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Arts & CultureJohn Dunn's StoriesThe Burnt Lands: a John Dunn story

The Burnt Lands: a John Dunn story

About John Dunn


Part 1, Making Land

“Remember this tale well, young man,” a senator of the Anvil Parliament said, “And pray that you may never have to live through horror like it.”

“When I was a youngster back there on the farm, growing up in this part of the Ottawa Valley, my father was forever making new land. That phrase was his creative way of saying that we were pulling out stumps of the towering pines that once ruled the Upper Ottawa Valley. Those stumps continued white pine’s rule over the farm because, come hayin’ season, careful navigating only took the kick-rake safely around octopus-like tentacles left in white pine stumps.”

A pioneer stump puller

“Now all you younger people have heard about the Valley’s great timber stands of white and yellow pine. Unbeatable for almost every purpose on a farm, except for the floor of the horse stable: that called for elm planks. Frightfully stringy elm.”

“Anyway, to get rid of the menace to the kick-rake and its driver, my father would set fire in them, leaving small fire to smoulder away for days on end, burning out the heart of the stump, leaving a hollow shell. Then we’d take the team to the shell, hitch a logging chain to the stump and the team would tumble it out on the ground. Put a dozen stumps together, set a fire under them to finish the burning, and Bob’s Your Uncle. New land for growing oats to feed hungry horses.”

One of the neighbours had a stump-puller which brought immense power to bear through a screw drive on a centre pole. Hitch a team to this pole and have the horses march round and round, and they’d exert tons and tons of force which would lift a pine stump straight up out of the ground.”

“Burning went on throughout the year. All over the townships trickles of smoke rose from burning stumps and pine roots. That was making new land, just one more step in the farmer’s life, fifty years after the first settlers came here from Europe. Still making land.”

“First European settlement in the Valley occurred in 1821, in newly-surveyed Lanark County, land of lakes and rivers, bisected by the Mississippi and its tributaries, the Clyde and the Indian. These were highways for water transport of the winter’s cut of logs at the shanties. The drive down the waters through High Lanark to the rafting grounds at Arnprior, where the Mississippi and the Madawaska meet the Ottawa River. There, hundreds of thousands of white pine and white oak logs were rafted together, sent down the Ottawa to the slide over the Chaudiere Falls and thence onward to Quebec to be loaded aboard vessels for shipment to Britain.”

“All that romance, the tale of white pine, Ottawa Valley lore, took a savage body blow when fire erupted near Almonte, in August, 1870. Fanned by a rogue wind from the hubs of hell, it probably picked up embers from stumps and flung them into parched forest. Horrors, within minutes, a fire was out of control, ravaging the countryside, whipped along by the rogue wind. At its worst in that week a belt of fire twenty miles and seven miles wide swept the countryside, reached into the edge of the city and threatened the very gates of Parliament.”

Log booms at Ottawa

“The evidence of awful destruction caused by that great fire of 1870 lies today on the doorstep to Almonte, the area known to generations since it happened as The Burnt Lands.”


Seeding finished in Lanark County in the first week of May, 1870, and farmers relaxed a little for the rest of May, waiting to see the first of the feathery sprouts rise from the fields, proof that germination had taken hold of the seeded crop, a strong germination heralding summer’s blessing of abundant warmth and moisture to speed ripening in a new grain crop.

June came in on time, dry though, and weeks went by and June just stayed dry, day after day after day. Feathery stalks in the grain fields strained to capture moisture, even the little morning dew, but they desperately needed the lifebuoy, rain, to lift infant stalks up into daylight and sun’s warmth. Morning after morning, farmers searched the sky for rain clouds; not one offered a drop of rain. Exasperated countrymen growled and barked at the truant clouds, and June too ended the way May had, having neglected and then abandoned the Valley as if it were the Sahara Desert.

Well, then, expect the rain in July, said a handful of everlasting optimists! With heavy rain there’s still time for grain to form in the stalks. We need thunderstorms, the kind of howling thunderation downpours that follow the trough of the Ottawa Valley, sweeping right down along three hundred miles, the whole stretch of the Ottawa Valley. My goodness, surely we can hope for a July drench.

Hopes thus raised faded away as one dry day merged into another. Crops that thirsted, parched, at last drooped. Overhead clouds flitted and skipped, but nary a drop of rain fell. Leaves curled at the edges, singed with heat; grain gave up trying to form in the heads; ground turned brittle, parched dry as bones in the desert. Failure, bleak as the face of a man condemned, stared farmers in the face.

