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Home Fire & Flood The Great Fire of 1900

The  Great  Fire  of  1900
Accident or arson?

Fire protection was a constant source of concern for many in Sandon, particularly because in the narrow valley with so little building space, most of the stores and houses were quite literally built wall-against-wall. As well, many of the streets...

Fire protection was a constant source of concern for many in Sandon, particularly because in the narrow valley with so little building space, most of the stores and houses were quite literally built wall-against-wall. As well, many of the streets were extremely narrow, ranging from about 30 feet (9.14 metres) on major thoroughfares like Reco Avenue, to as little as 20 feet (6.096 metres) on some of the side streets.

Like so many other early mining communities, all the buildings in town were constructed of wood, which meant any fire had the potential to tear through the entire community. To counteract this threat, by 1897 Sandon had a large two-storey fire hall with tower constructed in the downtown core, as well as a number of smaller fire sheds scattered throughout the community at various strategic locations. These sheds housed fire-fighting equipment such as hose reels, axes, shovels, ladders, buckets, and so on. As well, large triangles were hung throughout the city, to be sounded by anyone who discovered a fire.

Expensive fire hydrants were installed at regular intervals, which were hooked into the water supply of J.M. Harris' Sandon Waterworks and Electric Light Co. The system was fed by a large 60,000 gallon (227,124 litre) water resevoir located high above the city on the south side of the valley. The resevoir supplied a water pressure of 180 lbs., and with an organzized and practiced team of volunteer firefighters, residents felt the city was well prepared to meet any emergency. This confidence was soon to be proved wrong.

On May 3, 1900 a performance of "The Bitter Atonement" was playing at Spencer's Opera House in the downtown core. Just after midnight - long after the play let out - the alarm was raised. A fire had been spotted in the lot beside the opera house, and had spread to the adjoining buildings. By the time the fire department had been mobilized, the fire was already spreading, leaping from roof to roof, and even across the narrow gap of Reco Avenue. In short order the citizens were pressed into service, and the entire community fought valiantly to save their city, but it proved to be a losing battle.

The fire spread so fast, and the heat was so intense that much of the city's expensive fire-fighting equipment had to be abandoned as the firemen were driven backwards. To compound the difficulty, it was not even possible to organize a bucket brigade from Carpenter Creek, as the decision had been made two years earlier to build the flume and boardwalk that covered it over. Soon, it was obvious to all that the fire was totally out of control, and threatening to consume the entire city. Desperate citizens tried to save what they could from the flames, and in the confusion the manager of the Bank of British Columbia was able to run, unnoticed, uphill to the "Argo" mine portal, where he stashed a fortune in sacked cash.

At that point, a fateful decision was made that was to save the upper gulch from destruction. A wagon loaded with dynamite was rolled into the CPR train station and detonated, which created a fire break and deprived the flames of fresh fuel. Because of this decision, as well as wind direction, both ends of the city, the "red light" district and the upper gulch, were spared, but nearly the entire downtown core was levelled.

 

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The one exception was a large two-storey livery barn that was filled with horses. Finding the flames were too intense to take the horses through, yet determined not to lose their animals, the miners and firemen had fought a concerted battle to save the building and, against all odds, they prevailed. Surprisingly, there was only one fatality the entire night - one man who had been standing too close when the dynamite in the CPR station was detonated. The fire itself never actually killed anyone, man or horse.

The cause of the fire has never been discovered. Some favor the romantic notion that it was an actor with the troupe staging "The Bitter Atonement" who had carelessly discarded his cigarette in a wastepaper basket. The fire did not start in Spencer's Opera House, however, but rather was first spotted beside the building. Others believe it was a case of arson that "got away", as the fire occurred on the heels of a bitter nine-month lockout by the mine owners, and feelings were running high in the community. If it was the result of arson, however, no one admitted to it.

Losses were estimated at $750,000, and included ten hotels, a bank, several cafes and stores, a printing plant, cigar factory, and the Methodist and Presbyterian churches. The losses were particularly extensive for J.M. Harris, who owned many of the properties that were destroyed, including the Reco Hotel and Virginia Block. In addition, hundreds were left homeless, and surrounding communities responded with dozens of fund-raisers to help supply everything from tents and bedding to clothes. One fundraising event alone by the Nelson orchestra raised over $1,000 for the cause.

Rebuilding occurred at an astonishing pace. J.M. Harris purchased the livery barn that had been miraculously saved, and personally oversaw its transformation into the "new" Reco Hotel. Although nowhere as grand as its predecessor, it was open for business within 60 days of the fire. Business thrived in surrounding communities as trainload after trainload of supplies left bound for Sandon and the rebuilding efforts.

The boom years in Sandon were over, however. Falling metal prices, labour strife and the recently-discovered Klondike goldfields combined to lure hundreds away from the city. As a result, the city was rebuilt on a much smaller, but more orderly scale. The city fathers decided to relocate the main street from Reco Avenue to the wider planked street which had been built over the Carpenter Creek flume in 1898, and within weeks the new downtown core was taking shape.

Despite the hard lesson that had just taken place, however, the buildings were mostly crowded cheek-by-jowl yet again and most were constructed of wood. The one exception was the Slocan Mercantile Block, which was built of brick. Most of these buildings survived into the 1950s and 1960s, when they were dismantled for their lumber following the devastating 1955 wash-out. Hundreds of buildings throughout the Kootenays are constructed with wood taken from Sandon. The only brick building in town - the Slocan Mercantile Block - currently houses the Sandon Historical Society Museum.

 
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