by Bruce Cherney (Part 3 of 3)
The claim that sparks from passing trains were the primary cause of prairie fires possessed the potential to create a public relations nightmare for railway companies. To counter the assertions made by rural Manitobans, the railways began to give their own explanations for the massive outbreak of prairie and bush fires in 1897.
William Whyte, the general manager of the western division of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), told the media that the railway company was diligently investigating the causes of the fires. Whyte suspected the majority of the fires started in the south — far from the CPR lines — and the flames spread north due to the gale force winds (Daily Nor’Wester, October 5).
In his article entitled The Destructive Fires (The Voice, October 9, 1897), William Small wrote that no one could say with any certainty who or what started the fires.
“Now there are several very prolific sources of danger. There are sparks from locomotives and threshing machines (driven by portable steam engines); there are fires kindled here and there and everywhere by careless hunters and left burning; there is the injudicious burning of grass for the purpose of facilitating breaking operations (fire-breaks), and a scores of others which might go to swell the list ...”
A commentary in the October 19 Free Press entitled Prairie Fires, made the same assertions as Small, but emphasized the danger posed by traction engines (steam tractors with belt drives to power threshing machines): “The hundreds of traction engines which walk the country in the fall, when every inflammable substance is as dry as possible, are liable to drop hot coals from the fireboxes and sparks from the smoke-stacks are in more danger of falling than when threshing is in progress, for when engines are traveling wood is used instead of straw, and sparks are then heavier, harder and hotter, and the engines frequently obliged to to move over very dangerous ground.”
Small suggested fires started by threshing engines would continue to as long as such equipment used steam power. He believed another power source would help mitigate the annual danger. But Small argued for the use of electric power provided through wires from generating stations to threshing machine engines, which was highly impractical.
On a more practical level, the widespread conversion to fossil fuel-powered traction and portable engines subsequently made steam-driven machines obsolete.
In recognition of a potential public relations problem, the CPR even attempted to introduce less flammable blue grass, which remains green until the snow falls, along its track right-of-ways. The railroad company distributing free seed free to farmers whose land abutted the rail lines. Unfortunately for the CPR, its timing was off, as the season was extremely dry and the blue grass seed didn’t take root.
The provincial government also encouraged farmers to seed varieties of fire-resistant grasses around homes and buildings to mitigate the danger posed by prairie fires.
“A fire that will find its way over a plowed field before a high wind, will be quickly stopped by a field of green grass,” according to the October 19 Free Press commentary, “which, acting like a net, prevents the sparks from advancing further.”
The effectiveness of such a firebreak was noted by a Cromwell school teacher named Mr. Gilbert. According to Gilbert, a peculiarity of the fire in Cromwell was demonstrated at a home he was visiting. The home was “surrounded by a sward of clover which had been kept cut and green by the cattle feeding on it all summer ...” (Daily Nor’Wester, October 7 and 8, 1897).
It was Gilbert’s observation that the clover kept the fire at bay, while all else around it burned. He believed that if other dwellings had been provided with such a firebreak, they would have been spared, even though: “At the time of the fire a perfect hurricane was blowing and the flames were as high as the trees and swept everything before them.”
Even the CPR was caught off guard by the intensity of the 1897 fires. The regular train from Eastern Canada “met with considerable trouble through the fire between Cross Lake and Whitemouth,” reported the October 14 Daily Nor’Wester. “At Rennie the fire raged on both sides of the track. When within five miles of Whitemouth a stop was made in an opening, and here the train was held for two hours, the fire raging on both sides.”
When passengers were later interviewed, they said “that the scene was one that defied description. The express was literally travelling through the fire,”which raged on all sides.”
Children clung to their mothers “with piteous cries,” women “silently cried,” while “the men had all their work cut out to soothe the frightened.”
In the wake of the devastation, Whyte said the CPR would provide free transportation to the afflicted communities of clothing, food and supplies organized by relief committees that sprang into being soon after the fires ended.
