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
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
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
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
“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.
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
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
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.