The Great Fire of 1870

17 August 1870

It had been a dry spring and even drier summer. By mid August, no rain had fallen in four months, parching the fields and forests of eastern Ontario and western Quebec. On 17 August 1870, a work gang clearing a right-of-way along the Central Canada Railway between Pakenham and Almonte near the village of Rosebank set brush on fire along the tracks. It wasn’t the brightest of moves. With a strong wind blowing from the south, the fire quickly got out of control and spread into the neighbouring woods. Despite efforts by railway workers to douse the flames with water pumped from the nearby Mississippi River, it could not be contained. Racing northward through the tinder-dry forest, the fire sent massive columns of smoke into the air blanketing the region.

Other than being discommoded by the smoke and ash darkening the sky and making breathing difficult, Ottawa residents weren’t especially concerned. This wasn’t first time that they had smelt the smoke of forest fires. While pitying rural folk affected by the blaze, people didn’t view it as Ottawa’s problem. Moreover, in the unlikely event fire should threaten the city, the Fire Department, equipped with its modern steam pumper, the “Conqueror,” would be able to deal with it.

Attitudes may have been different if people had been aware of the extent of the blaze, and the speed of its advance towards Ottawa. But hard information was difficult to come by. The few telegraph lines that linked the capital to communities to the south had been cut by the fire, while stagecoaches were stopped in every direction. Left ignorant, newspapers focused instead on exciting European news. A month earlier, Napoleon III of France had foolishly declared war on Prussia, launching the Franco-Prussian War. News from the front was being swiftly conveyed to North America by the new transatlantic telegraph cable laid between Ireland and Newfoundland only four years earlier.

The enormity of the fire only became apparent when refugees began to trickle into Ottawa by carriage and on foot from outlying towns and hamlets. The Ottawa Times reported on 19 August that 2,000 homeless and hungry people were slowly making their way along Richmond Road to the capital. The following day, The Globe newspaper reported that there was “Panic in Ottawa.” The fire had finally people’s attention.

Fanned by gale and sometimes hurricane force winds, the fire moved as fast as a horse could trot, leaping from tree to tree, through the townships of Goulbourn, Huntley, March, Fitzroy, Torbolton and Nepean. One by one, farms cut into the parched forest were destroyed, their wooden homesteads, barns and stables consumed by the flames, along with their crops and livestock. Residents who couldn’t flee by road tried to find safety in rivers or lakes. Some found refuge down wells, while others dug holes in the middle of turnip or potato fields, covering themselves with earth and wet blankets. The fire burned so hot that land south of Almonte was effectively scoured.  Now called the “Burnt Lands,” traces of the 1870 fire can be seen even today. Only a few stone buildings of wealthy farmers, protected by broad tilled fields, had a chance of surviving.

The village of Stittsville, sixteen miles distant from Ottawa succumbed to the flames, then did Bells Corners, a mere nine miles from the capital. In Bells Corners, the only buildings left standing were “Mrs Bell’s house, two churches and a schoolhouse.” In Nepean and March, only three houses over a distance of 15 miles survived. Flames also consumed the newly-constructed buildings of the Ottawa Agricultural Society at Lansdowne Park, then outside the city limits.

Powerful updrafts sent burning branches and embers high into the air. Caught by southerly gale, the blaze jumped across the Britannia Rapids on the Ottawa River to the Quebec side. There, the fire quickly made its way through the woods of central Hull on a front four miles wide, heading north. Fifty homes of iron miners at the village of Ironside were destroyed, along with the smelting house owned by the Canada Iron Mining and Manufacturing Company. While Chelsea was spared, the nearby Gilmour piling ground and more than five million feet of lumber went up in flames. So rapid was the fire’s advance that many families saved themselves by fleeing to the river where they embarked on log “cribs” cut loose and left to float down with the current. Others were not so lucky. James Pink, 79 years old, died when trying to escape with his sister-in-law in a buggy. Overcome by smoke, he fell to the ground from the carriage. His sister-in-law, unable to lift him, was forced to leave him on the road in order to save her own life.

