I’ve been reading this book primarily because my late wife, born Linda McCartney, was a granddaughter of 1886 Vancouver fire survivors, and our son and daughter of course their greatgrandchildren. Linda possessed a copy of the cover photo of this book along with a photocopy of the February 1886 petition her grandfather, Bahamas-born Alan Edward McCartney (1851-1901), and uncle, pharmacist William Ernest McCartney (1853-1900), had signed asking the BC government to incorporate the south-shore Burrard Inlet areas then known Granville as the city of Vancouver. From her and her father (William Edward McCartney, born in Vancouver in 1887) I heard a few anecdotes from that period, including one recounted here by Lisa Smith of the surgical skeleton found in the charred ruins of William Ernest’s pharmacy that was for a while mistaken as one of those unfortunates killed in the June 1886 fire.
Because Alan Edward McCartney was a surveyor as well as an architect and telegraph engineer, and because it was CPR survey and land-clearing crews whose activities had contributed to the rapid spread of the fire, some family members – including Linda – have wondered whether he had been part of these. Lisa Smith makes it clear that he had not. At the outbreak of the fire she finds him in his brother’s pharmacy, working on the financial records of Hastings Mill, where he was employed as both engineer and accountant. He is soon attempting to rescue his brother’s stock by carrying it to the nearby shoreline of Burrard Inlet. Her last news of him that day sees him vainly warning the patrons of the Hole-in-the-Wall Saloon of the growing danger and being entrusted by Henry Abbott, the CPR’s General Superintendent for its western operations, with a purchase order for “all the pails you can find.” (My hometown of Abbotsford was named after Abbott.)
Smith recounts the story of the fire in a collage of similar multi-episode personal stories that are developing concurrently as the fire spreads. Most of these are longer and more dramatic than the one about Linda’s grandfather, and often involve families trying to save their children
Smith’s sources are the newspapers of the time and the memories of survivors that have been preserved, primarily by the amateur historian Major James Skitt Mathews. The stories of businessmen such as McCartney and wealthy families such as the Alexanders are better represented in these records than those of the men of the Hole-in-the-Wall Saloon, or of brothel operator Birdie Stewart whose house was among the first to burn. Smith tries to create a wide class portrait of the fire, but it is the business and political class she has the most information about. She also seems to want to celebrate Vancouver for its resilience – it did rebuild with amazing speed – and natural beauty. At times her language strays into that of the tourist brochure.
Readers of poetry and fiction about Vancouver, such as Daphne Marlatt’s Vancouver Poems and Ana Historic, will find many of the people here who have been later transformed into literary characters – Birdie Stewart, Richard and Emma Alexander, Benjamin Springer, Emily Patterson.