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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County history: Downtown Vancouver burns

By Martin Middlewood for The Columbian
Published: April 30, 2023, 6:02am

Much of downtown Vancouver burned to the ground on Aug. 23, 1866, just nine years after the city was incorporated. The fire ate through a crowded block of 12 wooden buildings between Main and Washington and bounded on the east and west by Third and Fourth streets. It broke out in J. Westall’s furniture store and rapidly devoured other businesses and residences.

The same block burned five years before in 1861. This time, according to the Vancouver Register, the source was an “imperfect flue.” Before retiring for the night, Westall set a fire inside the store in his sleeping room, when a “stray spark” wound its way through the gap, according to the newspaper. “It was known that (the) chimney had settled, leaving spaces between the brick and the mortar,” it added.

Flames warming Westall’s head awakened the sleeping man, who barely had time to flee. He left behind everything but the long johns he wore. He lost $2,200 in furniture, while the building’s owner, J.T. Bowels, lost his $1,000 building. Neighbor William Ranck’s residence and wagon shop at Main and Fourth flamed out, costing him $1,500. His fire jumped to the Durgan building, which contained a butcher shop and the Odd Fellows Hall. Durgan’s loss was $2,000. (A dollar in 1866 is about $19 today.)

A healthy breeze fanned the blazing furniture store and spread the fire to other buildings. They collapsed in on themselves in under an hour. The Vancouver Barracks sent a fire engine and firefighters. They destroyed two buildings to stop the flames from spreading, saving other downtown Vancouver businesses and residences from igniting.

With the rest of downtown protected, the soldiers with the help of some citizens extinguished the remaining flames. Once again, Vancouver residents were faced with a gutted downtown. So, the next day they decided to act and set a meeting for Saturday.

Based on the first census of Clark County in 1860, fewer than 1,000 lived within the Vancouver city limits. The county’s population was just under 2,400 and 75 percent male. (One resident was an African American and four were Indigenous.)

On Aug. 25, 1866, 30 city residents met and launched a volunteer fire department. First, they elected administrators: H.G. Struve as president, C.D. Montegue as secretary, and M. Wintler as treasurer. Then they named the firemen, assigning H. Cochran as the foreman, William Tunbull as the first assistant fireman and H.C. Morse as the second.

The Vancouver Engine Company No. 1 formed a crew but lacked an engine. The men dug into their pockets and collected $265 to purchase one. Not enough. Next, they appealed to the city folk for money but still fell short.

Then in September of that year, the city council passed Ordinance No. 33, allotting $1,000 from the city treasury to fund the city’s first fire engine. The following April, the city council voted to approve its first engine company. Finally, with volunteers and a fire engine on hand, the council felt safely prepared for future fires — at least for a while.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.