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The Great Fire of New Westminster - September 10, 1898

On September 10, 1898 at 11 p.m., British Columbia's first capital and the oldest city in western Canada, New Westminster, was devastated by fire.

The fire originated in several tons of hay stored on the huge Brackman & Ker's wharf on Front Street. Local firemen were called to the scene, but in no time the entire warehouse was ablaze and the flames spread rapidly, with a stiff wind, to the large City Market building nearby. Next, steamers tied to the wharf caught fire and as the lashings tying the steamers to the wharf burned, the vessels drifted along the docks, setting fire to all of the wharfs and warehouses on the waterfront. Within minutes, a large quantity of hay in the Canadian Pacific Railway warehouse was engulfed in flames and this rapidly spread the fire to buildings in the next block.

Photograph of Main Street, New Westminster, before the fire of 1898


Main Street in New Westminster, before the fire of 1898

Businesses and residents were evacuated north of Columbia Street and below Agnes Street. Soon the YMCA, public library and Duncan McColl buildings were on fire, while St. Leonards Hall and other buildings on Clarkson Street were belching smoke and flames. With the help of Vancouver firemen, the flames were prevented from extending further.

The next morning, when the last flames were extinguished, one-third of the city, from Royal Avenue to the waterfront, had been ravaged, and the lower, westerly portion known as the Swamp (Chinatown) had been completely swept bare.

Businesses soon reopened in temporary quarters. Six fire halls were constructed throughout the city and the New Westminster Fire Department was organized. Although the loss was assessed at 2.5 million dollars, no lives were lost as a direct result of the fire. Some early buildings, including the Queen Hotel and the Burr Block, survived the fire remain as historic buildings to this day. By 1910 the citizens of New Westminster had succeeded in rebuilding their city. Today, the area along Columbia Street is a popular downtown shopping district known as the Golden Mile.