News

Blaze consumes piece of Penticton's history

Flames shoot from the roof of the building housing Slack Alice
Flames shoot from the roof of the building housing Slack Alice's pub as crews from Penticton Fire Department battle to contain the blaze early Sunday morning.
— image credit: Heather Morrison Photo

A piece of Penticton history went up in smoke when a fire ripped through Slack Alice’s Show Pub and two neighbouring businesses Sunday morning.

The Valley Motor Inn, the onsite hotel that accompanied pub, was gutted by fire alongside the Chinese Laundry restaurant and Bubblee’s Beer and Wine next door. Front Street remained closed for most of Sunday, as excavators were brought in to tear down the brick chimney and several walls left standing that were deemed unsafe.

Although it only took a few moments to take down, some walls in the building have been standing since the B.C. Hotel was first constructed in 1905 — a critical time in the city’s development, according to Penticton Museum curator Peter Ord.

“If anyone wanted to travel to anywhere in South Okanagan, they’d have to come down by steamer paddle wheeler, all the way from the north of Okanagan Lake,” he explained. “As they arrived on government dock, which was the dock that extended from Front Street, upon arrival they could then travel either to mining camps that were growing around the Oliver area or the ranch.

“The perfect place to put a hotel was right at the foot of that dock. That was one of the attractions of the B.C. Hotel.”

Ord said the hotel remained a “bustling place” and cornerstone of Front Street, in addition to being a landmark as the tallest building in the city at that time. And up until the fire, Slack’s held another historical distinction: the longest standing business of its kind — a bar and hotel — located in one stop.

“It’s changed so much structurally, so it has very little esthetic historical value. It’s really about the events that characterize it,” he said. “For all that to burn down and for a year or two not to have anything there, is a disruption to Penticton’s lineage, if you will.”

The top floor of the hotel used to be a bordello, which meant that the ranch hands and miners on the way to camps would venture to the B.C. Hotel as one of the sole places where women could be found.

“It really talks about how Penticton grew up,” Ord said. “It’s the same with a lot of small pioneering towns in Western Canada around that time. It was all about men arriving looking for their fortune and lives, but in their spare time, what is there to do? Friendship they can find through other men, but what about the female friendships? The B.C. Hotel was that place. It was crucial for many miles around that it provided that service.”

Fire Chief Wayne Williams said the building’s alarms activated at 12:23 a.m., and firefighters arrived to find a small plume of white smoke coming from the rooftop, which quickly turned to black smoke. Crews on the roof tried to keep the flames at bay, but receded just before fire broke through and “kind of exploded.”

That’s when the fire began spreading, and fire crews witnessed how quickly it moved through the historic building.

“It’s well over 100 years old. It’s seen a number of changes, and that caused us a number of concerns. There’s voids, empty spaces that you didn’t really know there was fire in until you broke through,” Williams said.

The fire department conducted an all-page, meaning every career and volunteer firefighter was called in to attend. Summerland’s fire department offered mutual aid assistance, ready to respond in the event fire crews or first responders were required elsewhere in the city.

Firefighters remained on scene throughout the day, not only dousing the primary fire but preventing it from spreading to other Front Street businesses and flaring up elsewhere.

“We were very lucky because we didn’t have a wind that night, otherwise embers would have been flying,” Williams said, noting that electrical lines at the back lane and gas meters behind the building posed safety threats to firefighters. “I think they worked extremely hard to contain the fire.”

“I’m very, very disappointed and sad,” Mayor Dan Ashton said. “It’s sad what happened, especially for the 20-plus jobs that were there. Take it or leave it, it was an institution.”

The city hasn’t received any indication about what the pub owners plan on doing with the site.

“It’s urban renewal, but it’s not the time or place to see urban renewal,” Ashton said.

“I’m hoping they come to a resolution quickly, get the site cleaned up and rebuild something in there that’s indicative to Colourful Front Street.”

Judy Sentes, a Penticton city councillor and executive director of the OSNS Child Development Centre, said the fire left a hole bigger than the gaping buildings on Front Street.

“I’m terribly sad to hear of the loss. Not only was it a historical building in our community, it also had a philanthropic attitude that supported charities. It’s sad. It’s a loss,” Sentes said.

OSNS has partnered with Slack’s over several years to raffle off a Harley-Davidson motorcycle during its annual show and shine, but Sentes said owner Tony Chan had indicated Slack’s wouldn’t be holding the show again. She said he gave a year’s notice and worked with OSNS to restructure the fundraiser so they could continue the raffle, which will be part of the Peach City Beach Cruise in 2012.

Because of the changes, Sentes said, the OSNS’s raffle prize was safe. “Had it been a typical year, as previously, our bike would have been on the stage in there,” she said.

That’s not to say all the history surrounding Slack’s is pristine. In 2009, a 53-year-old man was found by police with severe head injuries near the back door of the bar. He died in care at Kelowna General Hospital, and a 40-year-old man was later arrested and charged with second-degree murder.

More recently on Sept. 23, 2011, B.C. Liquor Licensing Branch inspectors attended the pub with RCMP members and observed “severely intoxicated patrons” and an exotic dancer having physical contact with a patron.

Slack’s management accepted the 18-day suspension by signing a waiver on Jan. 11 and closing on Jan. 13. In addition to a large red notice about the licence suspension on the door, a note indicated Slack’s was closed until Feb. 7 for renovations.

Chan could not be reached for comment.

Williams said that fire investigators have been on scene reviewing one spot preserved because it’s deemed the “area of origin.”

“We know where, from the initial crews, the heavy fire load was,” he said, adding that damage estimates and the cause of the fire are still unknown.

“I wouldn’t say it’s suspicious. It’s close to that, but not really. A suspicious fire to us would be a house with no

 

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