August. Not a single drop of rain had fallen since seeding. The last optimists amongst farmers fled.

August, harvest month! Great heavens! Was ever a year like this one of 1870? Disaster, truly disaster! Rain, rain, come! Put an end to this miserable torture.

Prayers from the congregations of every church in the Valley assaulted a heaven that seemed to have gone deaf. In the whole of Eastern Canada and most of New England a summer of no rain had never, never been known, or even thought of. Forests were frighteningly tinder dry. Every lumber firm kept a farm near its shanties to grow hay for horses and potatoes for the men, and, after the drive had gone down the rivers, they’d leave behind at the farm “A good chunk of a boy or an old Frenchman” to tidy up, grow potatoes, make hay, and burn slash. That’s the way it had been done in High Lanark since 1850.

But in August, 1870, prayers for rain increased daily and with greater and greater urgency. Plaintively congregations interceded heaven to witness the awful prospect of a no crop year. Farmers had no substitute for oats. Oats fuelled horses. There simply was no substitute. Heaven help us!

Churches filled every Sunday. Worshippers prayed for a miracle. Give us this day our daily bread, and rain, oh Lord, rain before anything else, for the crops are perishing before our eyes.

In a church in Vermont a pastor led his people in a special prayer he had composed to beseech heaven for rain:

“O Lord, send us rain. Not your ordinary everyday sprinkle that comes and goes away. No, Lord.

Let the clouds burst their bonds and rain fall on us for days. From heaven above, pour out your bountiful moisture on our thirsting earth, both field and forest, not in a thunderstorm, but for days and nights, a real soaker, a relentless downpour, for our need is great and our suffering immense.”

Suffering! But look here: was it any wonder the world was suffering, observers of the wider scene asked, pointing to startling events that proved that desperate times breed desperate acts.

The whole world in 1870 seemed upside down, not only in Almonte, or even in Ottawa, now known as the capital city, but almost everywhere in this new Dominion of Canada with its three and a half million people. Observing people began to suspicion that signs added up to a warning. Make ready, the signs said, Ottawa Valley could be Armageddon, site of the last and greatest battle of mankind to be fought before the final Day of Judgment. Like a locomotive’s big drive wheels pounding on the rails to speed the train along to its destination, the day of reckoning too had likely come to its term. Signs were all about for anyone to read, and their warning said in clear and simple language — Beware! The hour is at hand.

Just imagine: the unbelievable had now become the commonplace. Shantymen going up the line for winter’s work now took the train! The new timetable for the B & O Railway came into effect in November, 1869, from Brockville to Sand Point. A shantyman could leave Brockville at 4.15 p.m. and arrive in Sand Point at 10.00 p.m. Travelling in a car on the rails! And look here, anyone could see that a locomotive’s smokestack belched out sparks all over the countryside! Perhaps trains had been a devil’s invention!

Sir John A’s “improvements” flooded the country in the three years since his Confederation agreement, but most of them were nothing but sinister guv’mint, as you might see in this advertisement in the Ottawa “Times” for the Fisheries Branch of the Department of Marine and Fisheries. It called for tenders for





What help would Six Schooners bring to distraught farmers, facing ruin in the Ottawa Valley!

And anyway, a man didn’t need go to the Atlantic to sniff out sinister plots by newspaper men turned politician. Take the Member for North Lanark, the Hon. Willie McDougall, Minister of Public Works in Sir John A’s Confederation Cabinet.

Only last year, in September of 1869 that is, Hon. Willie had come out to Almonte to deliver a patriotic speech to enthusiastic electors at Reilly’s Hall. Come to say good-bye, Willie had, before leaving for Red River Settlement to take up appointment as lieutenant-governor for Canada of the former Hudson’s Bay Company’s Rupert’s Land territory. Willie left Almonte with the cheers of the men ringing in his ears.

Why not women? You really have to ask that, do you? Well, in those days women didn’t get to vote. They weren’t “persons” in the eyes of the law. Correction to that idiosyncrasy came by Supreme Court mandate only a generation later. OK!

Anyway, Willie McDougall and his entourage set off with the plaudits of his electors ringing in his ears, and accompanied by an entire vice-regal staff of guv’mint office holders, took the Grand Trunk to Chicago, and went on by American train to St. Paul, and thence overland via Fort Abercrombie and the Dakotas to Minnesota and an old Hudson’s Bay Company post at Pembina on the American-Canadian boundary. There, on the first of December, 1869, with journey’s end within reach, his party was abruptly halted, and told that entry was forbidden without special permission of the Provisional Government of the Metis.

