Updated: May 14, 2021
Tom Murphy, who died in Nelson on April 8 five days after his 89th birthday, was chiefly famous for two things that occurred three months apart. He answered the call at the fire hall when the Strathcona Hotel burned down. And he swam 35 kilometers from Procter to Nelson in 12½ hours.
Tom Murphy (left) meets with Pat Meyers on June 20, 2019. Meyers and his two brothers survived the Strathcona Hotel fire of 1955. Murphy was a firefighter at the time, and took the initial call.
The latter event, which was actually the second chronologically, began as a race but turned into a solo endurance test.
“Because I had been doing a lot of long-distance swimming, a businessman [from Nelson] asked me would I consider a swim on Okanagan Lake from Kelowna to Penticton,” Murphy recalled in a 2003 interview with Bruce Fuhr of the Nelson Daily News.
When that idea came to naught, local athletics coach Ed Kelter proposed a race on the West Arm of Kootenay Lake instead. Eleven people were initially interested, but eight dropped out, possibly when they discovered it would be strictly for glory instead of prize money. The remaining three — Murphy, Martin VanFeggelen and Jackie Zylstra — hit the frigid water on Aug. 28, 1955.
“The current flows toward Nelson but we had no navigational instruments and ran into spots where there were back currents during certain parts that made me feel like I was swimming upstream,” Murphy said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would take the time it took.”
Nine miles in, Zylstra decided she’d had enough. VanFeggeglen made it 12 miles before giving up. But Murphy, whose father was a stunt swimmer, pressed on. His fellow firefighters Joe Palesch and Hans Lehrke rowed alongside him, but under long-distance swimming rules, Murphy wasn’t allowed to touch the boat, or the bottom of the lake, lest he be disqualified.
The race was his to win, provided he could finish. His method the whole way was to swim 100 yards, rest for a bit while treading water, and continue. He averaged 48 strokes per minute. At one point he had severe cramps in his arms, but worked through them.
Five miles from the finish line at Lakeside Park, a woman rowed out to meet him with a chocolate cake, pot of coffee, and bottle of whiskey. Murphy accepted a piece of cake, but declined the coffee and whiskey.
The last three miles were a slog. “If the crowd could have seen me, they would have said ‘there’s a quitter,’” he said at the time. “I was all set to give in, and if it hadn’t been for Ed Kelter and others in the boats who encouraged me to go on, I would have crawled ashore and gone to sleep.”
The swim climaxed after 9 p.m., where a crowd of about 1,000 — including Murphy’s mother from Kimberley, to his surprise — gathered to witness the final stretch.
“I remember hearing them cheering the last mile,” Murphy said. “It was quite a feeling. And although the final stage was kind of rough, I felt when I climbed out of the water I could swim another five miles.”
He told the crowd: “Sorry I kept you waiting so long folks.” He was hoisted onto a fire truck and given coffee and sandwiches as the crowd chanted “Take Tom home to bed.” A parade followed down Nelson Avenue. But soon it was back to work. Murphy completed the swim between shifts at the fire hall.
He went on to finish second in long-distance races on Christina Lake and Kalamalka Lake. Just for the heck of it, he’d also swim from his home in Kootenay Bay to Queens Bay.
Shortly before his epic swim made him a hero in the lake, Murphy was on duty at the fire hall on the night of May 27, 1955 when the phone rang in the alarm room.
The caller’s first word raised the hair on his neck: “Strathcona.”
He handed the phone to someone else and started gearing up. “We could get dressed in 17 seconds,” he recalled in 2019. “When I went down the hill, I could hear the screaming and the yelling. It was surreal.”
The Strathcona Hotel, built in 1891 at the corner of Stanley and Victoria streets, was ablaze. It was a firefighter’s worst nightmare. A man in the alley behind the hotel was trying to save the Lutheran Church with a garden hose. Murphy obliged his request to put some water on it, for “there was nothing else we could do.”
There were no nets and just one aerial ladder that firefighter Don Cunningham worked frantically. “They claim he took 25 people off the side of that building,” Murphy said. “Unbelievable.”
Six people died that night in what remains the deadliest disaster within Nelson city limits. Murphy and his colleagues worked the whole night on adrenaline.
“You’re motivated, but you don’t think of anything other than what’s right in front of you,” he told me. “There’s no thought in your mind of making a name for yourself, being a hero, or the belle of the ball. You just don’t have time for that.”
Two years ago, Ed, Ted, and Pat Meyers, three brothers who were lucky to survive the fire as kids, returned to Nelson to thank the fire department. Murphy was the only firefighter actually there that terrible night who was present for the ceremony. (Bud Beauchamp, who was also at the ceremony, was out of town the night the hotel burned, but returned the following day to help search for bodies.)
Without any notes, Murphy told his story to a spellbound room of modern-day firefighters and, remarkably, injected some humour in the sombre occasion. Although the sound quality isn’t the greatest, you can hear the anecdote below.
I also interviewed him after the ceremony, and you can hear that below in two parts. He discusses Quentin MacDonald, who died in the Strathcona fire, 10 years after experiencing an unimaginable tragedy.
Updated on May 13, 2021 with additional details of the swim.