Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

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Tales of the City #7 - The Greenhill Park

November 29, 2020

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

You'll recall the mega explosion that destroyed much of downtown Beirut back in August, killing more than 200 people and leaving 300,000 homeless. The cause was the careless storage of many tons of a highly dangerous chemical.

Here in Vancouver the tragedy brought back memories of the worst waterfront disaster in the city's history, also involving the explosion of dangerously inflammable cargo.

At around noon on March 6, 1945, during the last months of World War Two, residents of the city felt the air vibrate with a loud rumbling that seemed to originate in the harbour, followed by three more loud concussions. As people looked at one another wondering what just happened, the first sirens began to blare as emergency vehicles rushed to the waterfront.

The Greenhill Park, one of the large merchant freighters recently launched from local shipyards as part of the war effort, had been taking on cargo at Pier B at the north end of Burrard Street when there was an explosion in one of the holds amidships. It was later determined that a dropped match set off flares which ignited the inflammable cargo; an inquiry found various officials in dereliction of duty.

The blast shattered windows in buildings throughout the downtown. Shards of glass showered down on sidewalks and debris hurtled several blocks through the air. Eight men died instantly, another nineteen were injured. It was Vancouver’s worst waterfront disaster. 

And it could have been far worse had fire spread to the docks. Instead tugs managed to tow the blazing ship away from the pier towards the entrance to the harbour where it beached. (Photo courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives CVA 586-3604) For three days the fireboat J.H. Carlisle poured water into the hull until finally the fire burned itself out.

Amazingly the vessel was repaired and sailed the high seas for the next twenty years.

November 23, 2020

Back in the day I worked for a while as an oral historian. For three summers I drove the length of the Trent-Severn Waterway in south-central Ontario, interviewing people who had lived and/or worked along the waterway. It was so long ago that I was actually using an old reel-to-reel tape recorder. One summer I got cheap digs in an old house with a group of university students. The house had...

November 18, 2020

Like so many others, my friends at The Ormsby Review are finding it difficult to navigate these troubled times.

The Ormsby is an online collection of book reviews featuring informed opinion about every book that is published in British Columbia or written by a British Columbian. If there is another such ambitious site in the country, I don't know about it.

Editor Richard Mackie runs a stripped down operation but even to do this he needs...

November 14, 2020

November 13, 2020, 3 p.m.

November 2, 2020

I wrote earlier in this space about Frederick Varley's sojourn in Vancouver, 1926-36. Not long ago I took a stroll to see if I could locate any sites in the city associated with the artist. 

When they arrived in the fall of 1926, the Varley family settled into a rented bungalow on the grounds of a much larger home on...

October 21, 2020

Those generous folks at Harbour Publishing have done us all another favour. They've republished Crawford Killian's classic history of Blacks in British Columbia, Go Do Some Great Thing, which first appeared in 1978.

Not only that, they've made the new, updated edition available online, for free. Just go to knowbc.com...

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