HISTORY: Porcupine Camp ablaze [The Great Fire of 1911] – by Karen Bachmann (The Daily Press – June 30, 2011)

The Daily Press is the newspaper of record for the city of Timmins. Karen Bachmann is the director/curator of the Timmins Museum and a local author.

As local milestones go, next week will mark a very important one for the Porcupine Goldfields. July 11, 2011 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Great Porcupine Fire of 1911. Environment Canada described this event as one of the five greatest Canadian fire disasters. Its magnitude and severity shaped the early mining communities and truly tested the rugged pioneers.

Just barely two years into its existence, the small towns that had sprung up around the mining camps were annihilated by a huge forest fire. It is because of the determination of those early people (and let’s face it – the lure of untold riches from the gold in the area) that we are still here today.

It didn’t take long for the world to learn about the tragedy. A number of Canadian and American newspapers were quick to file stories. Some of these first-hand accounts give us a glimpse into that fateful day and graphically describe how events unfolded.

The Globe (Toronto) sets the tone with this article printed on July 12, 1911:

“A great disaster has befallen the north country as a result of the terrible heat and lack of rain. The whole country is burning up with bush fires everywhere. They have been in progress for over a week, and reached a climax today, licking up in their path everything before them. Fanned by a terrible gale of wind, the flames swooped down on the villages and mining camps, and the loss of property will run into enormous figures, while the death toll must be great, as Porcupine district, where the fire is at its worst, contains thousands of prospectors, whose camps are scattered over a wide area of country heavily timbered.”

According to the reporter, “from North Bay northward for three hundred miles and covering a wide section east and west flames are carrying on their work of destruction and death, and miners, prospectors and settlers are in a desperate plight if they even escape with their lives, for supplies, buildings and equipment are being wiped out of existence by a roaring wall of fire, which illuminates the sky for miles.

“The town of Cochrane, at the junction of the T&NO Railway and Transcontinental, which was nearly wiped out the other day by fire, was leveled to the ground today, and the inhabitants are in a bad way for food and shelter, and are asking assistance from neighbouring towns in the south.

“The south part of Tisdale has been swept clean, and other townships have suffered severely. All the mining camps from Dome to Whitney township have been burned.”
Those mines included the Dome, the West Dome, the North Dome, the Preston, the East Dome, the Vipond, the Foley O’Brien, the Philadelphia, the United Porcupine, the Eldorado Porcupine, the Standard Imperial and the Success.

The New York Times ran a huge article on July 13, 1911, detailing some of the horrors taking place in the isolated mining camp. Many of the early prospectors, businessmen and speculators were American, so the story was near and dear to many of its readers (and judging by the melodramatic tone of the piece, it was hoped tons of papers would be sold).
“Many miners lost their lives in efforts to save others and some were drowned …

“Part of Tisdale has been wiped out, the fire only being controlled by dynamiting a dozen houses in the middle of town. Two special trains have been sent to bring the 4,000 persons who are facing starvation or death by fire in the Tisdale District.

“Hundreds fled before the flames which were eating up the shacks in the outlying section of South Porcupine. The dense cloud of black smoke hung very low over the land and made flight difficult. Many perished from exhaustion and lay prostrate before the raging fire as it swept over the town. The framed buildings in the heart of the town burned with a crackling sound that brought terror to the hearts of the fleeing people.

“Twenty minutes after the flames struck the outskirts of South Porcupine, the town was in ashes, so quickly did the fire sweep onto the north. All of those who escaped the flames made for the water, where all sorts of water craft launches, canoes, scows and skiffs were pushed into service.”

For the rest of this article, please go to the Timmins Daily Press website: http://www.thedailypress.ca/ArticleDisplay.aspx?e=3196339

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