by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
“The soul-thrilling cry of Fire!” was heard throughout southern Manitoba farming communities on October 2, 1897. While today the odd hazy day is experienced during stubble-burning season, Manitoba’s early pioneers periodically awoke to thick swaths of breath-sapping smoke, signaling the imminent danger of having life and property consumed by a raging prairie grass fire.
The intensity and peril posed by such a fire is difficult to now imagine as the wild prairie grass that fulled the inferno have long since vanished. Within Manitoba, only one per cent of the formerly vast tall-grass prairie remains in its natural state. The Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Reserve in southwestern Manitoba near the communities of Gardenton and Tolstoi protects 2,220 hectares of the once-vast tall-grass prairie.
Inside Winnipeg’s borders, only 12 hectares at the Living Prairie Museum along Ness Avenue in St. James remain as a reminder of the wild flowers and grasses that had made up the virgin prairie before the arrival of Europeans and the spread of intensive agricultural practices.
The out-of-control prairie fire of 1897 formed a crescent around Winnipeg with flames licking at the city’s boundaries searching for a supply of fuel to allow the fire to penetrate its interior. The flames reached Sturgeon Creek and St. James to the north and west and Fort Garry and Fort Rouge to the south and east.
The correspondent for Lake Francis described the scene in
the October 11, 1897, Daily Nor’Wester as a “horrible holocaust” that swept unchecked across the prairie. The newspaper’s October 4 report said the fire out ran “the swiftest horse, and is said to have approximated at times 80 to 100 miles an hour (128 to 160 km/h) in speed.”
“The warm south winds that
allowed the sunshine and kissed the waving fields of grain into ripeness, carried also in their spiced sweetness the germs of ruin and death,” reported the October 4, Manitoba Free Press in a front-page article entitled Awful Work
of Devouring Flames. “The board prairies, swept by day and night for several weeks, by the siren south wind and sapped of their moisture, were briefly transformed into a vast carpet of tinder that only required the accident of a spark and a high wind to transform it into a sea of devastating flame. The gale of Saturday (October 2) supplied those fateful conditions.”
The newspaper said it was reporting about “a gruesome tale of death and destruction from many provincial points” from Beausejour in the east to Bagot in the west.
In St. James, then primarily a
rural area, the fire found rich tinder in haystacks. According to the
October 4 Daily Nor’Wester, “one farmer (in St. James) lost all his outbuildings and barely succeeded in saving his house.
Four days later, the same newspaper reported that: “Plenty of prairie chickens, partridges and rabbits are now to be found in the woods around Fort Rouge, driven there by the prairie fire.”
While the outlying suburbs of Winnipeg were threatened by the fire, the newspaper on October 4 said the initial belief was that it was doubtful the city itself would suffer.
Still, by noon on Saturday, “a small blizzard of smoke, dust and cinders twisted round every street corner, and swept up Main Street in a way more forcible than pleasant.”
The bank of smoke gradually advanced “from the south southwest, which starting from Ste. Agathe, 25 miles (40 kilometes) distant from the city, reached La Salle, six miles (10 kilometes) nearer by noon, and by 3 o’clock in the afternoon was on the very outskirts of the city, in the suburb of Fort Rouge.”
The Free Press reported on Monday, October 4, that: “The most serious destruction (on Saturday) occurred on the farm of Mr. Lafleche of St. Charles where a granary, 1000 bushels of wheat, 2000 bushels of oats, 500 bushels of barley, three miles (five kilometres) of fence, a binder, wagon and some other implements were totally consumed, involving a loss of $3000.”
After the fire extinguished itself, the unfortunate Lafleche cut the hay he had left, harvesting some 50 tons when another fire came along and wiped out his labours.
The newspaper said the prairie was dotted with the charred carcasses of cattle and horses that were “unable to escape the devouring flames.”
Wildlife fared no better with hundreds of jack rabbits and prairie chickens falling victim to the fire.
At Fort Rouge, fire engines were dispatched, and crews using wet sacks and hoses, held the flames back, aided by the slow progress of the fire.
Despite their success, homeowners “near the scene were already commencing to pack their household goods, and girding up their loins for a hurried exodus, which fortunately proved unnecessary” (Daily Nor’Wester).
The flames were said to have “run through the bluffs in dangerous proximity to the residences in Wellington Crescent,” but the neighbourhood was also spared by beating back the flames with wet sacks (Free Press).
“Mischievous children,” apparently had a hand in starting a fire at Turner’s dairy southwest of the Pembina Crossing, but fire crews extinguished the flames with little difficulty.
Cinders wafting in the wind were possibly responsible for two fires in downtown Winnipeg, although some observers suspected arson in at least one case.
During the evening, the W.Scott stable on Lombard Avenue and 25 tons of hay went up in flames. Another fire later broke out and claimed the “long lumber building,” called the Barney Ross Block, adjoining Ashdown’s warehouse on Bannatyne Avenue East. The Ross building, erected in 1871, had previously housed The Manitoban newspaper as well as a public hall, but in 1897 it has seen better days and served as a workshop with some office space.
The Daily Nor’Wester of October 4 said of the building, “what did not go up in smoke, is but an ugly charred mass.”
