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What the Nelson fire bug wrought

Updated: Jul 19, 2021

There’s a brief disclaimer on a website devoted to the history of fires and firefighting in Nelson that reads: “There are no photographs of fires caused by or attributed to the Nelson fire bug.” Until this month, that sentence was thought to be true.


For all of the many times the arson spree of 1911-12 has been written about and for all of the physical damage and psychological angst the fires caused, no one has ever been able to illustrate the actual aftermath.


The alternatives have been to present images of the affected buildings before they were torched (such as the Hall Mines smelter and brewery) or, as the website above opted to do, use a photo of the sash and door factory fire of 1903 on Nelson’s waterfront. It wasn’t related to the notorious fire bug, but it’s a dramatic photo of an early fire and the scene was probably eerily similar to the fire that later befell the Yale Columbia sawmill and was blamed on the arsonist.


A few weeks ago, Peter Wilson of Shropshire, England contacted Touchstones Nelson. His grandfather, Harold William Wilson, was a CPR clerk in Nelson ca. 1910-15 before enlisting with the Canadian Artillery for the First World War and moving to England.

During his service in France, he was mentioned in despatches.


He was also a shutterbug. Peter and his brother Andrew never met their grandfather, who died in 1948, but he left behind a photo album with some amazing views of the Kootenays. As Peter explains, “It has been surprising for us to realise that the album has been in our family for so long without us knowing about it.

When we cleared our parents’ house in 2018 we decided to box up all of the many family photographs and instead concentrate on selling the house on the basis that we would get round to looking at the photographs when time allowed. In England we have been until recently under a very strict lockdown and one weekend I remembered that I could usefully spend the time going through the boxes of photographs.
My father did tell us that his father was a great chap and it was a pity that we had not known him. Apparently my grandfather was very proud of his time with CPR and his wartime service. It had been his intention to return to Canada. He was given the opportunity to return on a later ship so that he could visit his parents in Birmingham. It was during that visit that he met my grandmother, Mabel, and decided to stay in the UK.

In 1923, Harold and Mabel took over a tobacconist shop in the rural market town of Newport, Shropshire. He remained at this occupation for the rest of his life.


Peter agreed to send the album to Touchstones for scanning, and batches of photos are now being placed on Facebook. They appear to be a mix of postcards Harold collected (several by W.G. Barclay) and photos he took himself.


Among them are streetscapes, sternwheelers — and several eye-popping shots of the damage the fire bug wrought.

The remains of the Nelson brewery on Latimer Street following the fire of Sept. 1, 1911. Note streetcar tracks in the foreground. (Courtesy Touchstones Nelson)


Below is a rare postcard of the brewery before the fire.

(Greg Nesteroff collection)


The brewery complex was built in 1898-99, while under the management of Robert Riesterer and J.F. Rowley, and is seen below on the 1899 fire insurance map, still under construction. The blue shading indicates the use of stone. Across the alley, fronting on Hoover Street, is the long-vanished Nelson Soda Water Factory, founded in 1896. We’ll get back to it in a moment.

The fire of 1911 began at the back of the brewery complex, according to the next day’s Nelson Daily News. Every available hose was trained upon it, supplemented with a hand cart.

But the heat of the blaze in the old building soon overwhelmed the stream of water that was being poured as a preventative measure on the new four story structure which contained the stock and machinery to the value of over $30,000 and the flames broke out in several places at once.
The flames lighted up the city for many blocks and the blazing fragments of wood which were flying in all directions proved a source of the greatest danger to the residences on all sides of the brewery …
The fire fighters worked like Trojans. The heat from the fire was terrific and after the first few minutes huge pieces of burning timber were continually falling.

Two firefighters had narrow escapes, one being struck on the helmet by a burning beam. Neighbours perched on their roofs warded off flames with garden hoses. Overall damage was pegged at $50,000, which is something north of $1.4 million in today’s currency.


A few years ago, Chad Hansen (now of Broken Hill) and I discussed the brewery fire and wondered how much of the original brewery remained in the present brewery, rebuilt on the same site after the fire and expanded several times. The photo provides the answer: a couple of smaller buildings were levelled and the top two storeys of the brewhouse were also destroyed. But the bottom two storeys survived along with an adjacent one-storey building.


In a Facebook comment, Tim McDaniel noted: “I rented the false front section [which] used to be the blacksmith shop. Also the cooling rooms, made of stone and masonry, are original.”

The brewery complex is seen in 2019. It ceased to be a brewery in 1956, but a new Nelson Brewing Co. returned part of the building to its original purpose in 1991.


We can also look at the fire insurance map from sometime after 1923 to see how much bigger the rebuilt complex was. The buildings now take up three additional lots and extend nearly to the alley.

The soda water factory, meanwhile, has completely disappeared. Its last ad in the Daily News, curiously, was the same day as the brewery fire in 1911. Was it destroyed? The newspaper did not indicate this, but at some point proprietor Norman M. Cummins sold the business to the Nelson Brewing Co. What is not clear is whether they continued to use the old factory or consolidated the operation on Latimer Street.


Cummins continued to live with his family on the factory site, 608 Hoover, in a house at the very back of the lot that was not yet standing in 1899. Cummins died in 1920. There’s now just a garage there. Ginger beer bottles from the soda factory today command a small fortune.


The brewery photo is far from the only one showing the fire bug’s destructive handiwork. There are also five photos of the ruins of the Hall Mines smelter, which burned the day after the brewery, a $200,000 loss (the equivalent of something like $5.6 million today). The smelter had been idle since 1908 and any hope of reopening it ended with the fire, although its smoke stack stood for another 15 years. And there are three shots of the aftermath of the fire that destroyed the Yale Columbia sawmill along the waterfront on March 29, 1912.


I sure wish we had all these pictures for the City in Flames exhibit I curated at Touchstones in 2013. It’s amazing how we’ve gone from zero photos of the firebug’s activities to 10 of them in one fell swoop. Proof that even after 109 years, previously unknown images of significance can turn up out of the blue!


As for the accused firebug himself, John Bradshaw stood trial several times before being convicted in October 1912 of lighting a single fire and being sent to prison for three years. He was never heard from again, although in a previous post, I tried to track him down and speculated on his fate.


You can see all the photos Touchstones has posted on Facebook at the following links:


— With thanks to Peter Wilson and Touchstones Nelson

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