Clark Asks: The flamey history of Hudson House

Housing for WWII Kaiser workers improved after 1942 deadly fire, but it didn’t save one British man

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter

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SHIPYARD HISTORY

Pearson Air Museum will unveil a new exhibit in October featuring Vancouver’s Kaiser shipyard. The exhibit will include information on the ships built in Vancouver and how they supported the war effort; the shipyard’s diverse workforce; and the shipyard’s immediate and long-term effects on the city. Historic objects will include artifacts recovered from the site. The museum is at 1115 E. Fifth St., east of the reconstructed Fort Vancouver stockade.

“My great-uncle died in a fire in July 1944 at Hudson House in Clark County. I wonder if you have any information regarding this fire? Thanks.”

— Jarvis Smartt

Jarvis Smartt’s great-uncle was part of a little-known aspect of one the most significant chapters of Vancouver history.

Significant because Max Vigon was among the tens of thousands of people who came to Vancouver during World War II to work in the Kaiser shipyard.

Little-known because Vigon didn’t die in the infamous Dormitory D blaze that claimed seven lives and earned a courageous rescuer a Carnegie life-saving award. That was a 1942 fire and it’s what immediately came to mind when we received the inquiry — even though Smartt cited a fire in July 1944.

It turns out that there were at least three blazes in the residential complex, and two of them were fatal fires that killed a total of at least eight people. Vigon died in a Dormitory B fire that broke out on July 5, 1944. (The third blaze was on Sept. 30, 1944; while there were no fatalities, the four-alarm Dormitory G blaze injured five firemen.)

The Columbian’s story on July 5, 1944, did not report that Vigon was killed, only that he was severely burned and was taken to the Northern Permanente hospital with another severely burned worker.

Smartt provided a copy of Vigon’s death certificate, which lists his date of death as July 6, 1944 — the day after the fire.

Our story did list Vigon’s home address as 1673 W. Pratt Blvd., Chicago. But that is a very brief version of Vigon’s path to Vancouver.

Brothers came to U.S.

Smartt lives in Norfolk on the English coast, and said that earlier generations of the family reflected a much-told emigration story.

“Their father died in 1904 and the family was struggling,” Smartt told us, so “Max and his brother Philip both went to America to find work; they both sent money back to the family in London.”

Max Vigon served in the U.S. Army during World War I. By the time World War II came along, Vigon (who was born Oct. 23, 1887) was 56 and too old to serve. He contributed to the war effort by working at the shipyard in Vancouver. The death certificate listed his occupation as sheet-metal helper.

Vigon was one of about 5,000 residents of the Hudson House dormitory. It sounds like a college housing residence, but it actually was a sprawling cluster of more than a dozen two-story buildings. The complex was just south of state Highway 14, centered at the point where Blandford Drive comes down from the Heights. That’s near where Marine Park and the Water Resources Education Center are today.

The places where the workers lived — like the ships they produced — were built quickly.

“They were slapped together,” said Lincoln Cushing, Kaiser Permanente archivist and historian based in Oakland, Calif.

Cushing forwarded clippings from an Oakland newspaper that reported on several fires in housing for Bay-area shipyard workers. After a fire killed eight workers at the Richmond, Calif., shipyard, investigators said that heating ducts made of plywood instead of sheet metal (a critical wartime material) were factors in the fire.

An Oakland Tribune headline referred to the structures as “firetraps.”

A Clark County sheriff’s deputy who responded to the Hudson House fire on Nov. 14, 1942, had a similar assessment. Fred Greenwood referred to Dormitory D as a “death trap,” according to Columbian coverage.

Damage was estimated at $400,000. In addition to the seven workers who died, 16 victims remained hospitalized two days after the fire.

Michael Oris received third-degree burns on his face, arms, legs and back when he ran into the dormitory three times to carry unconscious occupants from the burning building.

Upgrades after ’42 fire

Oris received a life-saving award from the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission.

That fire did have a life-saving legacy.

At about 5 a.m. on July 5, 1944, a washroom in Dormitory B of the Hudson House complex caught fire. It might have been started when a match was thrown into an overflowing waste receptacle, we reported.

Damage in that fire was estimated at about $8,000 — thanks to upgrades prompted by the 1942 fire.

“The fire walls which were installed following the big blaze there two years ago proved very effective in this morning’s incident,” The Columbian reported. “It was thought that a serious fire had probably been averted through the addition of the walls.”

Unfortunately, it didn’t help Vigon. His cause of death was listed as extensive second- and third-degree burns.

Most of the occupants were able to hastily evacuate the dorm. Very hastily, according to our coverage.

“One man, who depends on an artificial limb to walk, reported that he left his leg behind when he heard the cry of fire and that he has no idea how he reached the yard.”