But the greatest tragedy resulting from the fire was reserved for communities outside Winnipeg, including Lake Francis, Woodlands, St. Francois-Xavier, St. Eustace, La Salle, Starbuck, Beausejour, Whitemouth, Stuartburn and Clearwater.
“Slowly at first, the smoke and smell of fire spread before the wind, but soon the air became thick with smoke,” wrote Major J. Proctor, who witnessed the October 2 prairie fire and wrote of his experiences in Woodlands Echoes.
“It became difficult to breathe. The cattle around the farm yards became uneasy. Horses whined with fear. Even the people seemed stupefied, they well knew what was coming. Yet they made no effort to save their stock and possessions. Perhaps none knew as well as they how futile any effort would be, for the wind which had been steadily rising had, by two o’clock become a gale ...”
Harris Bates, blinded by the fire, felt for the road with his hands in an attempt to get to his Woodlands home. He was so badly burned, wrote Proctor, that he died in hospital three days later “in terrible agony.”
Homesteads fell to the flames, destroying the labours of recent settlers who had few possessions to call their own. What little they had was devoured by the undiscriminating flames, making them completely destitute.
An October 5 editorial in the Nor’Wester called it “a melancholy occurrence” for settlers to see the fruits of their labours “swept away at a flash.”
The Free Press on Sunday received a dispatch from Beausejour (published Tuesday, October 5) saying that the “following families lost everything, and are destitute: Thomas Dimlah, T.T. Myszekowski, A. Schryer, John Pfifer, E. Jones, W. Wickens, D. Brown, W. Saunders, J. Huggins , D. Recksedler, E. Hoffman, and three other German families, names not known,”
“Old man Laundry, a hunter and trapper, fell a victim to the flames which swept the country from Darwin to Whitemouth ...,” reported the Free Press. The old-timer lived at Scots Hill, five kilometres from Whitemouth, which is east of Winnipeg on the CPR main line, “and after making a vain attempt to save some hay and his shanty, tried to escape from the awful flames and smoke which rolled in from the south.”
Laundry’s body was found on Monday morning by “Mr. J. Wilson’s section crew ... in a kneeling position, with his face buried in the burning muskeg, and was charred and disfigured almost beyond recognition.”
Neighbours identified the body, which Theodore Roy, claimed in order to provide a proper burial for his long-time friend.
The Daily Nor’Wester on October 4 reported that a child was burned to death near St. Francois-Xavier and its mother was seriously injured. Hamilton Upjohn was reported missing and presumed to be dead, according to the newspaper. As well, there were “poor people burned to death at Brokenhead ... they consisted of the wife and
three daughters of Mathias Engel, and the wife and two sons of Michaelis Physytocki. Engel and Physytocki are still unaware of the catastrophe which has befallen their families ...”
The two men were away from Brokenhead on the east side of Lake Winnipeg, working on a farm in the Gretna area. It was common in the fall for men to take work on established farms at harvest time to supplement their own meager incomes. In fact, only two men in the community of Whitemouth, approximately 50 kilometres southeast of Beausejour, were home when the prairie fire swept through, “all others being West harvesting,” according to the Daily Nor’Wester.
With the men away working,
the newspaper reported that “a
German-Hungarian, Mrs. Crash, worked for two days and nights in setting back fires, felling trees and digging a ditch to help save the settlement ...”
Imagine the desperation of the women, a recently-arrived immigrant, exhausted by her continual labours, choked by smoke, skin blistered by flames, desperately battling to save what few possessions her family and others had to their name.
One woman, who only a year earlier was a resident of Winnipeg, ironically moved to the countryside to escape the poverty her family encountered in the city’s North End, but was unable to flee from the flames. “The unfortunate woman, Mrs. Protofsky, who was burned to death on Saturday last at Beausejour, was the first to receive aid from the city last year,” reported the Daily Nor’Wester. “She then resided at 217 Jarvis Street with her husband and family.”
Lake Francis farmer, William
Allan, was taken to the Brandon General Hospital for treatment and was reported to be in serious condition with severe burns to his face, hands and arms. He was driving a wagon with a load of lumber when the prairie fire overtook him (Free Press). His wagon and horses were consumed by the flames near the community northwest of Winnipeg a few kilometres from Lake Manitoba.
The same newspaper received reports from people arriving in Winnipeg from the Morris area that a Mennonite family, consisting of husband, wife and child, were burned to death. Days later, it was discovered that there was no truth to the story.
In the Municipality of Rosser, immediately north of Winnipeg, people fought the blaze as it
approached their homes with “brooms, wet sacks and pails of water” (Daily Nor’Wester), and “it was successfully fought backwards time after time, when again it would come hoping to increase the list of casualties.”
Inmates and guards from Stony Mountain Penitentiary were enlisted to protect the local Canadian Pacific Railway station and coal shed, and successfully beat back the flames using barrels of water. The October 8 Free Press reported a large prairie fire raged between Selkirk and Stony Mountain and then swept southwest to Fannystelle, burning CPR ties along its path. Those men burned while battling the fire were taken to St. Boniface General Hospital for treatment. Nicholas Guilette and a young man named Molloit were severely injured and brought to St. Boniface Hospital by train. Molloit was reported to be so badly burned that he could not walk.
The Boissevain Globe reported brush fires in the Turtle Mountains, destroying enough timber to meet the local need for the next 15 years.
(Next week: part 2)