People line up to watch the Assembly Wharf burn on Port Alberni’s waterfront, Aug. 28, 1947. The entire block went up in flames within half an hour. (PHOTO PN04369 COURTESY ALBERNI VALLEY MUSEUM)

People line up to watch the Assembly Wharf burn on Port Alberni’s waterfront, Aug. 28, 1947. The entire block went up in flames within half an hour. (PHOTO PN04369 COURTESY ALBERNI VALLEY MUSEUM)

QUINN’S QUIPS: Fire changes the face of a city, not its determination

Port Alberni has survived some big blazes

In 2011-12 I participated in the centennial book project, helping to write portions of The Albernis: Then and Now, 1912–2012. One of the things that struck me about the history of the city, particularly its waterfront, is the number of fires that razed sawmills and how quickly everyone moved on.

One such fire was the Gilroy Mill, which opened on the waterfront where the Port Alberni Port Authority sits today as the Coal Creek Lumber Company Ltd. in 1918. It was sold in 1920 to W.A. Gilroy and T.G. McKay and renamed Gilroy and McKay Lumber Company. Within a year it burned down, and was replaced by a shingle mill.

In researching items for our Look Back feature, I’ve discovered even more of those stories. (If you’ve seen the historical photos in the Look Back feature that run on our editorial page in every print edition, you should watch for the feature online as well—it always has more information as well as a link to the online digital archive.)

There are two fires I’ve read about (so far) that stuck with me, and I thank historian and author Jan Peterson for her descriptions of them in her trio of books about Port Alberni. One of the fires is simply known as “The big fire.” It started as a slash fire east of Port Alberni in April 1924 and forced the closure of businesses. It started up again in a record sunny May, and again on July 4—this time distinguished as the “Dry Creek fire.” That one threatened businesses as far as where Canal Waterfront Park and Polly Point are today.

The second fire of note is the assembly wharf fire from 1947.

READ MORE: 1947 fire destroys Port Alberni wharf

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 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.

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.

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.

For the size of the fire, two years is admirably fast to rebuild. Can you imagine how long it would take and how much it would cost to rebuild the equivalent today?

Susie Quinn is the Alberni Valley News editor and a history buff.

forestryMuseumPort Alberni

Just Posted

This photo of the Rack and Rally squash club was taken in June 2021. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
Improvements planned for Third Avenue squash club

City council concerned about how long construction is taking

EJ Dunn principal Darrin Olson, left, and Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Councils Richard Samuel, right, present Trey Kyte, second from left, with his Grades 2-3 Spring Festival 2021 winning poster. With them are Kytes fellow banner painters Liam Horbatch, Sybil Purwins and Macen Avery. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
SD70’s biennial First Nations spring festival goes virtual for 2021

Alberni Valley schools showcase Indigenous learnings from past year

Port Alberni court house (Alberni Valley News)
Coroners’ inquest into 2016 death of Port Alberni teen rescheduled for June 21

18-year-old Jocelyn George died of heart failure after spending time in jail cell

CELEBRATING IN STYLE
Members of the 2021 Alberni District Secondary School graduating class pose for a photo at McLean Mill National Historic Site on June 12. Graduates held their prom on Saturday, although things looked a little different due to COVID-19. See more on page A10. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
Port Alberni 2021 grads celebrate prom with car cruise

Special event held at McLean Mill National Historic Site

The border crossing on Highway 11 in Abbotsford heading south (file)
VIDEO: Western premiers call for clarity, timelines on international travel, reopening rules

Trudeau has called Thursday meeting, premiers say they expect to leave that meeting with a plan

Two Lotto Max tickets sold on Vancouver Island were winners, though nobody won the $70-million jackpot in Tuesday’s draw. (BCLC image)
Vancouver Island lottery players win $1 million and $500,000 in Lotto Max draw

$1 million ticket sold in Campbell River, $500,000 ticket sold in Nanaimo

St. Joseph's Mission site is located about six kilometres from Williams Lake First Nation. (Photo submitted)
Williams Lake First Nation to search residential school site for unmarked graves

St. Joseph’s Mission Indian Residential School operated from 1886 to 1981

Tuesday’s Lotto Max draw went unclaimed. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Tuesday’s Lotto Max draw went unclaimed. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Lotto Max jackpot goes unclaimed again

42 of the 64 Maxmillion prizes of $1 million were won, the majority were sold in Ontario

FILE - This July 6, 2017 file photo shows prescription drugs in a glass flask at the state crime lab in Taylorsville, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
Contaminants in generic drugs may cause long-term harm to DNA: B.C. researcher

Scientist says findings suggest high volume overseas facilities require strict regulation

Restaurant patrons enjoy the weather on a patio in Vancouver, B.C., on April 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Labour shortages, closed borders major obstacles to B.C. restaurant, tourism restarts

Industry expert says it won’t start to recover until international travellers can visit

A still image from security camera video recorded June 8 shows an individual lighting trash on fire in the doorway of 19+ Cannabis Store on Victoria Crescent. RCMP and Nanaimo Fire Rescue are investigating numerous fires set in downtown Nanaimo in the past three months. (Photo submitted)
‘It’s out of control’: More than 20 fires set in downtown Nanaimo in past 3 months

Authorities asking business owners to keep dumpsters locked

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Most Read