by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
The village of Bagot, between Portage la Prairie and MacGregor on the CPR mainline, was almost entirely destroyed by one of the many fires sweeping across the prairie in Manitoba. “There are only three buildings, including the Lake of the Woods Milling company’s elevator and the C.P.R. water tank left, and these are more or less damaged,” reported the October 4, 1897, Free Press.
The newspaper said residents battled the fire, which had started near MacGregor and spread eastward with “fierceness,” as it approached the village. Despite their efforts, sparks and flames leaped the fire breaks and “attacked the buildings.”
“When it was realized that it would be impossible to save any one structure, efforts were concentrated on others, and this way the C.P.R. station house, the residences of Messrs. Paisley, Link and Buchaman were saved as was the elevator ...”
But the McMillan Bros. elevator was totally destroyed along with the 20,000 bushels of wheat it contained. A general store owned by J.C. Lowrie, as well as his home, cold storage building and stable were also consumed by the flames.
Another community that was nearly wiped out was Lake Francis. Only five settlers in the vicinity escaped without losses from the fire that rode a hurricane-force wind after starting near Clandeboye, a few kilometres north of Selkirk.
The land between Lake Francis and Ossowo, now a ghost town that was once near present-day Poplar Point, was burned black and the sod was said to have been burning days later. In this region, then called Bonnie Doon, only one building was said to be left standing.
The Free Press of October 6, said there were tales of “thrilling” escapes from the district. In one instance, a party of four were shooting prairie chickens, when two fires threatened to surround them. They lit a back fire and managed to save their lives.
“One family ran to the well, but the grass, etc., was burning there. They then ran nearly a mile to a small slough, where they waited until the fire passed. Another person’s life was saved by some one throwing a pail of water over her, and dragging her to the well, where leaning over, she could get a breath of clearer air.”
The same newspaper on October 7 reported on how a Belgian woman named Nault saved her children from the “fire fiend” near St. Anne’s. Alone in her home with six small children, the flames swept “down upon her with an awful roar. With greatest presence of mind she gathered her children about her, and started for a small slough about twenty yards from the house, where there was still some inches depth of water.”
Her children were “terrorized” by the smoke and at first refused to budge from the house, so the woman carried two of the children and dragged the four others to the water. “Making the little ones sit down, she spread over their heads a blanket kept wet by splashing water upon it constantly until the fire passed.”
Another dramatic escape involved the heroics of an aboriginal man. A woman had placed her children in the cellar of her home while she went out to battle the blaze. The task was “utterly hopeless” and “she became distracted and was found by an old Indian wandering in the neighboring woods. Finding where she had left the children the brave fellow made his way through the burning bush, the first rush of flame having passed to the shanty. Three times attempting to enter the now burning building he was driven back, but finally by crawling on his hands and knees he found the cellar door and pulled the children out making them keep their faces close to the floor. Carrying two or three and commanding the older ones to follow his example and keep hold of the smaller ones and to him, he succeeded in getting them all to a place of safety.”
In an attempt to explain how the fire arose in his region, the correspondent from Lake Francis wrote in the October 11 Daily Nor’Wester that the area had been hit by several days of unusually high temperatures, which “prepared nature to relieve itself by filling up the vacuum by a hurricane” to fan the flames into a destructive force. At city hall in Winnipeg, the temperature was recorded as being 80°F by noon on Saturday.
Proctor wrote that as the fire raged across the Woodlands area, he saw rabbits in the thousands fleeing its wrath as well as the occasional wolf and deer.
“The heat and smoke became unbearable. Ashes, cinders and burning tufts of grass and limbs of trees were falling thickly. The herds of cattle and horse which had been showing every sign of fear and terror, now broke away in a mad stampede ... With a roar like that of a cyclone, the fire struck each farm house in succession, and in a twinkling, houses, barns and stables were alight. To save anything now was impossible. Every building and hay stack seemed to burst into flame in a hundred places at once.
“How any human being escaped seemed miraculous. Most of them took refuge in wells, others lay on plowed ground, face down, until the wall, of flame had passed. These had their clothes burned from their bodies, and many were terribly burned on face and hands.”
In nearby Rosser, farmers were “ploughing, threshing, stacking, etc.,” when at 3 o’clock on Saturday, the fire arrived, whipped to a frenzy by a “furious gale.”
“Persons could be seen running hither and thither on foot, on wagons, on horseback and sullys,” reported the October 4 Daily Nor’Wester, “trying to save their different hay and grain stacks, houses stables, separators and every combustible article which happened to be in the line of the fire, but in most cases it was all to no effort, the fire fiend seeming to gloat over every stack in succession ...”
The newspaper said over 100 tons of hay and 11 large grain stacks were consumed at the Simpson brothers’ farm, which was right in the path of the fire.
Homesteaders, who commonly worked for 16 hours a day, day in day out, saw the results of their harvests reduced to ashes.
