In the northwest corner of Vernon’s Polson Park stands a monument to bravery.
It was 110 years ago Saturday that Laurence Archibald (Archie) Hickling, a “common man,” as described in the Vernon News, was one of 11 men who died in a fire at the Okanagan Hotel.
The hotel, built of brick veneer in 1892, and one of Vernon’s oldest buildings at the time, sat on the northwest corner of Barnard Avenue and Vance Street (where the former Woolworth’s-Liquidation World building is today, 30th Avenue and 33rd Street), the fire breaking out at 1:45 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 1909.
There were at least 60 people in the hotel, which was more boarding house than hotel, at the time of the fire.
Hickling was hailed a hero as he rescued two children from the fire, as did the hotel owner, A. Sigalet.
The second time Hickling came out his shirt was on fire, but he went back a third time upon hearing screams from an upper window of one of the waitresses from the hotel bar.
“I’ll get her or I’ll die,” said Hickling, as reported in the Vernon News on Dec. 23, 1909, when the monument was dedicated and erected in Hickling’s memory at Vernon City Hall (later moved to the park).
“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. Honour his memory.”
Alderman H.W. Husband supported the idea of a memorial immediately after the fire, and at its dedication in December, gave a most eloquent speech about Hickling, as reported in the Vernon News.
“Gentlemen, it has been the custom to erect monuments to those who have done noble deeds in all ages. This was done, not only as a fitting tribute to the dead, but as an inspiration to the living.
“Archie Hickling was not bound to do what he did that August morning; he was a member of no organization which made it his duty to risk his life. Standing there on the street he was in safety; he knew the danger of going back. He was already burnt and his clothing in flames, yet when he heard that cry for help he never hesitated, but met and faced an awful death.
“I can speak no fitting words in extolment of such a deed as this. Archie Hickling was a working man, what is often called a common man, yet in that last half hour of his career he did a deed which made his whole life sublime.
“Only a common man, yet in the supreme test of manhood he did not fail.
“I says that not only we in Vernon, but the whole world is richer for this deed of heroism. This monument may perish, the name of Archie Hickling may be forgotten, but the effect of what he did will never die. To you, Mr. Mayor (M.V. Allen), we commit the keeping of this monument, and to you, the people of Vernon, we commit his memory.”
In 1999, a plaque was added to the back of the Hickling monument containing the names of 10 of the 11 men who perished: 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.
One man was never identified. A marker is also erected in the Pleasant Valley Cemetery commemorating the dead, though only nine are on the marker. Fuerst was buried seperately in the local cemetery. Smith was buried out east. The other nine victims were buried in one large, mass grave.
It’s interesting to note different spellings of Gannett/Jarrett and McKay/Mackey on the monument and headstone.
A seven-man coroner’s inquest lasted nearly a month before reaching a verdict 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 inquest also found that police commissioners were negligent in supervision of the police force; that the hotel was not properly equipped for the protection of its guests; that the chief of police, whose duty it was to inspect public buildings and hotels, did not do so.
The inquest recommended more modern fire fighting equipment be purchased and more fire hydrants be placed on Barnard Avenue.
Fingers were pointed at hotel co-owner S.J. Albers or former disgruntled hotel manager Alex Smith as the person responsible for the fire. Nothing was ever proven.
In 2009, Vernon filmmaker Bruce Mol produced a movie called When Duty Calls – The Story of The Okanagan Hotel Fire of 1909, Vernon, B.C. It can be found on YouTube.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been upgraded with files from the Vernon and District Family History Society
—-With files from the Vernon News