From Almonte Gazette July 30, 1970

The Big Fire That Created

The Burnt Lands in Huntley

(Written by Hal Kirkland in 1964) 

            We all know what the Burnt Lands look like now; we see the  barren, desolate stretches, bare  rock and stunted trees when we travel over Highway 44. Time has healed the dreadful burning of the land, but the scars still remain - after more than ninety years.  

            Ninety years is a long time to go back for first hand knowledge of an event-too long-as this writer well realizes now. He should have started asking about the Big Fire sooner-forty or fifty years sooner. It was on the 17th of August, 1870, that the fire swept across Huntley Township. Even with the evidence on both sides as we drive on Highway 44, it is impossible to picture the devastation that would strike the eye of a traveller crossing  Huntley in the fall of 1870. Only from the faded pages of old newspapers can we get any idea of the loss and suffering caused by that terrible fire. There are no eye witnesses now.         

            About a year ago I visited a dear old lady, but old lady in the sense that the years of her age were many. She had just celebrated her 100th birthday. She was born on St. Patrick's Day in the year 1863. The fire crossed Fitzroy Township where her parents farmed and probably passed not far from her home. Yes, she had heard them talk about the fire. "But I guess I wasn't much interested," she said. "You see, I was only a small girl of six or seven then. I was too busy playing and going to school, to be bothered about the fire." Had she, by chance, any old pictures? "Yes, I have. I'll get them and show them to you." She went to another room found them and brought them back in a minute. They were pictures taken on her wedding day. Ah, Mrs. Green had not dwelt on fires and disasters.

            There was never a drought in Ontario like that of 1870, and thank goodness, never since. For many weeks before harvest not a drop of rain had fallen. The fields were parched: the woods were tinder-dry and the leaves were withering on the trees; the swamps were drained of moisture. The cedar log fences were hot with the sun, and also the barns and stables. People felt that even the air was filled with combustible gases. The smallest spark could in a few seconds start a raging blaze. The summer days passed and no rain came.

            It was the same all over Eastern Ontario. In every issue of The Almonte Gazette during these months there were reports of the dire distress caused by wide-spread fires. In the issue of July 30 there was this item: the long spell of dry weather has proved disastrous to many farmers in Ramsay and neighboring townships by the prevalence of fire in the woods, which already has done incalculable damage. Near Bennie's Corners, a fire has raged for several days and destroyed valuable timber, fences and growing crops. The heaviest, sufferer is Mr. William Philip whose buildings at the Corners were threatened. We have heard of these and other fires, but could not ascertain extent of damage in any particular instance; it must, however, be considerable."

            Mr. Templeman, the editor of The Gazette at that time, did not give the fires a very big play in his paper. There was more about the Franco-Prussian war (the Prussians were crossing the frontier and advancing on Paris, and about Louis Riel in Manitoba). Also there was a serial running in these issues - A Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Of course Mr. Templeman did not have the instant communications of our day, and his readers were more dependent on their local paper for news of the outside world.

            In the Aug. 20 issue, there was a paragraph headed "Fire at Stittsville," with this story: "It is reported in Almonte that Stittsville, a small place about 12 miles below Ashton was completely burned up on Thursday not a house having been left standing."

            In the same issue there appeared another story of the fire which was titled "Bell's Corners Burned." It reads: "We learn that the village of Bell's Corners, near Ottawa, has been wholly consumed by fire, and that several people were burned to death. The new depot of the Canada Central Railway was also destroyed. We can give no  further particulars in this issue."

            The editor must have been hampered considerably in getting news from distant and out-of-the-way places like Bell's Corners and Stittsville, because in the same issue we read: "The high wind on Wednesday, assisted we suppose by the fires in our country, interrupted our telegraphic communication with Ottawa for a time."

            Incidentally, the whole front page of these issues was taken up by the weekly instalment of "A Woman in White."

            But to get closer to home. In the next issue The Gazette reports: "At Clayton the people were in great alarm, owing to the close proximity of fire in the woods, many of them having removed their furniture to be ready for instant flight. One man near Clayton, named Hogan, had his house and barns burned and lost everything." This was serious enough, but it was not nearly as bad as the fire that raged over the concessions north-east of our town.