His public relations coup was confirmed in a telegram sent to Winnipeg by CPR president Sir William Van Horne.
Not to be outdone, G. Ford, the superintendent of the Dominion Express Company, wrote the Prairie Fire Relief Committee that his company would “carry free, contributions of money, clothing, or supplies for bona-fide sufferers from prairie or bush fires, up to 20 pounds in weight, from any point on our lines when addressed to your committee, and will carry similar shipments free when sent out by your committee to sufferers.”
Actually, the announcement was not all that surprising, since the company had been acquired by the CPR in 1882, and it made sense that the donations transported to communities in the devastation zone by the railway be unloaded onto the horse-drawn wagons of freight company for distribution to the fire victims.
Rev. Charles Gordon of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg organized contributions of clothing for sufferers in the Beausejour area. Twenty sacks full of material were contributed by his congregation, as were five more from Westminster Church which the CPR carried at no cost.
The CPR also charged nothing to transport flour and feed donated by the Ogilvie Milling Company of Winnipeg to the Brokenhead District.
The free transportation of goods had to wait until all the fires subsided, since Whyte had ordered all rail traffic be suspended — local and national — as well as all CPR telegram service on Saturday night, October 2.
Whyte explained that under the circumstances of ties being burned, the lines might not be safe for the passage of trains.
The Daily Nor’Wester reported on October 6 that Henry O’Connor, the CPR fire inspector, had gangs of men, numbering six to 16, “burning out the right-of-way, to avoid the possibility of the fire injuring or destroying the track, and in the case of straw stacks, about which the farmers have been so careless lately, the section men and all freight train crews have positive instructions to leave their work or stop their train under any circumstances and assist in putting out any fire, straw or otherwise.”
Near Morris an intentionally set straw fire got away from a couple of farmers, but the intervention of a CPR section crew prevented the “whole district” from being “scorched.”
O’Connor explained that during and after threshing, farmers allow threshed straw to remain lying on the ground, and take few precautions when they burn the straw after the harvest.
Winnipeg lumber companies offered to hire men from the devastation zone “with or without horses.”
An October 5 editorial in the Daily Nor’Wester appealed to the provincial government to provide relief to the people affected by the fires, as it had for those who suffered damages during the extensive flood in Manitoba that spring.
“The Province, obviously, could not afford to make a practice of indemnifying all sufferers from prairie fires. The Province’s resources are not equal to it; and such a practice would tend to render people less careful to prevent prairie fires from starting and spreading, as well as cause the settlers to rely on the Government instead of taking proper precautions to protect themselves from losses by making fire-beaks and insuring their property.
“The recent fires have, however, been exceptionally devastating and have defied ordinary precautions to protect property; and an exception to a general principle is therefore justified.”
The same editorial also called for the re-establishment of fire patrols by the North West Mounted Police (today’s RCMP), which had been abandoned “owing to the parsimony of the Ottawa Government.”
In addition, it called for the organizing of volunteer fire patrols to “keep prairie fires in check” in “ordinary and extraordinary years,” in order to “minimize the consequences of fires which defy control.”
Winnipeg Mayor McCreary designated city licence inspector Polson’s office as the drop-off point for citizens’ contributions, and had a committee of aldermen (councillors), headed by Alderman Alfred Andrews, appointed to oversee the contributions.
When Gilbert arrived in Winnipeg with other refugees from Cromwell, which is six kilometres north of Beausejour, following the fires, he told a Daily Nor’Wester reporter that the school had burned down and 12 farmers had lost everything, including their homes. Another seven had saved their livestock, but were in dire need of feed for the animals.
“The residents of Cromwell speak in the highest praise of the way Mayor McCreary sent relief just as soon as he had been made aware of their unfortunate condition,” according to the newspaper.
“Several of Mr. Gilbert’s neighbours only saved their lives by jumping into a ditch which was luckily half full of water. He states that immediate relief is most urgent.”
