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The Nelson boathouse fire of 1915

Updated: May 25, 2023

By Michael A. Cone


By 1915, Nelson had a long-established reputation as the centre for small craft recreation in the BC interior. As unlikely as it seems for a city located so far inland, its launch and motorboat flotilla was second to none. In fact, the Nelson Launch Club, founded in 1903, was, “the first motor boat club in the Dominion.”

A 1912 newspaper article in The Vancouver Sun titled “Nelson the Beautiful” claimed that “two hundred motor launches, three steam launches and a host of rowing boats make Nelson their headquarters and all find ‘stabling’ in various erections” along the waterfront between Ward and Josephine streets.

A colourized postcard of the Kootenay Lake Launch Club’s outing, circa 1910. In the background is the Nelson City wharf. (Image MSC130-17128-01 courtesy of the British Columbia Postcards Collection, a digital initiative of Simon Fraser University Library)

In this assortment of painted and unpainted boathouses, some were sided in shiplap or shingles, and some were roofed with corrugated metal or shingles. The most conspicuous structure was the Launch Club’s two-storey pavilion, which featured an open deck in front and a large main floor that could be cleared for dancing.

This floating lakeside community was a lively place from spring to fall. In spring, boat owners were busy cleaning, repairing, and painting their craft in eager anticipation of the long sunny days ahead. When summer finally arrived, owners and their friends and families enjoyed frequent outings and picnics to favourite Kootenay Lake beaches and coves. In the fall, boats were cleaned and lifted out of the water and rested on supports for the winter.

View of the Nelson boathouses, circa 1912. The steamer Nelson and tug Ymir are moored at the City wharf. The Launch Club’s two-storey pavilion is visible to the left of centre, with a white railing along its front gable. (Michael Cone collection)

The little hamlet in the harbour was also a centre for boatbuilding. Shipwrights had floats to proudly display the splendid cedar or mahogany launches and speed boats they had skillfully turned out. One of these, the Elford Boat Co., had its factory on the east side of the boathouses; completed boats were displayed at its livery on the west side. Boathouse owners took advantage of discount gas prices offered through the Launch Club by signing contracts with local bulk dealers; in 1915, that supplier was Imperial Oil.

Elford Boat Co. livery invoice to former Nelson hotelier J. Fred Hume, dated May 31, 1912. (Courtesy Ed Mannings)

But in 1915, Canada was entrenched in a World War — the Great War. Young men were enlisting, and most were being sent to fight in the quagmire battlefields abroad. Newspapers were filled with the latest news about the war and bulletins from the front lines.

Traditional civic festivities were redirected, replaced by patriotic activities such as the Nelson and District Women’s Institute’s Red Cross drives, the Nelson and District Machine Gun Fund, and the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire campaigns (collecting tobacco for soldiers abroad). Compared to the extravagances of prior years, Nelson’s Dominion Day celebrations for 1915 included little more than a rose festival, a high school baseball game between Nelson and Kaslo, and an intra-city lacrosse game between the east and west wards.

At the boathouses, Saturday, Aug. 14, 1915, started uneventfully. As usual, boat owners were attending to their boats and talking with fellow enthusiasts. Most were excited about the dance being held at the Launch Club’s pavilion that night — gents 50 cents, ladies free. Indeed, many attended and enjoyed a carefree evening.

Shortly after midnight, with the orchestra still playing and guests dancing, flames were suddenly spotted shooting out of the windows of a boathouse located along the outermost string of structures on the west side. It belonged to William Waldie, manager of the Edgewood Lumber Co.

Calls were sounded for the city fire department, who arrived quickly; the firefighters ran their hoses out along the narrow walkways, called for water and once the lines were pressurized they pointed the nozzles on the flames. A light breeze blowing down the lake fanned the flames in a westerly direction, igniting everything in the fire’s path, including some of the pilings. As boathouses became engulfed in flames, explosions were heard from inside, caused when gasoline barrels and cans suddenly ignited. The biggest explosion came from inside a large boathouse owned by George Hunter; it housed seven boats.

While firefighters concentrated on manhandling the heavy hoses and trying to control the blaze, several guests ran from the clubhouse to help. They untied boats and launches in boathouses still standing and paddled the crafts to safety. Meanwhile, a number of citizens living above the rail tracks, who had been awoken by the alarms and the noise, appeared near the shore in “hastily donned and unconventional attire.”

They, too, proved a godsend, lending firefighters a hand from shore and on the walkways. Owing to the combustive construction of wooden boathouses, the fire spread rapidly along connecting walkways to adjacent structures. By sunrise, the fire was doused, and the extent of the damage was apparent; it had consumed 12 boathouses and eight launches and left several pilings badly charred.

Boat owners inspect the damage Sunday morning. The photograph is looking west. (Michael Cone collection)

The cause of the fire was determined to be accidental. Three youngsters, two of whom were the Waldies’ sons, had been out in the family launch during the afternoon and returned to the boathouse later that evening to refill the launch’s tank. They lit a lantern and while filling the boat’s tank with gas, the flame from the lantern ignited the fuel, causing an explosion, which instantly set the launch on fire. The flames spread quickly to the boathouse as the youths scrambled to safety. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

The next day, the Rowing Club’s vice-president praised the city fire department for its prompt response to the call, saying the firefighters deserved “great credit” for the “splendid way in which (they) responded to a call which was really out of (their) district, the floats being out of city limits,” and the way in which they laid out hundreds of feet of hose around “narrow floating gangways.”

Other members expressed their gratitude and heartfelt thanks to all those who went above and beyond, declaring the “invaluable service rendered by the many citizens who assisted the firemen” and to the many people in “canoes, rowboats and launches, who took considerable risks in order to save the property of members by towing their launches and boathouses out of the fire zone.”

In the aftermath, Fire Chief Donald Guthrie was critical of what had happened at the boathouses. Despite prior warnings to city council that lamps and lanterns be prohibited and electric lights mandatory, nothing had been done. He also pointed out that on several occasions, he had spoken to those in authority at the boathouse floats urging them to install fire hose standards with hose attachments. He argued that had “one or more” standards been installed, firefighters could have done a better job at handling or perhaps controlling the conflagration before “it could get sufficient headway to do much damage.”

Chief Guthrie also alluded to the possibility that had the wind been blowing from the west, “the entire water front of boathouses” and the city wharf might have been destroyed. Few structures “are more flammable than boathouses,” he cautioned, pointing to the fact that their timbers inside “become soaked with gasoline and engine oils,” their wooden exteriors become tinder dry in the sun, and the storage of large quantities of gasoline inside make a recipe for disaster. He suggested utilizing corrugated metal on the outside walls and roofs of boathouses to mitigate the potential spread of fires.

Today, the boathouse hamlet still enjoys a prominent position along the waterfront, nestled between the city wharf to the east and an artificial groyne to the west. It remains an active and vibrant area as it continues to serve the needs of the boating community. The types of boats stabled there have certainly changed since the original structures were established early in the 1900s, but today the charming arrangement of boathouses remains indelibly tied to Nelson’s colourful past.

The private boathouse community east of the city wharf as it appears today. (Michael Cone photo)

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