Grappling with disaster
“No more appalling disaster has ever been recorded in the annals of this province than the catastrophe of Tuesday morning [August 10, 1909], when the Okanagan Hotel was destroyed by fire and eleven helpless victims perished in the flames. A sickening pall of gloom rests over the city.”
Thus read the front page of the Vernon News on August 12, 1909, a few days after the Okanagan Hotel fire that resulted in the death of 11 individuals and left the City of Vernon shocked.
The Okanagan Hotel
The Okanagan Hotel opened in June of 1891 on the corner of 30th Avenue and 33rd Street. It was built of brick veneer and, when it was destroyed, represented one of Vernon’s oldest buildings.
A Fire Breaks Out and a hero emerges
Early on the morning of August 10, a fire started in the hotel. 60 people were inside at the time.
Fire fighters rushed to the scene but little could be done. Efforts instead turned to rescuing those inside and stopping the blaze from spreading.
It was then that a Vernon man named Archie Hickling sprang into action. He ran into the building to rescue two children who were safely evacuated. Hickling then heard a trapped waitress calling for help.
“I’ll get her or I’ll die,” said Hickling, according to the Vernon News. “Darting into the hellish cauldron of flame, smoke and noxious gases, he reached the girl and got her out through the window, whence she was speedily rescued; but heroic Hickling sank back into the pit of death and was seen no more alive.”
We Will Remember them
Hickling was one of 11 men who perished in the Okanagan Hotel Fire.
An investigation lasted nearly a month after the fire before it was determined that “the fire was of incendiary origin by a party or parties unknown, and we consider from the evidence produced that the night watchman on the night preceding the Okanagan fire, did not perform his required duties.” The perpetrator of this crime has never been discovered.
A monument in Hickling’s memory was erected in December of 1909. In 1999, the other 10 victims (save one) were identified, and their names listed on a bronze plaque that was added to the Hickling Monument. The memorial currently stands in Vernon’s Polson Park.
- Wilbur Smith, carpenter
- J.J. Funston, labourer
- Jas. Anderson, baker’s assistant
- Julius Fuerst, bartender
- M. Chabtree, labourer
- George Gannett, cement worker
- George McKay, cement worker
- George Seltgast, painter
- Archibald Hickling, labourer
- Wm. Cook, prospector
- An unknown man
“Hero of Okanagan hotel fire remembered 110 years later,” article by Roger Knox.
“When Duty Calls – The Story of The Okanagan Hotel Fire of 1909,” documentary by Bruce Mol.
A headline from the Vernon News of August 12, 1909.
The Okanagan Hotel, undated. GVMA #17562.
The ruins of the Okanagan Hotel Fire on August 11, 1909. GVMA #004.
(Left) Archie Hickling circa 1908. (Right) The Archie Hickling Memorial in Polson Park, “In Memory of a Hero.” GVMA #19341 and GVMA #24630.