Days later, relief efforts were still being organized. A ministerial association committee visited city hall seeking the appointment of a secretary to co-ordinate the effort in Winnipeg. Hugh McKellar was appointed to by the provincial government to the Prairie Fire Relief Fund, while Alderman Andrews was elected its chairman and W.W. Watson was appointed secretary. A store at 574 Main St. was secured as a depository for donations of clothing, provisions and money.
At a meeting of the relief committee in city hall on October 11, R. McPherson, a farmer from north of Beausejour, who was in Winnipeg arranging for lumber to replace the buildings he lost in the bush fire, said the “greatest hardship was the hay secured for the feeding of their cattle during the winter, and unless some help was rendered in that direction the distress would be still further increased” (Free Press, October 12).
“The people do not want charity,” he claimed, “but would gladly accept temporary assistance that would enable them to rebuild their premises and procure feed for their stock.”
McPherson was among the many from the area who were forced to sell their younger livestock, but the money acquired was not sufficient to rebuild their homes or replenish fodder for their remaining animals.
John Wendelbo, the interpreter for the federal immigration department, told the committee about his tour of the devastated area north of Beausejour where Ukrainians had homesteaded. “As these people had only settled on their farms this summer, and had gathered a quantity of hay for the few head of cattle in the colony, their loss will be severely felt and will occasion destitution unless some help is extended the unfortunates.”
In the areas around the communities of Woodlands and Lake Francis, the committee was told many cattle suffered severe burns and had to be put down, while other livestock with burns were getting worse due to the absence of feed and the lack of shelter from the elements.
Reeves were asked to provide full details of the need in their districts to McKellar, who was the province’s chief clerk of the department of agriculture and immigration, by filling out a form that was distributed outside of the city.
John Hopwood and J. Worsley, two farmers from the affected area northwest of Winnipeg, wrote the editor of the Free Press on October 18 that information provided by Reeve Mayne to Watson, the secretary of the relief committee, during a visit to the Raeburn, Lake Francis and Bonnie Doon district, was inappropriate.
“Now, I am informed on good authority that Mr. Watson called on the reeve ..., who coolly said in answer to questions put to him, one amongst which was this: ‘How many farmers are there in your district suffering through this disastrous prairie fire?’ His answer was, ‘There is nobody here in want of immediate relief.’ Now, Mr. Editor, the writers know that there are families in that very district who are in want of of relief in the very worst way and that promptly.”
Donations, including money and goods, came from businesses, municipal governments and individuals, while volunteers sorted the articles collected in Winnipeg. Some donations came from other Canadian cities, including money from a campaign launched by the Toronto Globe. Toronto city council also sent $500 to the relief fund. Winnipeg City Council also donated $500.
An initial difficulty the committee experienced was the absence of provincial cabinet ministers to make a decision on whether loans for wheat, oats, flour and lumber for the construction of houses and stables would be provided to sufferers.
“If the government supplied these primary necessities,” according to the October 15, Daily Nor’Wester, “the committee could well see their way in the way of clothing, furniture and other necessary article ... The stand still was caused by the fact that the committee were in utter ignorance of the course the government intended to pursue.”
The committee decided to write Manitoba Premier Thomas Greenway, who was in Ottawa at the time, asking that he meet with the committee.
At an October 15 meeting with the relief committee, Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor James Patterson, Winnipeg MLA and provincial Treasurer Daniel McMillan, and McKellar said that the Manitoba government would extend aid to the sufferers in the form of lumber to rebuild homes and fodder for cattle.
The provincial government later announced that it would build homes for the those who lost their dwellings in the fires. The government plan called for the construction of two-room 12-by-18-foot homes with sloping shingle roofs. The bedroom of each home was partitioned off from the kitchen, which would also act as a dining room. The settlers were expected to erect their own outbuildings lost to the fire, but the lumber was provided by the provincial government.
