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