First Water, Tigers! The Victoria Fire Department

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 a warning.

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 transformation.

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 of 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 Company, 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 Victoria 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.


Home | History | Gallery | Contact