Last evening the roof of Rudolph's Oyster
Saloon, Waddington Street was discovered in a blaze. Had
it occurred a day or so ago when the roofs were dry and
the wind blew furiously, no one could guess at the result.
When are we to have an effective fire department? This is
The British Colonist
Victoria, Vancouver Island, June 1859
Even with the advances in technology available
by the mid nineteenth century, fire was a threat that had
to be taken extremely seriously. When what was at the time
termed the `fire demon' went on the rampage even the largest
cities like London and New York had suffered major catastrophes.
By comparison, a tiny, isolated fur trade fort was utterly
defenceless, especially one that had undergone an incredible
Over the course of the fifteen years since
being established in 1843, Victoria had slowly expanded beyond
the protective walls of the Fort around the harbour and to
the flat land and marshes to the east. The excellent deep-sea
harbour at Esquimalt and Victoria had been connected by a
path and then road. The population increased - not dramatically,
but enough so that not everyone in town had connections to
the Hudson's Bay Company. Even though the resident population
was very small, it was showing signs of becoming less homogenous
and less disciplined than in the past. The Company was never
the less in charge by virtue of an agreement with the British
Government. Victoria was changing but at a slow and manageable
rate. Fire wasn't a concern at this time - but things would
soon change and it would become a very real fear.
Early in 1858, word of a major gold strike
on the Fraser River spread south to California. In San Francisco
the news passed with lightning speed among the unemployed,
and broke, miners left in dire straits after the passing
the 1849 rush. It wasn't long before ships full of prospectors,
many of whom were veterans of previous rushes - California,
Australia and even the Queen
Charlottes, began arriving in Victoria. The Governor, Sir
James Douglas, who was also Chief Factor of the Hudson's
was well aware of problems inherent in gold rushes. His method
of maintaining control was simple: everyone headed for the
Fraser River had to purchase a licence and provisions in
before they were permitted to proceed on to the `diggings'.
The result was staggering!
Transients, many thousands of them, flooded
into Victoria and set up camp anywhere they could find room
- and space was not plentiful. The editor of the Weekly Gazette,
looking out over the scene in early July 1858, was appalled.
There were hundreds of rudimentary shelters, many of which
were simply cloth stretched over tent poles with chimney pipes
extending up through the fabric. Open fires were common. Referring
to it as "The Arab mode of existence", he described
it in his column.
Hundreds of these miniature dwellings are
scattered through our suburbs, some choking up ravines with
their numbers, others spread out on the broad plain that
surrounds the city. Others still spring up on the shores
of the bay remote from the town's centre
Along with the flood of prospectors, inevitably
came what we would today call entrepreneurs, those new arrivals
who were eager to get rich by supplying the needs of the miners.
Stores and other facilities were needed and that large numbers
of structures had to be built and built quickly - time could
not be wasted when money was to be made. More than 250 of
these often-rudimentary buildings went up between 12 June
and 21 August 1858!
Neither building standards, zoning nor a
city plan of any kind existed. If there was space, a structure
would appear. Desperately needed fire prevention bylaws hadn't
been enacted - there hadn't been time - and in any case, many
of the town's leading citizens weren't convinced that the
overcrowding would last long. However, without this legislation,
businesses that used fire such as blacksmiths, restaurants,
tanneries, or laundries could be placed without any consideration
for fire safety. There were other worries as well. All buildings
in town were of wood construction and many shared common walls
and often adjoining false fronts that would ensure the rapid
spread of fire. Streets were narrow and fire could jump the
gap very easily, especially when fanned by a stiff wind -
a common occurrence. Even in the short term, if something
went wrong and a fire broke out, disaster was all but inevitable.
There was a further problem, a significant
one: Victoria hadn't any means of fighting a fire, even a
minor blaze. Even though what had been a tiny village had
become a city, it didn't possess those services we consider
vital today. There weren't any firefighters, nor was there
apparatus. There was an excellent supply of water-the harbour
- but how to get it on to fire was a problem. The Hudson's
Bay Company, the only government available, had to do something!
Sir James Douglas agreed, and ordered two small manual pumpers
some leather hose and other equipment from California.