Tilley’s First Vancouver Book and Stationery Store Goes Up in Flames

Looking up Carrall Street at the junction of Carrall, Water, Powell, and Alexander Streets, about May 1886. Tilley’s Book and Stationery Store was located on Carrall next door to the Tremont Hotel (see below for an enlarged view of the Tremont/Tilley section). (City of Vancouver Archives, AM54-S4-: Str P83)

By the time the above photo was taken in the spring of 1886, Seth Thorne Tilley’s book and stationery store was an important part of Vancouver’s “civic centre,” as Vancouver archivist Major Matthews titled his description of the photo:

Here stood the famous “Maple Tree.” Under its shade or shelter, in sun or shower, pioneers held public meetings, impromptu concerts, or tied their horses. On the trunk proclamations were posted; the square right patch is a notice to electors that our first civic election will take place on May 3rd, 1886. Here the candidates for civic office spoke to the electorate. …

The first Canadian Pacific Railway offices were on the upper floor of the Ferguson Block, on left, erected 1885, the first and only office building. Here the first plans of the city were drawn; the first land sales made; the staff was three. The surgery of Dr. J.M. Lefevre, C.P.R. doctor, was in the next room. James Hartney’s general store is on the street level beneath. Beyond, down the street, is the new “Tremont Hotel,” and next door, “Tilley’s” stationery store within which was the “POST OFFICE, VANCOUVER.” Further down, our first newspaper, the “Vancouver Weekly Herald”…On the extreme right edge, men, on the steps, are leaving “Gassy Jack’s” historic “Deighton Hotel.” (1)

Enlarged detail of photo above shows the Tremont House sign; Tilley’s was located next door to the Tremont, and though we can’t make out the wording on the sign hanging over the right shoulder of the man on the carriage, it likely is Tilley’s. (City of Vancouver Archives, AM54-S4-: Str P83)

Now forty-nine years old and having opened bookstores in more than one boomtown over the past two and a half decades, Tilley may have felt that the decision to do so yet again was paying off. But then came June 13, 1886.

Now forty-nine years old and having opened bookstores in more than one boomtown over the past two and a half decades, Tilley may have felt that the decision to do so yet again was paying off. But then came June 13, 1886.

Much has been written about the Great Vancouver Fire that decimated much of the newly incorporated city. Lisa Anne Smith’s Vancouver Is Ashes is a riveting minute-by-minute account of that terrible day. One of the stories she shares is of Tilley and his son, Charley, who raced against time to save what they could from their store before they had to run for their lives. The account is largely based on an 1892 article in the Vancouver Daily World that looked back on the day of the fire:

[S.T. Tilley] and his son Charley went into their store on Carrall Street to get out some articles which they desired most to save, but before they were aware of the nearness of the danger, the store was on fire at both the front and rear, and they had to rush out through flame and smoke. In the rush Mr. Tilley lost his hat. They then had a long fight with flame and smoke before they reached False Creek, and several times Mr. Tilley sank exhausted but was encouraged by his son’s “This way, father,” to renewed efforts until the shore of the waters and fresh air were at last reached. (2)

Smith asserts in Vancouver Is Ashes that one of the things Seth and Charley managed to save was their Gilliland telephone exchange, “about the size of a large medicine chest, but twice as heavy” (3). Despite these efforts, Tilley’s losses were great (as were the damages suffered by so many others). The June 22, 1886, issue of the Vancouver Weekly Herald estimated that Tilley had lost $2,500 in inventory and property, a huge sum at that time (4).

Historical accounts of the Great Fire marvel not just at the devastation caused on June 13, but also at how quickly rebuilding occurred. “On the evening of Sunday the 13th inst., Vancouver was a heap of ruins, on Sunday the 20th inst. about one hundred buildings had risen from its ashes,” read an article in the Weekly Herald. “The fire has demonstrated one thing, and that is, the indefatigable energy and pluck of the Vancouverites” (5).

Another newspaper reported that Tilley, “who was amongst the heaviest losers” in the fire, “was the first to commence rebuilding. He was at work before breakfast on Monday morning” (6). Within five weeks of the fire, Tilley’s book and stationery store was once again open for business, this time at 11 Cordova Street.

Cordova Street looking west from Carrall, July 1886, five weeks after the Great Fire. Tilley rebuilt his book and stationery store and telephone exchange office at 11 Cordova, at the extreme right of this photo. (City of Vancouver Archives, AM54-S4-: Str P7)


By 1887, Cordova Street at Carrall looked as though the Great Fire had never happened. S.T. Tilley’s sign is clearly visible at the right of this photo. (City of Vancouver Archives, AM54-S4-: Str P353)



(1) Major J.S. Matthews, “The Burning of Vancouver,” Vancouver Historical Journal 3 (January 1960): 19.

(2) “Sunday, June 13th, 1886, Was the Date of Vancouver’s Big Fire—A Few Reminiscences,” Vancouver Daily World (June 13, 1892): 3.

(3) Lisa Anne Smith, Vancouver Is Ashes: The Great Fire of 1886 (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2014), 54.

(4) “Losses,” Vancouver Weekly Herald (June 22, 1886): 2.

(5) “Vancouver,” Vancouver Weekly Herald (June 22, 1886): 1.

(6) Daily News (June 18, 1886), quoted on S.T. Tilley file card at City of Vancouver Archives.

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3 thoughts on “Tilley’s First Vancouver Book and Stationery Store Goes Up in Flames

  1. The proximity of “Tilley” and “hat” in the account of the fire was interesting. Any connection between Tilley the bookseller and Tilley the hat maker?

    1. No connection that I have thus far uncovered. (But I can tell you that the Tilley hat angle has cluttered up some of my online searches!)

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