Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Tales of the City #2 - War of the Hoses

Jun 14, 2020

While waiting for my next book, Becoming Vancouver: a New History, delayed by the COVID situation, to be published next year, I thought I would introduce the project by telling some "tales of the city."

Epidemic disease has always been part of Vancouver's history. The influenza outbreak of 1918-1919 was the most dramatic example -- at least until today -- but smallpox was another dreaded visitor.

Smallpox has played a tragic role in the history of British Columbia. Indigenous people suffered terribly from the disease, brought here from Europe by explorers, traders and early settlers. Epidemics swept up the coast and through the Interior in the 18th and 19th centuries, leaving whole villages destroyed. In some communities the population fell by more than 80 percent.

In its early days Vancouver was visited by smallpox from time to time. Though the impact was far less fatal than among the First Nations, it was still much feared. One episode occurred during the summer and fall of 1892, when the city was six years old.

“People were quarantined all over the city,” reported Jessie Greer Hall, a prominent early resident. “It was the custom to put those stricken in an express wagon, and with the driver ringing a bell to keep people away, warning them, the load of sick ... would be driven down to the dock, and taken by boat to Deadman’s Island.” The tiny island, located offshore from Stanley Park in Coal Harbour, was the site of a pesthouse, or quarantine station.

Mrs. Hall may have been referring to the infamous “War of the Hoses.” Early that year word had spread that a steamship -- possibly from Asia, possibly from Seattle -- was trying to land smallpox-infected passengers down in the harbour. A crowd gathered on the wharf to turn away the vessel and the fire brigade was called in to turn its hoses on the ship. The captain ordered his own hoses into action and several people were injured before someone cut the ship’s lines and it drifted out into the harbour. At which point the captain decided to look elsewhere for a landing spot and steamed farther up the inlet to Port Moody where he was able to unload without interference.

It was a journalist who dubbed the incident the "War of the Hoses" but to residents of the city smallpox was hardly a joke.