On Aug. 26, 1947, a fire sparked in the lumber piles between Alberni Pacific Division sawmill and Alberni Plywood (located where Canal Waterfront Park is now). What resulted was a huge fire on Assembly Wharf One, where several buildings were gutted and stacks of lumber were burned. This photo is one of 24,000 contained in the Alberni Valley Museum’s digital archives, at https://portalberni.pastperfectonline.com. (PHOTO PN07386 COURTESY ALBERNI VALLEY MUSEUM)

On Aug. 26, 1947, a fire sparked in the lumber piles between Alberni Pacific Division sawmill and Alberni Plywood (located where Canal Waterfront Park is now). What resulted was a huge fire on Assembly Wharf One, where several buildings were gutted and stacks of lumber were burned. This photo is one of 24,000 contained in the Alberni Valley Museum’s digital archives, at https://portalberni.pastperfectonline.com. (PHOTO PN07386 COURTESY ALBERNI VALLEY MUSEUM)

LOOK BACK: 1947 fire destroys Port Alberni wharf

Take a peek into the Alberni Valley’s history with the Alberni Valley Museum

In the mid-1920s both the coastal fishing and forestry industries were booming in the Alberni Canal, forcing the need for an assembly wharf on Port Alberni’s waterfront to handle all the activity.

In Twin Cities: Alberni-Port Alberni author Jan Peterson writes about the debate that ensued over where to locate a wharf that would handle both commercial fishing and the lumber export market. The decision was made to build it near the (Alberni Pacific Lumber) APL sawmill on South Street.

The plan was ambitious: a main wharf measuring 400 x 100 feet, a second wharf about half that size, warehouses, a railway trestle, road and storage for several million feet of finished lumber. The cost at the time was $200,000 according to an article in the Port Alberni News.

(There was even a scandal that erupted on the day officials finally received assurance for funding to build the wharf: it was discovered that an assistant city clerk had taken off with city funds, according to Peterson.)

Logging continued to thrive despite the Great Depression of the early 1930s, and in the late 1930s the assembly wharf was enlarged by 400 feet to accommodate lumber shipments.

PHOTO: The S.S. Sampep from England burns in front of Assembly Wharf One

The wharf was considered the “life-blood” of the district, so when it went up in flames on Aug. 28, 1947, it had a significant economic impact on the region. The fire was said to have cost $2 million in damages. Peterson devotes four pages to the fire, with detailed, descriptions from news coverage in the West Coast Advocate.

The fire started around supper time: witnesses saw flames in the warehouse section of the wharf, near shore. It was a bit windy at the time—as it gets down the inlet—and the wind quickly blew the fire out of control. Creosote on the pilings helped the fire to spread.

By 7 p.m., half an hour after fire crews arrived, the entire block—approximately 950 feet long—was on fire and “thousands of onlookers lined the waterfront to see the spectacular blaze that carried everything in its wake.” Witnesses said flames were shooting 200 feet into the air.

A 10,000-ton freighter, the S.S. Sampep, had been docked at the wharf and partially loaded with wheat and lumber. Despite efforts to cut it loose from the wharf, the ship burned in the middle of the inlet. It’s captain and crew members all abandoned ship and made it to shore.

Once the ashes settled, officials began rebuilding the wharf and it reopened two years after it burned down, on Aug. 25, 1949. The cost to rebuild was $500,000, or more than double what the original cost.

We’ve shared one historical photo of the 1947 assembly wharf fire, but others can be seen in the Alberni Valley Museum’s online archives at https://portalberni.pastperfectonline.com.

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