The Lillooet Fire of 1866 was significant because the town lost all three bakeries. How did the fire start?
The night was damp and cool and everyone was staying warm either at a saloon or in their own log cabin. Mr. Defoe’s bakery was just another dark shadow on the street. Inside, Mr. Defoe was just closing the door to his kitchen where he had spent several hours baking pies, cakes and bread for sale the next day. His tin stove was hot but he didn’t notice anything unusual before he treated himself to a glass of whiskey courtesy of Spellman’s saloon and went to his room out the back.
Half past midnight on March 19th, a Chinese fellow was walking home from a night of playing fan tan. He walked the familiar road thinking about his Bridge River claim. There was more gold there he was sure of it. Something out of the corner of his eye caught his attention as he walked past Defoe’s bakery. He turned and looked but didn’t see anything. There it was again. An orange spark flew out. He ran around the back where the baker lived and banged on the door. But there was no answer.
He kicked the door open. Defoe was lying on his bed. The air was thick with smoke. Coughing, he grabbed Defoe and yanked him to the floor. The impact woke up the baker.
Fire! Get out!
He dragged Defoe stumbling to his feet and out the door before Defoe had a chance to get dressed and grab his shoes.
Seconds later fire shot through the roof and it collapsed over the spot where he’d been sleeping. For a brief few seconds Defoe stood stunned while everything he had worked for went up in flames.
The explosion sent a rush of people onto the street. Among them was the town’s doctor and surgeon H.F. Featherstone who recorded the following for The British Columbian newspaper:
As usual in such cases, there was neither water, hooks nor ladders, otherwise it might have been arrested at the second building, which was a log house; the next was a Balloon building, and the boards full of pitch, which was entirely consumed in ten minutes; the fourth and last was fortunately an extensive old log house, which took some time to get into flames. Fortunately there was eighty or ninety feet space between the next.
Blankets and water were freely applied which saved it. Great credit is due to the native citizens for the great agility they displayed in fetching water in barrels; they seemed to try to [outdo] each other. The flames were visible at the Fountain, a distance of eight miles. Many parties put their goods into the middle of the street; but had both sides caught [fire], they would have all been consumed. Everyone lent a willing hand. The chief of the contents were saved.
After the fire was extinguished everyone who had fought the blaze were given liquors and cigars at Parker & Spellman’s saloon. The surgeon was quick to point out that although “many of the boys got jolly”, the morning broke without anyone needing his attention from fights with pistols or knives.
No Bread The Next Day
Mr. Defoe [was] seen busily engaged clearing away the rubbish from around his oven ready to go bread-baking again. Messrs. Sproat & Baily displayed equal energy, rented a building, and were ready at early dawn, with smiling faces, to supply their friends and the public generally with gin slings, cocktails, etc.; tonight they propose having a great ball and supper…
Strange to say, three of the houses destroyed were Bakeries, and the only ones in town, so that at breakfast we were without bread, and had to introduce the old original slap-jack, or frying pan bread…
The names of the sufferers are Mon. Defoe, baker and whiskey saloon restaurant; Messrs. Martin & Co., bakery and whiskey saloon; Messrs. Sproat & Bailey, saloon and dancing academy; and Mr. Casper Herber, bakery…
Estimated loss by the Lillooet fire was $7,500.