Unusually, we know who designed this very early store, even though it was the contractor who built it who was responsible. It’s a building that was redeveloped in 1911 as Alfred Thompson’s rooming house and commercial space, designed by Sharp & Thompson. As Major Matthews’ typed note records, the building was built very soon after the fire (in 1886) and lasted less than 25 years. The Archives’ note says “Photograph shows Mrs. Alexander Straithie (Mrs. Emily Eldon) and an advertisement for “Charley’s Aunt” playing at the Lyric Theatre”.
Mrs Straithie (who was Mrs Eldon when she wrote a manuscript on her experiences of early Vancouver for Major Matthews in 1932) arrived in the town of Granville in March 1886, only to see it burned to the ground a few weeks later. She was married to a Scotsman, living in Winnipeg when they thought of coming to the town that would be Vancouver. They arrived in Victoria (via Chicago and Seattle), and stayed there until there seemed to be some possibility of development (and therefore work) in Vancouver. “Water Street was not a street at that time; it could hardly be termed a road for it dipped down to the contour of the old shore, and the two-plank sidewalk from the parsonage to the Deighton Hotel dipped with it.”
Alexander Strathie started up as a contractor, and built a house on Water Street on a leased lot opposite the Methodist Church. Mrs Strathie started a small business; “Before the fire people used to come over from New Westminster; it was a good long drive in a buggy, and sometimes they wanted a cup of tea and something light to eat. There was no place where such could be obtained in Granville; at the hotels there was a bar, and the dining room open at regular hours, or you could buy biscuits at the store, and munch them on the roadway, but there was no place where a person could get a cup of tea and a piece of cake or toast. People used to ask me, before “The Fire” to give them a cup of tea, which I did, at first doing it to oblige them, but it got to be a habit with the people, so I said to Mr. Strathie, who did not care very much for the idea, “I’m going to put in a couple of tables.” That was all the restaurant there was to it.”
The description of the fire that Mrs Eldon wrote was one of the most dramatic that Major Matthews recorded “I had just entered a bedroom, and was standing momentarily, when with astonishing suddenness, a great sheet of flame swept before my eyes down the narrow passageway between our home and the next house; for a moment I was bewildered; it was so startlingly sudden, and more or less mechanically, I suppose, I grasped my husband’s hat which lay on the dressing table, and as I slipped out of the room I had but a few seconds earlier entered, the windows crashed in; it was a remarkable experience.”
Mr. and Mrs. Straithie were able to escape the fire by heading to the water on a lumber raft thrown together without fastenings. With flames all around, and the raft sinking, they were saved by a steam pleasure yacht that had crossed Burrard Inlet from Moodyville. The entire episode has much more detail, and it’s well worth reading it in Major Matthews ‘Early Vancouver’, available as a download from the City of Vancouver Archives website.
Mrs. Straithie made hew way to Victoria to try to obtain some money and the start of a new household – including a stove. She was away a week. “Mr. Strathie was rebuilding when I arrived; a two-storey home, No. 118 Water Street, on our old leased lot on Water Street; the floor was down, the scantling of the frame was up, and part of the siding, perhaps three or four feet, but there was no roof. The Hastings Mill was but a small mill in those days; once every two months or so a sailing ship would come in, her cargo would be ready for her on arrival, and she took some time to load too, but when the great demand for lumber for rebuilding Vancouver was thrown upon them it was beyond their capacity to meet it, so that the lumber was apportioned out, and that was the reason so little progress had been made, during my seven days absence, in the construction of our house.”
“We remained on Water Street until 1889; we lived in the upper storey subsequently, and rented the lower to Mr. George Melven to use as a jewellery store. Then we moved to a new home “out in the clearing.” There were only two houses on Georgia Street, one belonged to Mr. Cambie the C.P.R. engineer—on the southeast corner of Thurlow and Georgia streets; ours was on our first sixty-six foot lot in the 1100 block further west, between Bute and Thurlow, south side; afterwards we acquired two more sixty-six foot lots adjoining; we had to cut our way through the brush, small trees, and stumps, to reach it. That would be in the summer of 1889.”
Mrs. Strathie later married George Eldon, City Park Ranger (or superintendent) for many years. Her former home at 118 Water Street was demolished in April 1910; the photograph shows her outside the building on the day it was demolished.
Image source, City of Vancouver Archives Str N17