-bones was perceived to have "lent intensity to the excitement" when a man was arrested for having made "many wild statements."

Tales told on the  ferry Surrey: John Rufus Sheppard talks wild to Bill Kennedy

The New Westminster fire started before midnight, but most of the destruction occurred in the early hours of Sunday, the 11th of September.

On Monday as Bill Kennedy of South Westminster was taking the ferry Surrey home, he got into a conversation with fellow-commuter John Sheppard.

William Kennedy ran a dairy farm opposite the city in a partnership with brother Robert,  publisher of the British Columbian.

John Sheppard was a local rancher, about 47 years old,  who gave his occupation as wood-cutter. The city directory lists him as a "fisherman" at Brownsville, also "farmer."   In 1898 he had a  place  along the Newton Road.

Sheppard enjoyed a drink whenever he was in the city.

Although some suggested he was a jail-bird, the Chief of Police saw him differently.

"I know Sheppard well. . . I do not remember ever having him in our jail, but I know that he is a man who talked much — indeed he would talk the hind leg off a mule."

Another officer concurred:

"I know him well. He was frequently under the influence of liquor and used to talk as if he knew anything in town. I think that he is an irresponsible. He has lived around here for years."

Notwithstanding these "character" references,  feelings were running high, people thought there had been a plot to set the city ablaze, and some remarks that Sheppard was alleged to have made to Kennedy landed him in a pickle.

The chat Bill Kennedy had with Sheppard, as told  to a couple of reporters, does not actually mention the fire, although that is presumed to have been  the topic of conversation.

[Kennedy]  "Yes, I spoke to Sheppard. We were crossing the river on the ferry. He said enough to me to arouse my suspicions and I informed the police of what I had learned."

[Reporter]  "What did he say?"

[Kennedy]  "He said: ‘It was just what I expected.’

I said, ‘how do you know so much?’

Sheppard replied: ‘Oh, I expected it.’

I said that this was strange, and he replied: ‘There will be more of it.’

He led me to believe he knew much about the fire. He might have had a drink or two, I don’t know. He said that there would be more on the 29th.

I said ‘yes.’

He said ‘yes.’

Then said ‘there will be more of it.’

That ended the conversation. I know nothing else."

As two special constables were sent out to bring in John Sheppard, word of a pending arrest had spread quickly.

"The officers entered the city very quietly with their prisoner, because it was feared that if the torch of public feeling was lighted, violence might have been resorted to."

John Rufus Sheppard was charged with "having set fire to the wharf of the Brackman & Ker Milling company." 

Appearing before Magistrate GE Courbald, he pleaded "not guilty."

Relating his movements on September 10th, Sheppard testified that "he left New Westminster and crossed the river on the Surrey and with Rev. Mr. Green went out five miles in the country on the Newton road."  He "had supper at Eyle’s place and then went east to his own, about half a mile distant." The next morning he returned to Eyle’s to go hunting with Eyle’s son.

Ben Eyle’s homestead was the 160 acres from the southeast corner of King George Blvd and 72 Avenue, east to 140 Street and south to 76 Avenue, taking in the property on which the Newton Library is located now. That would place Sheppard’s ranch at about 140 St.

Upon hearing Sheppard,  the magistrate remanded him in custody "that he might have a chance to substantiate his statements."

It was probably well for Sheppard that he was kept in.

Nothing more appears to have come from this.

John Sheppard later moved out to Langley, where he was employed as  a "fruit agent."

William Kennedy worked many years as master of Dominion fisheries vessels on Fraser River.

Captain RH Baker and his partners re-established service on the South Arm with the purchase of the steamer Ramona,  a replacement for the burned steamer Edgar.

No cause of the great fire of 1898 has ever been definitely established.

The article about Captain Kidd is in reference to a book by Frank R Stockton.

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