Bush fires devastated northeast Wellington in 1874

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

The late summer of 1874 saw a major disaster in Wellington County when a series of bush fires swept through Luther Township (which was not yet divided into East and West portions), and parts of the adjoining townships of Amaranth, East and West Garafraxa, and Arthur.

Wellington has suffered relatively few major disasters – three or four tornadoes and Hurricane Hazel would top the list. These were acts of nature. The 1874 fires were man-made in origin.

The first settlers arrived in Luther Township about 1853, but the flow was not rapid. Generally speaking, these were poor people. Those with more money bought lands or farms elsewhere, where there was less swamp land and better transportation facilities.

Consequently, the clearing of the land proceeded slowly, and many farm lots were not settled at all until after 1870.

The situation changed after the completion of the railway west from Orangeville, which opened for business as far as Mount Forest in November 1871. The Toronto, Grey and Bruce Railway, traversing Luther from one side to the other, provided excellent transportation facilities for moving wood and lumber to markets.

A firewood shortage loomed in Toronto. The government considered the situation sufficiently serious that a clause dealing with freight rates on firewood was written into the railway’s charter.

Overnight, the clearing of timber became the prime activity in Luther and parts of the adjoining townships. Sawmills opened for business, and the railway stations at Waldemar, Arthur and Mount Forest shipped vast quantities of firewood, squared timber and sawn lumber, sometimes solid trainloads of it. For the first time the settlers had some hard cash in their pockets.

The clearing operation resulted in huge piles of small limbs and brush which could not be sold. The farmers left these piles to dry out, then set fire to them.

Normally these fires could be controlled, though they sometimes set fire to dry grass. The wet nature of the terrain in Luther, and the many swampy sections and creek beds, prevented the spread of these brush fires.

The summer of 1874 was different. The weather was hot during July and August, and August brought virtually no rain. Smaller creeks dried up, and the swamps started to dry out. The effects of the clearing in previous years were already becoming evident, with many wells going dry.

These were hand dug wells, six or eight feet deep. When they were dug, some farmers had encountered water in as little as four feet. Now they were drying up, an inarguable sign that the water table was falling, and falling rapidly.

The burning of brush, which began in June, soon resulted in fires which could not be contained. The flames advanced along road allowances, creek beds, and fences. The cedar rail fences provided additional fuel for them.

Information on these fires came out in fragments. The situation became very serious in the last week of August 1874, according to most reports, but a correspondent of the Guelph Weekly reported that some fires had been out of control since July in Amaranth. In that township, according to this account, dozens of houses and barns had been destroyed by the end of August.

The Mercury reporter had a somewhat cavalier attitude. He stated that, while many homesteads had been destroyed, the fires also had major benefits. They had cleared out some swamps that had been considered impossible to clear, and they had removed all the brush growth and small trees from other tracts, making them ready for the plough.

Despite the exceedingly dry conditions by the end of August, farmers continued to set fire to piles of brush. A goodly portion of these quickly got out of control, destroying buildings, property, and even standing crops. The newspapers in Wellington began to list the damage beginning in the first week of September. This is one report from the Guelph Herald:

“John Burke, Lot 1, Con. 10, Amaranth, 4 acres of standing wheat and a large quantity of fences completely destroyed. Geo. Hudson’s tavern on the town line of Garafraxa and Luther, had a narrow escape on Tuesday night [Aug. 25], for some hours being completely surrounded by fire, and no hopes were entertained of saving it.

“By sheer hard work its ignition was, however, prevented. Rev. Mr. Lomas lost a barn containing a large quantity of hay, as well as a buggy and wagon. R.H. Allen’s barn was entirely consumed….Mr. John Johnson has lost his house, buildings, grain and implements, worth at least $1,700, insured for only $500….”

From the Elora Lightning Express: “In Garafraxa a number of fires took place. On Monday [Aug. 31] a fire which had been burning for several days on the farm of Mr. Wilson Ransom commenced running, and it was with great difficulty that Mr. Ransom’s house was saved, a number of his neighbours went to his assistance. The fire then ran through a swamp to the farm of Mr. James Matthewson the next con. And burned down two houses and his old barn containing a large quantity of oats…”

Grain crops in 1874 were good, nurtured by favourable weather in spring and early summer. Harvesting the crops diverted the attention of farmers away from the fires. Working from dawn to dusk, few farmers went into the towns. This impeded the flow of information. Nevertheless, for three weeks Wellington’s newspapers published lists of the destruction, which reached its peak during the first week of September. In all too many cases, entire farmsteads of house, barns, implements and crops were totally consumed.

The Fergus News Record reported that “many farmers who a few days ago were rejoicing in the possession of well filled barns, are now reduced to the most destitute circumstances, having lost barns and crops and dwellings and everything, and even had their own lives endangered.

“For several days the woods were on fire in almost every direction…”

This was followed by a list of about 30 farmers who had been burned out.

The dry conditions were not restricted to the Luther area. A bush fire caused considerable damage in Peel Township, and a fire in a swamp spread to the barn of James Graham in the Paisley Block of Guelph Township.

Everyone celebrated the rain that fell on Sept. 8, the first in five weeks. But it only slowed the fires.

In the region of Arthur village, dozens of fires burned away around the village. At night the smoke settled close to the ground like a fog, choking those with breathing problems, and making sleep impossible.

Travellers could have a hard time coping with the fires. On Sept. 14 William Scott left Fergus with a load of freight for his store in Grand Valley.

Roadside fires forced him to take to the fields. On the 11th line of Garafraxa he found the fences had been scattered on the roadway to slow the spread of the flames.

Eventually he got to the Luther town line, but his way was blocked by a fire at Con. 12. He tried another route, but found it was blocked as well.

Eventually he abandoned the wagon, and galloped through a field with the horses, ahead of the quickly advancing flames.

There were no casualties, but a number, like Scott, had close calls. David Cardy was driving a load of oats from a field in West Garafraxa when the fire came up so quickly that the horses’ hooves were burned and the wagon wheels scorched in his gallop to escape.

Despite the rain on Sept. 8 and another a few days later, the fires continued their devastation into the third week of September. A particularly vicious one swept through the 3rd and 4th Concessions of Arthur Township on Sept. 14, fanned by a stiff wind. It burned out more than a dozen adjoining farms.

Cooler weather and some rain in the last week of September discouraged the fires, and brought an end to the destruction.

But it wasn’t over for those affected. Only a portion had any fire insurance, and virtually no one was fully covered. Winter was coming on, and dozens of families had no permanent shelter and no food supply.

Next week: Assessing the damage and organizing relief efforts.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Sept. 10, 1999.

Thorning Revisited