By Sue Stefko
(Appeared in the Glebe Report, April 2018)
When the people of Ottawa reflect upon the great fire, the vast majority think of the 1900 fire that started in Hull and tore through Lebreton flats down to Dow’s Lake. However, many people do not realize that an earlier, much larger fire, the Ottawa Valley’s Great Fire of 1870, came upon Ottawa’s doorstep, threatening much the same area. In fact, that earlier fire came upon the borders of what is now the Glebe Annex neighbourhood, and, without some quick action (and luck), much of the city of Ottawa would have been destroyed.
The fire was started on 17 August, 1870 by workers who were burning brush from the Central Canada Railroad line near Almonte. With the region parched and dry after not receiving any rain for four months, and gusts of wind fanning the flames, the fire quickly grew out of control. The winds soon increased to 100 miles per hour, relentlessly spreading the fire in all directions. Hundreds ran for their lives to the Mississippi or the Ottawa Rivers, some tried to hide in their wells, and those who couldn’t reach bodies of water fast enough, dug trenches in their fields, covering themselves with dirt and wet blankets, and hoped for the best.
Most of those in Ottawa felt fairly safe from the plight of their agrarian neighbours due to both distance and the city’s acquisition of a new steam fire engine, “the Conqueror” – but that was soon to change. Signs that the fire was drawing closer started to be apparent when two thousand “refugees” from the fire streamed into the city the morning of August 19th. Later that day, the sky grew dark, thick and acrid with smoke. Street lamps had to be lit in the middle of the day. Dust and ash pummelled buildings in a howling wind that people could barely stand up in.
A City Council meeting was interrupted by a courier, who told them that a “typhoon of flame” was obliterating Carleton County, and had reached Rochesterville (today’s Little Italy), within a mile of Ottawa itself. Emergency measures were put in place – cries of “Fire Fire Fire” quickly spread across Sparks Street, church bells rang, businesses were closed, and all “able-bodied men”, including the local militia, were drafted to fight the fire.
The “front line” of fighting the fire went south from the Chaudière Mill to Mount Sherwood, along Bell Street. Although the efforts of thousands of people fighting the blaze all night were important in holding the fire at bay, it was the waters of Dow’s Lake that were pivotal in helping the city escape the clutches of the fire. While reports as to who ordered the opening of the St. Louis Dam, at the north end of Dow’s Lake vary, the order was passed. Mill workers hastily dug a channel through the dam, allowing a deluge of water to flow along the depression of what used to be the northern part of Dow’s Great Swamp, which spread two and a half miles between Dow’s Lake and the Ottawa River. The flow of water was immense – it centered on Preston Street, and was approximately 900 feet (more than 270 metres) wide, creating a moat to separate the city from the ravages of the fire. (There are stories of those who had to actually swim across what is now Booth Street for safety.)
These efforts, as well as a lessening of the winds, and their change of direction helped save the city. While Ottawa itself was spared, the fire devastated much of the region – from the Rideau Lakes to the south, as far north as Wakefield, Quebec, and Arnprior to the West. All in all, several hundred square miles (more than 125,000 acres) were devastated in the fire. An estimated 20 people died, with entire herds of livestock killed in the blaze. The entire town of Stittsville was decimated, and only two buildings were left standing in Bell’s Corners.
It took another month, and sustained rains in late September, to finally quell the blaze. Even still, however, throughout that following winter, people saw wisps of smoke coming from the ground in many of the scorched areas – signs that the fire was still alive under the surface of the ground, likely burning the remainder of tree roots of trees the fire had killed months before.
The fire served as a warning to many – for 20 years prior, various groups had been sounding the alarm, calling for the removal of the huge piles of lumber along the Ottawa river. The Ottawa Free Press estimated that four square miles of lumber were stacked in Ottawa and Hull, posing a huge fire hazard. Unfortunately, the city’s richest and most influential were the ‘lumber kings’ who owned those huge piles of wood, and this warning in the form of narrowly averted disaster was not heeded due to their political influence. These huge piles of wood, which were almost disastrous in the 1870 fire, were indeed much of the fuel that fed the fire in the disastrous Great Fire of 1900, and again in Ottawa’s second Great Fire of 1904.
Credit: City of Ottawa Archives/2011.0032.1