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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: Vancouver fire in 1889

By Martin Middlewood, for The Columbian
Published: May 7, 2023, 5:56am

Three cities burned just months before Washington joined the union on Nov. 11, 1889. The Great Fire of Seattle ripped through that city June 6. On Aug. 4, the Great Spokane Fire ravaged that city. Between the two, Vancouver suffered a fiery baptism on June 20, 1889.

A New York Times headline cried, “Vancouver Swept by Flames.” Its front-page story explained that four blocks of the business district burned down, said the costs wouldn’t exceed $70,000, and noted, “insurance was light.” The day after the fire, the Vancouver Independent estimated the loss at $50,000 and insurance at $8,000.

The conflagration was likely a series of arsons. Initially, the wooden St. James proto-cathedral capable of holding 500 people was set aflame inside the old fort stockade. (The abandoned church was deteriorating and had been partially torn down since Hudson’s Bay days.) Then, too late, the Vancouver Barracks sent a steam fire engine. A French family of six living in dormitories near the church escaped the fire and roomed at the Exchange Hotel.

Alarms — whistles and bells — sounded again two hours later. The Exchange Hotel was afire. The French family fled flames twice the same night. Residents stepped outside, seeing Main Street’s buildings with flames splitting skyward. The fire department acted quickly, sending a steam engine to Fifth Street and a hand-pump engine to Second. The garrison stationed fire brigades at hydrants to assist on the Reserve Street side of the fire.

Downtown, observers smelled kerosene. Others saw several fires simultaneously ignite at a restaurant, a stable and City Hall. Within 10 minutes, a firestorm engulfed buildings from Third to Fourth streets shooting flames up 100 feet. Mayor Charles Brown telegrammed Portland for help.

Firefighters made a stand on the roof of a butcher shop, pumping water where they could. Buildings fell and the Exchange Hotel collapsed, folding its cindery carcass onto the brick Odd Fellows Hall. The heat made a firefighter faint and blistered the skin of others.

Pump engine No. 3 at Second Street tapped into a cistern but couldn’t pull in water. Fortunately, a steam engine rolled up and spewed water. As the Vancouver fire defenders seemed to win, the steamship Oklahoma arrived from Portland with the Willamette No. 1 steam fire engine. Firefighters and observers cheered. Sent to Fourth Street, the Portland engine checked the spread of flames.

About 4 acres of smoldering timber covered downtown Vancouver, reported the Vancouver Independent the following day. Amid the inferno, many businesses and residents protected their goods, stowing them west of Main Street away from the blaze. Owners released horses from stables. A policeman released two prisoners with the jail aflame. The bonfire destroyed 26 buildings and damaged many more

A horse was the sole fatality. The City Council requested military help to protect property. On June 22, saloon keeper J.E. Francis set up a tent before the ground cooled on the east side of Main. The mayor, however, ordered all saloons closed by 8 p.m.

Seven months later, in January 1890, Vancouver’s new fireproof jail and courthouse burned. One of the prisoners saved was Edward Gallagher, the last man hanged in Clark County.

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