            This was the fire that passed perilously close to Almonte, and is still spoken of by the people in Huntley as The Big Fire. It is now no more than the name of an event that happened a long time ago; the grim details have been lost over the years. But this much we know: that there was still smouldering moss on the floor of swamps and that there were still live embers in partially burned logs in the woods; in a wind a spark could start a conflagration.

            The fire started somewhere to the north-west, around Pakenham. On that 17th day of August a wind came up. It increased in velocity; it apparently rose to hurricane proportion. The smouldering top-soil and charred logs remaining from previous small fires were soon fanned to flames; the windstorm swept the flames across Fitzroy, Huntley and Goulbourn townships. On the afternoon of the 17th the country over which Highway 44 crosses was a charred desert covered with a pall of dense smoke. It swept eastward toward Stittsville and the next morning had burned the dwelling and buildings of Mr. Graham at Graham's Bay. It was reported that the fire advanced at a speed of more than two miles an hour.

            The loss was terrible. Most deplorable and sad was the loss of human life. It is believed twelve human 'beings perished in the fire. A mother and her children sought safety in a swamp and became separated, the mother and one child perished, the other children survived.

            Mrs. Patrick Egan, who lived on the 9th concession line of Huntley, took her year-old twins up on a bare hill to escape the fire. Providentially, the wind changed direction, the fire bypassed the Egan farm, and the mother and children were unharmed. This mother was Father Egan's grandmother.

            Here and there some houses and outbuildings were saved, but the destruction was, in most places, complete. Homes and barns were burned to the ground; the crops were either consumed by the flames or rendered useless; the scorched carcasses of horses, sheep and cattle lay where they perished from suffocation and heat. Those that survived wandered aimlessly over the black land. A cow could be purchased for four dollars. The owners had no food for them. The log fences were obliterated.

            On August 27th, The Gazette carried a story of the fire, with a credit to the "Times,, (which I presume was an Ottawa paper) which concluded with this helpful note: "On account of the sweeping destruction of fencing and building material in some localities it would appear as if the farmers shall have to carry on their farming operations on the joint principle adopted by the earliest Puritan Settlers in the New England States."

            About a month after the fire, on September 24th, there was this short item: "The Ottawa Free Press says that fires are again blazing up throughout different parts of the country and although, as a general thing, is no danger to be apprehended, still there are some places that are not yet safe, until there is another heavy fall of rain."

            In the September number of "The Country Gentleman" there was a letter from a Mr. Conner of Rowlandville, situated near the left bank of the Susquehanna, eleven miles above the head of Chesapeake Bay. He wrote: "The smoke was so thick here for some days after August 20 that the sun was partially obscured and objects at a mile distant almost entirely so. The burnt smoke smell was quite strong.

            Ottawa, around which the great fire raged is 300 miles from here.  Looking over the papers last week I find that fires 50 by 12 miles in extent were raging were around Ottawa. On this day a terrific gale occurred - direction not given. Smoke appeared here at dawn on August 21. So the Big Fire was noted by a man living 360 miles away.

            How was fire noted in Almonte, only a few miles away? No one ever chronicled it, as far as this writer knows. Perhaps it was too close.

            But at least there was one man in Almonte who was concerned. He was Mr. Pat Reilly, the proprietor of the British Hotel, who later built the Windsor House, now occupied by the North Lanark Co-op. Mr. Reilly hired a team of driving horses and a carriage which could accommodate 10 to 12 men. He gathered up spades and shovels filled the carriage with men from town and set out for the scene of the fire, by the Long Swamp road. They arrived at the farm house of Hugh Kennedy between the twelfth and eleventh lines of Huntley, which appeared to be threatened by fire. They dug a fire-guard west of the buildings, but fortunately the fire passed on the far side of the 11th line.

            The foregoing was told to me by Mr. Edward Kennedy. Of course, this all happened before Mr. Kennedy was born, but he remembers his older brother Hugh telling him about being posted on the roof of the stable with a churn full of water to extinguish flying embers and sparks which might alight on the roof.

            Truly, any information that can be gleaned about that fire is meager indeed. To the people of Fitzroy, Huntley and Goulbourn Townships that disastrous conflagration is still spoken of as The Big Fire.