Back in Ottawa, a special meeting of City Council was held in the afternoon of 19 August. Warned by Sheriff Powell that the fire was only 300 yards from Rochesterville on the city’s western outskirts, the Council issued a proclamation calling upon all citizens to close their businesses and provide assistance to halt the fire. On Sparks Street, the cry went up “Fire, Fire. The Fire’s Coming.” With church bells ringing, thousands of volunteers headed west “in carriages and vehicles of all descriptions,” as dull, rolling dark clouds of smoke showered them with fine white ash. The 60th Rifles and the Garrison Artillery stationed in the city were also mobilized to battle the flames.

As the fire approached the city, the Ottawa Fire Department ordered the St Louis dam on the Rideau Canal system (roughly at Dow’s Lake) to be breached. A torrent of water up to 300 yards wide coursed its way down today’s Preston Street to the Ottawa River. This water barrier combined with a subsidence of the winds effectively halted the advancing flames saving Ottawa from catastrophe.

Though the worst was over, the Great Fire of 1870 continued to smoulder for several weeks until autumn rains finally put it out. The fire burned an area stretching from the Rideau Lakes in the south, to as far north as Wakefield in Quebec, an area of several hundred square miles. Approximately 20 people died. Thousands were left homeless.

Governments were slow to act to help survivors. In the late 19th century, the idea that public authorities ought to help its citizens after natural disasters was a novelty. Sir Francis Hincks, the federal Minister of Finance, refused to help, saying aid was a provincial matter. Meanwhile, in the Ontario legislature, some MPs opined that any aid would be wasted. J. Sandfield Macdonald, Premier of Ontario and Attorney General, suggested that area residents must have done something terrible to warrant the wrath of the Almighty. He argued that the provision of aid would be unconstitutional. When pressed, he grudging agreed to provide a loan of up to $100,000 at 6% interest for ten years to those who could offer good security. Not surprisingly, as banks were offering loans at 4%, his offer was rejected. Anyway, what “good security” could burnt-out farmers provide? Robert Lyon, the MPP for Carleton and a government member, was so incensed that he threatened to introduce a vote of censure against his own government should it refuse to help.

After several months of dithering, the Ontario legislature, shamed in part by the Quebec government’s more open handed provision of aid of $18,000 to victims of the fire on both sides of the Ottawa River, granted $30,000 to Ontario and Quebec fire sufferers.  It wasn’t much but it was a start. Despite some initial reluctance to help as its citizens were not directly affected, the Ottawa City Council chipped in another $5,000. A Fire Relief Fund, chaired by J. M. Currier, raised $78,000 through a public appeal. It provided aid to more than 850 families in the towns and villages surrounding Ottawa in Ontario. As well, more than 210 additional families were assisted in western Quebec. Amounts given to individual recipients were small, ranging from $3 to a maximum of $390. Although based in Ottawa, the Dominion government contributed nothing beyond 50 tents provided by the Militia for emergency shelter, and the personal contributions by federal members of Parliament to the Relief Fund.

Even though the aid provided by governments fell well short of the losses sustained, a welcome precedent was set. Victims of natural disasters were no longer alone. They could look to their government for assistance.

Sources:

Currie, Terrence M. 2009, The Ottawa Valley’s Great Fire of 1870: The Nineteenth Century Press and the Reality of a Great Disaster, Creative Bound International, Inc.

Ogilvie, Garfield. 1992, Once Upon a Country Lane, The House of Airlie, Nepean.

Ottawa Fire Relief Fund, Report of Proceeding of the Central General Committee, Ottawa, From 22 August 1870 to 28 July 1871.

The Globe,1870.  “Canada, “Fire Raging All Around the County of Renfrew,” 18 August.

————-, 1870. The Fire in the Woods: Panic in Ottawa, The Flames Advancing,” 20 August.

————-,1870.  “The Ottawa Bush Fires,” 24 August.

————-, 1870. “The Debate of the Address,” 13 December.

The Ottawa Times, 1870. “The Great Fire, Latest Particulars,” 19 August.

——————–, 1870. “Battling with the Flames, 20 August.

——————–, 1870. “The Fire Near Chelsea,” 22 August.