In spite of what must have been a tumult of sirens I am embarrassed to admit that I slept through the fire that laid waste to two heritage buildings and closed dozens of businesses in the 600 block of Columbia Street early Thursday morning, October 10th.
In fact it was only when I was sitting in the Belmont Cafe a few hours later that I first learned that there had been a serious fire in the early hours and that it was still being mopped up. As an aficionado of the arts, one of my first reactions was to wonder if the new Anvil Centre had been engulfed. I was relieved to learn that it was still intact and that its unusual architecture was safe.
However, as most New Westminster residents now know (if they didn’t before), 115 years ago there was a far larger fire that destroyed most of the city’s downtown business section on September 10, 1898. That fire had originated in several tons of hay stored on the huge Brackman & Ker's wharf on Front Street. In that conflagration, the New Westminster Opera House, a major civic building, built and owned by Arthur May Herring, was also destroyed.
Unlike in Thursday’s successful efforts, the firemen of 1898 were unable to control the blaze. Once it was over, one-third of the city had been destroyed. Included in the destruction were such public buildings as the YMCA and the public library. Although it was not, strictly speaking, a public building, New Westminster’s Herring Opera House was destroyed. The structure, which had been erected in 1887, was 50 feet by 130 feet and accommodated, depending on the source referenced, between 800 and 1200 people. It had opened four years before one was built in Vancouver.
It is likely that Herring’s pharmacy business located at 85-6th Street was also destroyed in the fire. It is also possible that if this loss did occur it may have prompted Herring to run for Council that year. In any event, he was elected an alderman in the City of New Westminster in 1898.