Severe drought of 1864 resulted in many major fires

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.

Weather historians state that dry, hot summers have become more common in recent years, but the phenomenon is not a new one. A particularly severe one hit Wellington County, and most of southern Ontario, in 1864.

Hot sunny weather in early July delighted farmers, allowing them to bring in a good hay crop. But as July neared its end, anxiety rose daily. There had been no rain that year since late June, and by the third week of July the relentless hot sun had dried up some grain crops. 

Water was so low that swamps, which were far more plentiful then than now, began to dry up.

Settlers and village residents feared fire as much as drought. There was little in the way of fire fighting equipment then, and poor communications, should a disaster occur, meant that help could not be summoned quickly.

The overwhelming majority of buildings were built of wood, and the hot conditions dried out structures, making them vulnerable to any spark or flame. Beginning on July 17, there was an epidemic of fires in various parts of Wellington that continued until rains came on July 25.

Early on Sunday morning, July 17, several residents smelled smoke and spotted flames at the sawmill in Drayton, owned and operated by T.J. Owens. In short order residents formed a bucket brigade, and succeeded in keeping the flames from spreading to the adjoining flour mill. Several men climbed onto the roof of the flour mill and nearby structures with wet brooms to swat out and brush off any embers that fell on the cedar shingles.

Though beside the river, the Drayton mills used power generated by a boiler and steam engine, which used sawdust and scraps as fuel. The cause of the fire was never identified. It was a close call for the flour mill, the centrepiece of the Drayton economy. The loss of the sawmill was also a setback for local development.

Two days later fire broke out in the large swamp east of Drayton which had dried up in the drought. Flames at times reached the height of the cedar trees. That blaze spread over a wide area, threatening several barns and houses, though only the barn of Ezra Hambleton was lost. The owner lost his entire crop of hay.

The next day swamps west of Drayton were on fire, spewing smoky clouds into the sky that produced a haze that lasted until the rains came. A major loss there was the burning of piles of cedar rails. Farmers had taken advantage of the dried-out swamps to produce rails for fences. 

There were also fires in the east and south of Wellington. Only the Guelph area was spared. Sparks from locomotives on the Grand Trunk started many fires on the line east of Guelph.

From Rockwood to Acton the ground on either side of the track was almost completely burned over, and the flames spread far through swampy areas. Fences along that stretch were a memory. Superhuman exertions saved several houses in that area, and most people removed their furniture and possessions from their houses as a precaution. There were strong winds in the afternoon, making the spread of the fires rapid and unpredictable.

Fires swept through swamps in the Eden Mills area on July 22. Residents there swatted at flying embers with wet brooms and blankets to save their dwellings. They kept up an all-night vigil for three nights, alert for sparks and embers.

In Acton, sparks from a locomotive set fire to a pile of lumber and almost claimed the Grand Trunk station. 

Another big fire in Puslinch raged through the rear portions of several farms. The biggest fire of that season almost wiped out the new village of Rothsay. The cause was never determined. It might have been caused by an ember from one of the swamp fires in the area. The popular explanation at the time was that it had been set by an unknown person. In any case, the blaze would not have spread so quickly had not all the buildings in the village been tinder dry.

The mysterious fire was discovered about 3am on July 21. Residents, asleep with their windows open due to the hot weather, awoke to the smell of smoke, and quickly traced the source to the vacant portion of a building that had been the home of Spetz’s Tavern until the spring of that year, when he declared bankruptcy. At the time of the fire the building was owned by W.H. Lowes, pending a sale by auction to settle Spetz’s debts.

In a matter of minutes flames consumed the former hostelry, and then Davidson’s Hardware, which occupied the other half of the building. Davidson was able to save only some brooms and a half-dozen scythes before the heat drove him back. No one was willing to help Davidson, out of fear. Residents knew that the store carried a large quantity of black powder, used by farmers to blow up stumps.

As the locals had anticipated, the powder soon blew up, wrecking the building and sending showers of burning embers into the sky to rain down on adjoining buildings. Davidson’s store was the home of the post office. A quantity of undelivered mail, plus all the supplies and equipment, were lost. The Davidson House hotel across the street caught fire several times, but volunteers swatted out the flames with wet blankets each time. One man worked feverishly at a hand pump at the Davidson House, wetting blankets and filling buckets. So intense was the heat that his hands were badly blistered.

Rothsay’s other public house, Allan’s Hotel, was also in danger. The fearful proprietor organized some of the bystanders and removed all the furniture from the building, but the structure was saved, largely due to David Hastings, a volunteer who climbed onto the roof and brushed off the hot embers as they fell, using a wet broom. For about two hours it seemed that whole village might be burned. Many of the buildings suffered minor damage. The day following the fire, Rothsay presented a strange appearance. Furnishing from most of the buildings stood outside in piles, while residents worked at minor repairs amid the smoke that still wafted through the village from the burned buildings and destroyed woodpiles.

The fire was a close call for Rothsay. Had the flames spread, the blaze might have spelled the end of Rothsay. The mid-1860s were the key years for establishing the business hubs in Maryborough and Peel.

A mood of panic descended on the county about July 21, as everyone feared new fires that could not be controlled. Buildings and fields had become tinder dry, vulnerable to the sparks and embers of wood burned by locomotives, in steam engines at factories and mills, and in kitchens for cooking. A few foolish farmers continued to burn piles of brush, and more often than not those bonfires spread, out of control. The hot sun and drying winds made the afternoons the most dangerous.

Relief came on July 25, with a prolonged steady rain that lasted eight hours or more. Mercifully, there was no lightning. Most areas received at least an inch of rain, and some places twice that amount. The parched ground absorbed the water like a sponge.

The swamp and bush fires of July 1864 had a profound effect on the landscape of Wellington, destroying hundreds of acres of swamp. Much of that area soon became farmland, and was later made more consistently productive by new drains, and by the first of the field drainage installations in the 1890s. 

Conservationists are still dealing with the consequences today with stream enhancement and tree planting programs.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Jan. 9, 2009.

Thorning Revisited