Whitehorse swept by fire
Top photo: Despite being almost directly across the street from the fire hall, the fire which started in the Windsor Hotel barber shop, managed to spread south to (but did not include) the Post Office, north to and including the Commercial Hotel, across First avenue to the train station and down Main street consuming everything to Second avenue. Barley coll./Yukon Archives. Bottom photo: Whitehorse Fire Damage. Six men salvaging what they can from the ashes of the May 23, 1905 fire. Scharschmidt coll./Yukon Archives
May 23, 1905
Whitehorse was swept by fire early this morning and is now a mass of blackened smoking ruins. Loss $300,000.
The single fire engine at a critical moment gave out, and quickly the best part of the city became involved in ruin.
So rapidly did the fire spread, many complete and extensive stocks were lost entirely, not a scrap being taken out of the stores before the buildings were completely enwrapped in flame.
The fire takes the city, extending from the post office to the telegraph office and crossing the tracks, sweeping the railroad, the White Pass depot, three of the best hotels and dozens of the smaller buildings.
The fire originated this morning between four and six o’clock in the barber shop in the rear of the Windsor Hotel.
The fire was a trifle, and the fire engine was soon rapidly reducing the flames to nothing.
It was almost under control when owing, it is said, to the fact that there was not sufficient water in the engine, it broke down. The engineer is blamed for the fact of the engines break down and the consequent loss.
The whole hotel in a few minutes was ablaze, the flames spreading to the surrounding buildings. A strong wind was blowing and the flames jumped the street and the building of Whitney & Pedlar and the railway station were both soon ablaze. Both were burned to the ground in a very few minutes.
All the buildings in the block north of the Windsor hotel were burned to the ground and in the block south of the hotel, all were burned as far as the post office. No government buildings were damaged, nor was the warehouse of the railway damaged. A considerable quantity of baggage, however, was destroyed in the railway station.
There were no lives lost, nor were there any lives in danger at any time. The whole town turned out to assist in the putting out of the flames. Mr. Newell and the other officials of the White Pass Company formed a bucket brigade and did efficient work.
As soon as the fire was out the railway company commenced the construction of a new railway station. Other merchants are making arrangements at once for the construction of their buildings and in a week several of the principal merchants and hotel men will have their new structures well under way.
The following is a complete list of the burned business houses: Windsor hotel, Golden Eagle hotel, Vancouver hotel, Commercial hotel, Seattle hotel, R. Lowe & Co., McKeown drug store, McLennan Hardware Co., Taylor & Drury, H.F. Sieward jewelry, Halbe hotel, Central drug store, Sharp’s barber shop, Martin confectionery, Unsworth hardware, Bon Marche dry goods, Arctic Trading Co., Commercial cafe, P. Burns & Co., Main Street laundry. Royal restaurant, Salvatore confectionery, Bennett News Co., Royal cafe, Electric Light Co. poles and wires, White Pass depot.
ROBERT SERVICE HELPED FIGHT BLAZE
Fire was always a great fear in a frontier town. Closely built tents and wooden buildings using every sort of wood stove made fire almost a certainty. Whitehorse had prepared itself for just such an emergency with a fire hall, rolls of hose, fire engine and a well organized fire brigade. In the early morning of May 23, 1905, however, human error caused the entire business section of the town to burn down. Bank of Commerce teller Robert W. Service was part of the fire brigade that morning and remembers the blaze in his autobiography “Ploughman Of The Moon”:
“One morning in early spring we were aroused by the fire siren. It was around three o’clock, and we cursed as we rushed to the scene. It was a gray dawn, evil and askew. Others passed us pulling on their clothes as they ran. I heard them cry: “It’s the White Pass Hotel.” [Windsor] …Smoke was pouring from the building, but as yet there was no sign of fire …The hotel was only a hundred yards away from the pump house. We could get two streams on the fire and quickly master it. Everything was in place awaiting the water…How long it seemed to be in coming! But the engine had to be started and the engineer had lost his head …Hose in hands, with nozzles pointing, we waited, prayed, cursed…”
“Thank God! At last the pipes swelled and the strong jets shot out. We were saved. We would soon get the fire under control. We inundated the centre of the building where the smoke was thickest. It faltered, almost died away…Suddenly, to our horror, the saving stream ceased. Not a drop of water came forth. At the same time the fire, as if mocking our dismay, burst out again.
“Quick see what’s wrong!” shouted the crowd, and a rush was made to the pump room. Men were yelling frantically for water. Then I could see them dragging out the wretched engineer, who seemed to be in a state of collapse.
I heard a shout of panic: “There’s no more water in the tanks. He’s let them run dry. We’re lost, We can’t fight the fire!”
“…And there they stood staring at those limp hose pipes from which no water came. We were helpless and, even as we looked, the fire, as if in triumph, shot out a great blaze of flame that dominated the smoke. The holocaust was under way.”
The final result of the fire was the burning down of most of the business community on Front Street between Steel and Elliot and down Main Street to Second Ave. Bank of Commerce employees, Robert Service among them, formed a bucket brigade and prevented sparks and the intense heat of the blaze from igniting the Bank of Commerce premises which were, at that time, on the west corner of Second and Main.