When presenting the April 1898 provincial budget, Manitoba Treasurer (now referred to as a finance minister) Daniel McMillan said, “There had been expended for the relief of the prairie fire suffers the sum of $4,388.47, which the settlers themselves regard at present as a loan ...”
“Very encouraging letters are being received from the recipients of the articles sent then from the prairie relief rooms,” reported the Daily Nor’Wester on October 27.
“The committee have bought 30 new cooking stoves with the furniture appurtenant to some thirty bed-room suites and 20 pairs of blankets.”
Several families of “Germans and Galicians” burned out in the Brokenhead and Stuartburn areas turned up at the relief centre in Winnipeg, “and were fitted out with clothes,” reported the Free Press on October 19.
Among the group was a 12-year-old girl, who had lost most of her family in the conflagration. The only other survivor was her father, Michael Pytochski, who accompanied his young daughter to the relief centre in the Winnipeg. Another refugee in the city at the relief centre was Matthias Engel, who lost his wife and children in the blaze. Both Pytochski and Engel were away from Beausejour working for a farmer in the Gretna area when the fire claimed the lives of their wives (an alternate spelling of Pytochski’s wife was given in the Daily Nor’Wester, which claimed a Mrs. Protofsky died in the fire) and five of their children on Saturday, October 2.
By mid-November, the work of the relief committee was winding down, although McKellar did visit Raeburn in early December to deliver four rail cars of bran that was distributed according to the number of stock each farmer possessed.
The total loss from the fires that swept the eastern district of the province in October 1897 was estimated at $130,925 (Daily Nor’Wester, December 14), which was an extremely high amount in 1897 dollars. But more costly was the tragic loss of so many lives to the flames.
Proctor wrote that all pioneers knew something about bush and prairie fires, “but never of any in which human life was in danger, or even where livestock was seriously threatened, and when the reports began to come through, the whole community (of Woodlands) was shocked and stunned.”
Months later, Woodlands residents were still suffering the effects of the fire, compelling Reeve David Porteous to write Winnipeg Mayor Alfred Andrews asking for help, “even so little will be thankfully received.” The letter was published in the Daily Nor’Wester on March 4, 1898.
“On October 2nd, last,” continued the reeve, “we had terrible fires, I may call it ‘a cyclone of fires,’ which swept four townships of this municipality and destroyed all hay and stables, also nearly all the dwelling houses. Two men were burnt to death, and one was in hospital four or five weeks, also several very narrow escapes from death. All fences and most of their implements were destroyed, also a number of horses, cattle, pigs and poultry were destroyed. A number of cattle that were so badly burned had to be killed, and some have died during the winter.
“The settlers were taken in and cared for by other settlers in districts that escaped the fire. They are all anxious to return to their homesteads in the spring, as the Government has loaned them the lumber for a small house each and stabling. The relief committee have also been exceedingly kind in the way of providing some furniture and clothing, also some food to tide over the winter.”
Porteous said what the settlers needed most was small tools, as many “have not as much as a hammer to commence building.”
Similar letters were sent to municipalities across Manitoba, asking for donations toward the relief of Woodlands residents. The Springfield council wrote back saying it was unable to provide assistance as residents in the municipality were also still dealing with the aftermath of the October 2 calamity.
The 1897 prairie fire was the last to create such widespread havoc, injure so many people and claim so many lives — at least 11 confirmed deaths, including A. Allan who later died from the injuries he sustained in the fire — although there would be periodic outbreaks of devastating prairie wild fires into the 1900s. Fortunately, the conditions that led to the “horrible holocaust” of 1897 cannot be duplicated today.
(Note: In part 2, it was mentioned that the fate of Miss Price, the young woman who was supposedly crazed by the fire and wandered off into its flames, was unknown. But, the October 9, 1897, Free Press reported the story was untrue. The newspaper said she was still living comfortably at her father’s home south of St. Laurent after the fire. Unfortunately, such fanciful tales were common in the aftermath of the prairie and bush fires that swept Manitoba, with the falsehood of such rumours only emerging — if at all — days later.)