Settlers succeeded in beating out the fire within three miles of St. Laurent, along the east shore of Lake Manitoba and north of Lake Francis. Before the fire was under control, its fury so crazed a Miss Price, the daughter of a farmer near St. Laurent, that she wandered off in a daze and was feared to have perished in the fire’s flames. To compound the tragedy, Hamilton Upjohn, who was betrothed to Miss Price, set out for the Price farm to help find the missing woman, but lost his life to the blaze. The eventual fate of Miss Price was not disclosed.
The accounts of Upjohn’s fate are contradictory, as the October 4 Daily Nor’Wester claimed he died in the cellar when the family home caught on fire. There is no mention of the more romantic tragedy of Upjohn dying in the flames while searching for his betrothed.
In fact, some accounts asserted to be true one day were found to be false the next day. Often the initial tales of tragedy compiled involved reporters seeking out refugees from the affected rural areas. While some of the refugees had direct knowledge of their own personal experiences, sometimes they merely spread rumours of what they had heard from others. That confusion and rumours were rampant is understandable given the circumstances of many deaths and destruction on an unimaginable scale.
Two Ukrainian immigrant families, consisting of two women and six children, were brought into Winnipeg from Stuartburn, which is south of Winnipeg, along the Roseau River. One of the women had recently given birth, and carried her baby in her arms, trying to protect the tyke from the flames, but “its poor little face and head were hideously burned (Daily Nor’Wester October 5). Her own bare feet were a mass of sores and burns by reason of her awful journey from her burning homestead. Her other child — about four years old — is badly disfigured on the right side of the head and face and her ear is in a dreadful state.”
Amazingly, the families’ attending doctor refused to admit them into the Winnipeg General Hospital for treatment, instead saying they could be treated in the Immigration Hall where they were housed as refugees from the conflagration.
According to the hospital’s somewhat bizarre rules that were outlined in the newspaper by Winnipeg Mayor William F. McCreary, a woman with child at breast could not be admitted for treatment, regardless of the severity of her injuries.
Tens of refugees from the blaze, destitute and in dire need of care, were not taken to the hospital but to the Immigration Hall, “though the premises were not at all suitable for hospital purposes,” said McCreary, who opened the facility to those made homeless by the fires in his capacity as the federal immigration officer in the city.
Apparently, material aid could be organized, but the use of proper facilities that would actually comfort them in their time of need, was not open to foreign-born refugees, many of whom were disparagingly referred to as “Galicians” (generally anyone who was Slavic and from Eastern Europe, regardless of whether or not they were born in Galicia, a province of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire now shared by Poland and Ukraine).
It was just a year earlier that Clifford Sifton, the MP representing Brandon and the federal immigration minister in the Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier Liberal government, had opened up Canada’s immigration policy to allow “a stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers, with a stout wife and half-dozen children ... I am indifferent whether or not he is British born.”
In August 1896, 27 families from Eastern Europe chose to homestead near Stuartburn, the first Ukrainian settlement in Manitoba.
Even with Sifton’s endorsement that they were needed to farm the virgin prairie, prejudice against “Galicians” was endemic in Winnipeg.
Among Winnipeggers, Mayor McCreary did recognize how the “foreign-born” had suffered during the fires that laid bare the eastern portion of the province. As a federal government official, he was personally involved in assessing the damage caused by the fires and organized the relief effort for the victims. He journeyed by train on October 4 from Winnipeg to the stricken area outside Beausejour in the company of “(John) Wendlebo and (Cyril) Genik, the Swedish and Galician interpreters ... to succor the unfortunate foreigners who had settled in that district during the current year. They are taking a couple of tents, bread, tea and other provisions with them, as well as a large quantity of blankets,” reported the Daily Nor’Wester.
According to an article in the October 6, Free Press, McCreary drove 22 kilometres north of Beausejour in the company of Rev. Charles W. Gordon (who wrote popular novels under the pen name Ralph Connor) “to visit the charred remains of the houses of settlers along the trail through the settlement. The flames had swept everything in its course, and the carcasses of horses and cattle were seen in every direction, with here and there charred remains of grain and hay stacks, and mere skeletons of buildings. Some settlers were fortunate in saving a few of their effects, but generally the people are pretty well cleaned out.”
The newspaper claimed the faces of the newly-arrived immigrants bore a look of discouragement and hopelessness after their first exposure to a raging prairie and brush fire.
“Some, however,” said McCreary, “take a philosophical view of the destruction, and realize that the fire will save them clearing out the underbrush. Large areas of the land were comparatively clear of trees, though the fire burned to the roots, and thus will permit the soil being turned over by a breaking plow for cultivation.”
McCreary said that a few of the destitute families would be brought to Winnipeg, and the male members would be sent to work on the Crow’s Nest Pass railway.
“Mayor McCreary will see that the sufferers are properly clothed, fed and housed, and such as are seriously injured will be brought into the General Hospital,” reported the Daily Nor’Wester on October 4. Apparently, McCreary believed he possessed the power to bend the hospital’s unspoken rules and have the injured “foreign-born” admitted for treatment.
