Great Fire of 1870
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Nov 25, 2009  |  Vote 0    0

Great Fire of 1870

Newly published book by Terry Currie

Ottawa East News

All of the ingredients of a devastating fire were present – a tinder dry landscape from four months of drought, a collection of farms built largely of fire friendly white cedar and a rising wind.

And then it happened – on Aug. 17, 1870, workers cutting brush for the new Central Canada Railway line near Blakeney between Almonte and Pakenham set about to burn it but the fire got away, spreading into the adjacent bush area. Efforts to contain the fire proved fruitless as the wind, eventually to reach 100 mile per hour speeds later in the day, began to rise, spreading the fire which eventually devastated much of Carleton County and Lanark County and became known as the Great fire of 1870.

“The wind kept getting up,” said Fitzroy township native Terry Currie who has written a just released book entitled “The Ottawa Valley’s Great Fire of 1870” as he was speaking at last Saturday’s meeting of the Goulbourn Township Historical Society at the Goulbourn Museum at Stanley’s Corners.

The wind-assisted fire first spread north, missing Pakenham but reaching the outskirts of Arnprior and then Fitzroy Harbour, all in the morning, spreading at a speed difficult for people to avoid, with the wind blowing harder and harder.

Stittsville was eradicated.

By the afternoon, the wind carrying the fire was blowing around 100 miles an hour, becoming, as Mr. Currie put it, “one of the most violent wind storms in the history of the Ottawa Valley.”

In the afternoon, the wind shifted and began blowing eastward, with the fire front increasing from the seven mile front experienced in the Fitzroy Harbour area to an 11 mile wide front when the fire reached the Goulbourn/Stittsville/Bells Corners area.

Mr. Currie told how the combination of wind and fire, when it hit a tamarack swamp at Stittsville, threw whole trees into the air, with ashes and living flames hurled far and wide.

“Stittsville was eradicated,” Mr. Currie said.

Eventually the fire hit the outskirts of Ottawa but action taken to direct water from Dow’s Lake to LeBreton flats as well as a declining wind and the firefighting efforts of all available men meant that Ottawa and its 20,000 residents were spared from the fire.

The same could not be said for much of Carleton County and Lanark County, with 3,000 farms burned out, with each averaging about seven family members.

“It left a countryside devastated, blackened and ruined,” said Mr. Currie.

These countryside residents sought refuge either by rushing to the Ottawa River and wading into its waters, along with other men, women and children and farm animals like pigs, horses and sheep or by climbing down their dug wells or by burying themselves in trenches in their potato/turnip fields.

In the wake of the fire, Ottawa city council gave $5,000 to help the victims. The provincial government in Toronto initially offered no help but eventually agreed to provide loans at a high interest rate to farmers who still had their stock intact.

The Quebec government, which gave $50,000 to fire victims in the Hull/Gatineau area as the fire had jumped the Ottawa River at the Deschenes Rapids to wreak devastation on the Quebec side of the river as well, also gave $5,000 to the Ottawa Valley victims.

The federal government eventually gave first $20,000 and then $50,000 in relief aid for those affected by the fire.

Mr. Currie, in his presentation, pointed out that this action by the federal government set the precedent for the federal government providing citizens with assistance at the time of a disaster, a practice that continues to this day.

“That policy started with the Great Fire in the Ottawa Valley,” he said.

He pointed out that 1870 was a year of “tremendous drought” in the Ottawa Valley, with rivers running almost dry and the swamps all drying up. While there had been lots of snow the previous winter, rain on May 6 was the last rain that fell for months. It would not rain again until Sept. 24 when it poured rain for the first time in five months.

The tinder dry conditions of the countryside were evidenced by three fires which had broken out before the Great Fire. One was in the White Lake area where six farms were lost; one was near Carp where the Carp Airport sits today; and one was near the present-day location of Scotiabank Place.

Mr. Currie emphasized that the settlers affected by the Great Fire were familiar with fire, always burning brush and trees. There were piles of brush and dead trees all around and houses, fences and barns were built with white cedar, a very flammable wood. Inside the shanty or house, all heat and light was provided by an open flame of some sort.

In this environment, fires were always happening, with death or property loss by fire being very common.

Mr. Currie wrote his book as a result of work done related to his Master’s Degree thesis. His family homestead in Fitzroy township has a log fence made from trees from the Great Fire and there are giant stumps in the bush from trees killed by the Great Fire. He grew up with “stories of the Great Fire in my ears,” he said, but came to realize that this major event in local history was only known through local anecdotes with no definitive history written about it. He set out to change this with this thesis and subsequent book about the Great Fire, examining census records, tax rolls, agricultural records and old newspaper accounts as he put together the story.

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