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Fire on the Water, Smoke in the Sky – The 1944 Canada Day Blaze on Fraser River

August 28, 2015

On July 1, 1944, the Gypsum, Lime and Alabastine Company plant and its machinery, stock and wharf at Herring’s Point, opposite Sapperton, were destroyed by fire. Described as “the most spectacular and serious” in many years along the Fraser River waterfront, the blaze threw thirty employees out of work.

Watchman George Miller first noticed the fire at 9 in the morning, about an hour after the night shift had gone home. It is believed to have started at the wallboard drying kiln. Miller tried to tackle it with a fire extinguisher.

Gypsum-Lime-Alabastine-plant-at-Liverpool-in-1936.jpgThe gypsum plant was built in 1926 after a Kamloops-Vernon branch line provided direct rail access to the quarry at Falkland. The company built up an overseas market, but since the start of the War was devoted to military contracts. Of late, the plant was also supplying cement works on Vancouver Island. For a history of the plant – excepting this destructive fire, which was missed, see earlier post A Place Called Gyproc . 

First to respond after the alarm went out was a light truck and crew of the Surrey A.R.P. brigade, commanded by GA Hooser.

(ARP, for Air Raid Precautionary brigade, was a Civil Defense unit on duty during the Second World War.)

Using their own pump to draw water from a ditch these men fought the flames which, fanned by the breeze, had quickly engulfed the mill. When the fire department pumper and men in charge of Chief Matheson arrived on the scene their efforts were hampered by a lack of water from the company hydrants.

When the plant was built,

“ a powerful pump was installed on the wharf and the power line to it was kept away from the main buildings. Since that time other structures had been added.When Saturday’s fire broke out, BCER linemen were forced to cut off the ‘juice’ on the south side of the CNR tracks. This put the pump out of action.”

The main work of preventing the blaze from spreading fell to the A.R.P. volunteers, which included undertaker Ray Bowell and a couple of local garagemen.

No one could get within 75 feet of the building as corrugated metal sheets rained down.

The company offices were located south of the CNR tracks and safely out of reach of the flames. However, the greater risk was a tank containing 10,000 gallons of fuel oil.

“One of the three large oil tanks in the plant was full of fuel oil, but safety vents prevented an explosion, although shortly after noon the tank melted and the ignited oil raised tremendous billows of smoke which could be seen for miles. The oil ran into the river, which became a sheet of flame . . .”

The burning waters spread to the wharf of the Home Oil Company, a short way downstream. This dock was saved by New Westminster firemen under Wilson Patchell, who came over equipped with a portable pump.

Unfortunately, “Several fishermen’s shacks went up in smoke.”

(These “shacks” were often floating residences, known as “scow-houses.”)

Neighboring the gypsum plant, and seperated only by a brush lot, was the Royal City sawmill. A locomotive arrived down from the CNR shops at Port Mann and set up hoses to safeguard the mill.

1944-07-01-Gypsum-blazePlant Superintendent Alex L. Dryden of New Westminster found no fault with fire crews, whose capabilities were hampered by a lack of water. However, Dryden stated that

“A modern fireboat could have battled the conflagration from the riverside and poured unlimited streams of water onto the firehead.”

Managing the company in 1944 was Norman Jessiman of Vancouver.

The loss by fire was estimated at $500,000.00.

Totally destroyed by fire in July 1944, the Gypsum Lime & Alabastine plant was rebuilt and is still in operation today, part of Georgia Pacific Co Ltd.

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