When the fires became glowing embers, the recriminations and accusations began. Winnipeg Mayor McCreary received a telegram from Houle’s store at Stuartburn that “the parties who started the fire had been detected,” and referred to the province’s attorney-general.
That the fires were started by unnatural agencies was in keeping with the claims of renowned Manitoba naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton, who in a presentation to the Manitoba Historical Society, on January 8, 1885, said prairie fires “have always been the work of man.”
He discounted lightning as the primary source of such fires, saying they invariably started in the early spring or late fall when lightning strikes are rare.
In his 1883 book, Manitoba and the Great North-West, John Macoun wrote that the greatest danger of prairie fires starting was in the first week of October when all the grassland became tinder dry. “A party of travellers stop for dinner, and without due precaution light a fire, or a smoker throws down a match. In an instant the grass is in a blaze and before a person has time to think the fire is rods away and speeding over the prairie as fast as a horse can gallop. Numerous fires started as above have been known to run over 100 miles (160 kilometres) without stopping.”
In 1872, the Act for the Prevention of Prairie Fires was passed by the Manitoba Legislature. The act was was amended the next year giving individuals the power to arrest anyone starting a prairie fire. Subsequent amendments instituted a system of fines and other penalties as well as requirements for the prevention of prairie fires.
The Minnesota Tribune reminded its readers on September 30, 1887, about the provisions of the law, which included a fine of $200 or imprisonment for 12 months for starting a prairie fire. The law also “provided that persons making hay-stacks in the open plains, must protect them at a distance of at least 20 yards, by a plowed or burnt ring not less than eight feet wide. When a fire is lit to burn a ring ... it must be in the presence and with the assistance of at least three men.”
Any person kindling a fire and allowing it to run at large onto another person’s property could be fined $200 or imprisoned for 12 months.
Any person allowing a fire to jump from his property to another person’s land without taking appropriate action to prevent its spreading was liable to be fined $100 or jailed for six months.
To encourage the reporting of those who started fires, the informer received half the fine levied.
Aboriginal people living on the Great Plains of North American were known to intentionally start prairie fires to clear tinder dry plants and prevent tree saplings from taking root. From the ashes of the old arose new green grasses to feed the millions of bisons that blanketed the prairies on their annual migrations. Hence, native people had a hand in ensuring the health of the grazing animals that they relied upon for their existence. In turn, the grazers kept the grasses they fed upon clipped short and then moved to greener pastures. Their dung provided a natural fertilizer and as the herds moved the dung they left behind helped to spread prairie wildflower and grass seeds.
In many instances, the Red Buffalo (aboriginal name for prairie fires) was started by lightning and was observed stretching from horizon to horizon.
Even today, management of the remaining tall-grass prairie requires periodic proscribed burns to mimic the wildfires of the past in order to keep the prairie healthy. Native grasslands are adapted to fire with much of their energy stored in underground root systems.
But in the 1880s, when Thompson and Macoun wrote about the principle causes of prairie fires, the railway had yet to extensively criss-cross the plains. In the 1890s, when the railways were a prominent feature of the western landscape, the railroad companies came under constant attack for being the primary cause of wild fires.
The Daily Nor’Wester correspondent for Lake Francis (October 11) implied the blame for the devastation in his district rested with the CPR. “Who are the guilty parties? Let the section men of Poplar Point answer; and homesteader after homesteader will supply evidence of the passage of the conflagration as it swept over them at the rate of 60 miles (100 kilometres) per hour.”
The correspondent claimed that if the evidence pointed to the CPR, it was the railway company’s responsibility to assess the damage and provide “timely relief,” as well as “send over here, at once their own medical man, veterinarian, as well as commissioner, to book the individual losses of a lot of hardworking British settlers who have lost all their effects and savings of 20 years.”
In other instances, the claim was made that the fires arose after grasses were lit by passing trains — the friction created by steel wheels meeting steel rails constantly resulted in sparks being thrown off, especially when braking; train engines burning coal had embers cast into the air from smoke funnels.
In Rosser, the October 4 Daily Nor’Wester reported that the fire started a short distance from the railway station, “evidently from a freight train which was passing at the time.”
It was a common belief in rural Manitoba at the time that the majority of prairie fires were started by passing trains. In a letter to the Winnipeg Tribune, dated November 10, 1895, A. Dryden of Ste. Agathe wrote that the railways criss-crossing the countryside “are the cause, directly or indirectly, of most” fires. “Say what they will about having their smokestacks and furnaces made safe, the jolting of an engine at high speed, even if the smokestacks are secure, may cause fire to fall from or under the train, and the wind caused by the train will send it beyond the ballasted portion of the road.”
Dryden wrote of one train that “became so noted an offender that the settlers knew to look out whenever it came along; three fires from it have been seen burning at one time and the train scarcely itself out of sight.”
(Next week: part 3)