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The night the Newmarket Hotel burned

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

When fire destroyed the Newmarket Hotel in October 1973, New Denver lost its greatest pioneer hotel, built in 1893. It stood at the foot of 6th Avenue, where the Valhalla Pure beach shop is now. What follows is the text of two newspaper stories about the fire and a firsthand account by one of the firefighters. Originally presented in the Spring 2017 edition of the Silver Standard, the newsletter of the Silvery Slocan Historical Society.

The Newmarket is seen in a postcard image from the 1960s published by Art Stevens Photography of Nelson. The reverse reads: “NEW MARKET HOTEL Box 128 — New Denver BC. 24 Room, Family Style Hotel Just Across the Street From Beautiful Slocan Lake — 3 Blocks West of Main Highway at Village Centre. Phone 358-2441. Al & Nora Johnston” (Greg Nesteroff collection)


Nelson Daily News, Oct. 6, 1973:

NEW DENVER LANDMARK REDUCED TO RUBBLE

The New Market [sic] Hotel, one of the Slocan’s oldest landmarks, was destroyed by fire here early Friday. The few people living in the 80-year-old, 24-room hotel, were safely evacuated and no injuries were reported.


There was no indication how the fire began and firemen are conducting an investigation. An unofficial estimate sets the loss at $200,000. New Denver fire department volunteers, headed by Chief J.R. McDonaugh, were joined by Silverton fire department volunteers to fight the fire.


They kept the blaze from spreading to a nearby apartment, a one-time lodge hall, and from burning nearby trees in the area. “Fortunately,” firemen said, “the wind was blowing to the west, otherwise we would have been unable to save the apartment.”


The blaze started about 1 a.m. and by about 3:45 a.m., the hotel had become a burning heap of rubble. The owner of the hotel, Morris Matthews, was out of town and returned Friday to find the building in ashes. He had purchased the hotel a year ago from Mr. and Mrs. Al Johnston, who had taken it over from the late Clifford Uphill, a former mayor of the village.


Previous owners of the hotel had been pioneer Henry Stege, who promoted it as “so situated that the most magnificent scenery in North America can be seen from its balconies,” and Andy Jacobson, who purchased it after Mr. Stege moved to Edmonton. Mr. Jacobson closed down the only other hotel of pioneer times, the St. James, at the time.


The hotel was situated close to the shore of beautiful Slocan Lake and offered scenic views in all directions. A Dominion Day program from 1897 carried an advertisement which said “Guests do not have to live on the scenery. In the dining room (still open up to the time of the fire) are served the best viands obtainable, while the nerve producers in the bar are of the quality that soothe the palate, and make a temporary paradise possible.”

The Newmarket Hotel is seen ablaze on the night of Oct. 5-6, 1973. (Ray Nunn photo/Silvery Slocan Historical Society A006-000-0676)


Arrow Lakes News, Oct. 10, 1973:

NEWMARKET HOTEL LEVELLED BY BLAZE

Inspectors from the provincial Fire Marshall’s office were in New Denver Saturday and Sunday at the request of the Village, examining the smoldering remains of the Newmarket Hotel for clues to the origin of the fire which levelled the 80-year-old New Denver landmark.


The fire was in the early hours of Friday morning. The blaze, believed to have begun in either the kitchen or the basement, broke out about half an hour after doors to the pub had been locked for the night. Within two hours the stately old hotel was a mass of burning rubble.


Firemen from New Denver and Silverton manning three fire trucks and two forest service hoses miraculously contained the blaze to the hotel structure. A narrow alley was all that separated the Newmarket from the old Masonic Lodge, a frame building of the same vintage as the hotel.

Bill Harshenin in front of the Newmarket, ca. 1950.

Only a few people were living in the 24-room hotel at the time of the fire and they were evacuated without injury, but everything else within its walls went up in smoke. It all happened so fast, village residents are still stunned.


The Newmarket’s fine cuisine and public house were central attractions of the town for residents and visitors alike from the time of its construction in the 1890s.


In recent years, the pub’s clientele was a colorful conglomeration of old timers, highway workers, miners and young people, who though having their minor scraps, shared the relaxed, hospitable atmosphere of the place, in relative harmony.


Within two days of the fire, it was reported that other beer parlors in the area were not receiving all their new clientele on such friendly terms by placing notices that they reserve the right to pick their clientele.


Owner of the Newmarket for just about a year, Morris Matthews, ran the operation on a family basis with his wife Marie, daughter Sharon and sons Garry and Randy all pitching in to keep the establishment running smoothly.


He had purchased it from Al Johnson who came to New Denver in the late 1960s and bought the operation from former New Denver mayor and councillor Cliff Uphill.


