Vancouver Feature: Fledgling City Incinerated in Minutes

It was a scorching summer day, but a strong breeze was blowing from Burrard Inlet. Workers were burning off timber they had cleared from Canadian Pacific Railway lands. With a sudden gust, the wood frame buildings of tiny Vancouver were aflame. Twenty-five minutes later, there wasn’t much left of the two-month-old city.

The city of Vancouver was incorporated on April 6, 1886. The name was the idea of CPR president William Van Horne, who thought that the western terminus for his transcontinental railway deserved a more recognizable name than Granville, its former title. The founding fathers had grand expectations for their city, although the original townsite was a modest collection of mostly wooden buildings. 

Those hopes might have been dashed less than two months later, when the entire city went up in flames. Where the conflagration started is a matter of dispute, as the winds blew embers across the settlement, setting off fires in many spots.

The young city responded heroically to the disaster. Government swung into action; the police took charge; and within days, construction was underway throughout the townsite. Ironically, the fire may have been a godsend: the new city incorporated modern water, electricity and streetcar systems the old infrastructure could not.