Before Ashcroft got its electrical system in October 1898, coal oil (produced in the United States under the trade name Kerosene, and manufactured by a process invented by Canadian geologist Abraham Gesner) was the most common source for lighting. Developments in the manufacturing process made it burn as clearly as whale oil, but it was expensive and bulky.
Candles could be made of tallow (rendered animal fat), which resulted in a cheap but smelly and fast-burning product, or paraffin, which made for a longer-lasting, cleaner-burning candle but was more expensive. Both oil and candles also brought with them the risk of fire, which made Ashcroft’s new water system — with its network of pipes, 60,000 gallon reservoir above town, and hydrants — particularly important, in more ways than one. The Journal reported, in its Oct. 22, 1898 issue, that the new water system, along with new firefighting equipment, would result in a reduction in insurance costs for homeowners and businesses. “Mr. A.W. Ross, inspector for the fire underwriters, stated a few weeks ago when in Ashcroft, that it would very likely reduce insurance about one-third of the present rates.”
The provision of electric light to the town was not without its hiccups. In the Dec. 17, 1898 issue of the Journal there was a response to a somewhat snarky editorial in the Kamloops Standard, which had stated that there was not enough water to “supply power for the lighting of our prosperous little neighbour Ashcroft… [The company] has been looking into every ravine from Ashcroft to Quesnelle for the necessary liquid, but alas without success. The water was found to be frozen. Meanwhile the good citizens of Ashcroft have to go to bed at nine or fall back on the prehistoric candles.
“Several suggestions have been offered by the kindly disposed. Some suggest that the good folks on the Cariboo road be asked to save their slops till nightfall and then dump them into a ditch, when their combined strength might be used to generate power enough for the purpose.”
The Journal replied that like nearly all new systems, the lights “did give a little trouble for a few nights owing to the sudden cold wave and the fact that the company had not their machinery in complete shape for dealing with all emergencies. The trouble was remedied by a new bit of machinery. Since that time we have had good service; not, however, as good as we will have after this season, but far better, we believe, than Kamloops now enjoys.”
The same issue stated that the water system — which had been in operation for five or six weeks — was “perfect”. The paper had already noted that the water system’s capability meant the possibility of taller buildings in the town. “The force [of the water] will give a powerful pressure at the hydrants and streams will be thrown higher than a six storey building with great force. As our buildings have as yet only reached the moderate dignity of two storeys, the protection from fire will be very complete.”
The water reservoir above town was described, in the Nov. 12, 1898 issue, as looking like a chateau. “When equipped with lights, as it will soon be, it will make a good showing in the night as well as in the day. The object of the lights will be to show by a red light, in line with two white ones, when the reservoir is full in the night. There is, of course, a gauge in the pump house that shows this also, but the arrangement will be such that any one can tell at a glance from any part of the town just how full the reservoir is at any time in the night.”
Unfortunately for the people of Ashcroft, even such an up-to-date system of water and fire protection had its limitations, which was proved in disastrous fashion when a fire started in a room of the Ashcroft Hotel (located where the post office now stands at 4th and Railway) at around p.m. on July 5, 1916. The July 8 issue of the Journal carried a full account, which makes harrowing reading.
“Volunteer brigade did excellent work, but before sufficient water could be applied hotel building was a seething mass of flames. It was soon realized that water was of no avail… The fire leaped from block to block faster than the fire hose could be adjusted to the hydrants.”
According to an account by longtime Ashcroft resident Loyd Wongs, “The local water reservoir was drained and was being cleaned, and washed down, on its annual schedule… The little water from the C.P.R. water tank was totally inadequate to fight the fire.” The pump from the Thompson River malfunctioned, leaving a bucket brigade to try to fight the flames. Most of the business section of Ashcroft was completely destroyed, with losses estimated at $500,000.
Next time: “A vast irrigating scheme is under way.”