Village clerk Fred Angrignon remembers when the hotel changed hands during the First World War when the illustrious Henry Stege sold out to Andy Jacobson. He closed down the St. James to run the Newmarket for over 20 years before selling it to another New Denver oldtimer, Neil Tattrie.


Mr. Tattrie sold it to Joe Mikita who then passed it on to former mayor Uphill.


The late Herman Hiebert was among the firefighters who tackled the Newmarket blaze. You can also listen to an interview from March 12, 2017 about his memories of the hotel and the night it burned by clicking the button below. The transcript has been condensed and rearranged for clarity.

The main lobby of the hotel was about 25 feet square. Just to the left was the dining area and at the back of that was the kitchen. The refrigeration unit was in the basement, where they had the kegs of beer. I never got down there. All the furniture, I would say, were antiques. I don’t recall any bedrooms on the first floor. I think they were all upstairs. The bar was right on the lake side. At that time, men and ladies had their own entrances. Inside, there was no separation, it seemed to me.


I didn’t get to have a meal in the place, but I remember once being in the bar and Eric Bergren who was a bit of a character in town, came riding in on his bike in amongst the tables. Eric had a habit when he was excited. His voice changed to “Hey, hey!” He couldn’t get anything out he was so excited riding the bike in amongst the tables!


Then there was an alcoholic up the street. He used to play his mouth organ in the bar. That was against the law to have entertainment in the bar. So they barred him from playing anywhere in the drinking area. He went and sat in the toilet and left the door open and played in there.


The fire call came in about 11:30 at night and we were there fairly quick. The whole crew showed up, as well as Silverton. About an hour after we arrived it was fully engulfed. About four hours in, forestry got a pump going from the lake to help us.


After it had burned for a while, a telephone pole started burning on top, and the fire chief instructed us to hose it down. I looked at my partner [Ray Nunn], and he looked at me. No damn way we were going to put water on that high-tension line! It would have come right down and bit us on the butt.

A Newmarket Hotel plate from an exhibit in the Silvery Slocan Museum. (Henning Von Krogh photo)


At one point my partner and I tackled the dining room. We knocked the flame down just about totally and eased off for what couldn’t have been more than five or ten seconds. All of the hot gases exploded into flame, just like a flash of your camera. The whole dining room was aflame again. So we abandoned that. There was no way we could save anything there.


At 12:30 the next day, we were still pouring water on it. It was one hot fire. In our backyard, 200 yards away, you could really feel the heat. I had visitors on their way to Quesnel who had their truck parked at back. The heat scared this guy quite badly. He put his truck on the street and pointed it for a quick getaway in case the whole town went.


When the fire marshal came two or three days later, we walked over the charcoal and ash and he said “Dig here.” Twelve or 14 feet down was the cause of the fire. It was amazing how accurate that guy was.


The cause was a compressor which seized up. The drive mechanism on the refrigerator kept spinning and the belt burst into flame, I guess. There were no fire stops in the walls, so the flame went almost instantly right to the ceiling, three floors up.


Because the motel up the street had talked of opening a beer parlor, nobody was at the hotel, and there were supposed to be valuables locked in the safe, it all pointed to arson, but everything was on the up and up. The fact the new pub was opening was just coincidence.


When the inspector came to view it, he saw the safe and said “Oh, they don’t make them like this anymore.” Within 30 minutes he was into the safe and all the valuables were still there.


One of the town residents scrounged around after and found a molten gob of change — melted silver. All the kitchen fixtures — plates, silverware — were gone. All antiques with the hotel logo on them.


The fire marshal couldn’t wrap his head around how we managed to save the building beside the hotel [the Masonic Lodge]. I attribute that to my partner and I, who lay behind a three-foot board fence, spraying the adjacent building. Every once in a while our fence would catch fire. We’d stand up and reach over and hose down the fence between us and the fire. We had to lay down in order to spray this building. Sure, the paint got blistered on it, but we saved it. We had a reputation of just saving basements!


I have a calendar for the following year with the Newmarket’s ad on it. They ordered it ahead of time. The fire started Oct. [5] and burned down on the [6th]. That was 1973 and the calendar was from 1974.


A letter to the fire commissioner in 2001 inquiring about the Newmarket fire resulted in the curious response: “Please be advised that there is no record of the incident with our office.” 


Below, in the New Denver episode of Gold Trails and Ghost Towns, Bill Barlee discusses the Newmarket, which he calls “the classic hotel of the old west” and shows some more photos. “When I go all through the Pacific slope, all through British Columbia, right into the Yukon, I don’t think there was any hotel as impressive as the Newmarket,” he says.

Read more about the hotel’s history in Henning von Krogh’s book, Early New Denver 1891-1904.

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