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Capturing History

Joseph Frederick Spalding: Photographer—Tourist—Visionary

Fernie and District Historical Society, British Columbia, Canada.

Fire and Floods

The residents of Fernie have experienced more than their fair share of adversity. In addition to the loss of life associated with the coal mining industry, Fernie also experienced considerable losses in four serious floods between 1897 and 1948, and in the Great Fire which took place on August 1, 1908.

Burnt remains of a building The Great Fire, August 1, 1908. A cloud of smoke looms ominously over the devastated town.

The Great Fire, caused by a brush fire, was transformed by strong winds into an inferno that swept through the town, reducing much of Fernie to ashes and rubble. Miraculously loss of life in the fire was less than 10, but an estimated 1,000 homes and buildings were destroyed, leaving some 6,000 citizens homeless.

Joseph Spalding’s photographs of the fire and its aftermath are aesthetically awe-inspiring in their depiction of the destructive forces of the fire as it swept through the town and across the landscape. They also offer a sense of the emotional responses to the fire experienced by the citizens of Fernie. A photograph showing a group of citizens observing the remains of their town with a sense of wonder, one momentarily shares a similar sense of the vulnerability of these individuals to the forces of nature. At the same time, the photographs provide a compelling sense of the fortitude and resilience of the citizens of Fernie who, from temporary homes in tent cities, immediately dedicated themselves to the task of rebuilding their lives from little more than rubble and ashes.

Two men stand in front a tent and a sign reading Fernie Free Press A Western Newspaper Office after the Fire of Aug 1, 1908. Fernie, BC. The show must go on...a pesky little fire will not hamper this business.

A family watches water flow over a bridge The 1916 Spring Flood of the Elk River. This family appears as though it has been stopped in its tracks by the threat of the rising waters.

The optimism and resilience of the citizens of Fernie in the face of adversity was tested again in 1916 when the river surpassed its banks bringing flooding and devastation to the area.

Joseph Spalding’s photographs not only provide us with documentation of the flooding and its impact, but also provide visual evidence of the town that, within an eight-year period, had been almost entirely recreated from the ashes of the 1908 fire.

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