What? The Queen’s own representative forbidden to enter the queen’s domain?

Correct. Mistake it not.

Was this an insurrection of some sort? Who was its leader? Oh, a Metis chap, Louis Riel.

Then brush aside Riel’s barrier and force the pass.

Trial and error. The brush was tried. Error: it failed.

Negotiations got a trial too, and failed likewise. Except for Charles Mair, from Lanark village, son of a well-known lumber baron there, who, with his bride, Eliza McKenny, were returning home. They had been married at the cathedral in St. Boniface, had gone down from Red River Settlement the five hundred miles over open prairie to St. Paul on their honeymoon, to meet the upcoming party of Mr. McDougall and to escort the vice-regals to Red River. Why? Because through Mr. McDougall’s patronage the year before Charles Mair had been sent to Red River as paymaster for a road-building crew, working in Metis territory on a public works scheme for a colonization road from the Lakehead to Red River.

Held up at Pembina, the Mairs wondered what to do. Only forty miles away from Red River, practically within sight of home, were they to be turned away, refused entry, on the very threshold of home after a thousand-mile honeymoon? Were they who called the junction of the Red and the Assiniboine their home, were they really home or not?

Well, let’s see…. Charles came from Lanark. Eliza, though, had been brought up at Red River. Right now she was tired of the buggy ride. She wanted to get home. Perhaps their case was special. Perhaps they could reason with someone at the barrier. Eliza would do the talking!

Ambroise Lepine manned the barricade. Eliza had been educated at the convent in St. Boniface in French, naturally, and she spoke to Ambroise, saying that they, the Mairs, were not part of the vice-regals, and since their home was Red River, they desired only to be allowed to continue on home without delay.

The request was clear to Ambroise, and the insurgents at the barricade. Unquestioningly so: “Les Mairs,” said Ambroise in explanation, “Ils parlent francais; ils sont de chez nous!”

Pass, friends!

As for Mr. McDougall’s vice-regal government party, no. An impasse lasted three days. Finally, the Queen’s representative had to turn tail and retrace his steps, some thousands of miles, in December, from Pembina back to Fort Abercrombie, to St. Paul, to Chicago, to Detroit, to the Grand Trunk, to Toronto, to Brockville, and by painfully slow degrees, back to the House of Commons, there to be subjected to uproarious charges of cowardly conduct on his part and bringing disgrace to the queen.

All Toronto went ablaze with fury at the affront given to the queen’s representative. They were like that in Toronto. A newspaper, the “Telegraph”, commissioned its own special correspondent to go out to Red River Settlement immediately and sniff out the true situation that had decommissioned one of their own tribe, the Hon. Willie McDougall, a fellow newspaperman.

After a three-day visit, this special correspondent sent off his dispatch from St. Paul, Minnesota. He had discovered that M. Riel had established a government. Three days was enough for a special correspondent to offer the following incidental appreciation of the situation at Red River:

“He (Riell — (blame the telegraph for the overrun of l’s in the name of the rebel leader) runs the government there under the eye of the priest party and O’Donoghue, the latter being a suspected Jesuit.”

The dispatch continues:

“O’Donoghue, formerly a teacher in the Winnipeg Seminary, and a priest in perspective, is the Finance Minister of the Provisional Government. He is a deep fellow, and the Uriah Heep of the Council…”

Such a debacle! That debacle of December 1869! Triggered off by the Hon. Member for North Lanark on his arrival at Pembina, it led many people to think that the world of 1870 must unquestionably be on the fast track to perdition, Hell and Blazes, and Fire that never Stops. Armageddon!

Spare us, O Lord, few as we are!

Fire and Fury.

Of course farmers do expect drought occasionally. But a drought as awful as the one in the summer of 1870? Impossible! Drought of that duration had never been known before, nor since.

You’re saying though, that the entire year got euchred when fire raged in fury through these parts of a drought-stricken Valley?


Can you mean that?

Assuredly yes. Fire. A raging forest fire. Fury unleashed. It happened in August, 1870.

It broke out Wednesday, August 17th, 1870, to be precise, at four-thirty in the afternoon. From the south. A very hot day. And a rogue wind. A tornado if you like, a weather occurrence infrequent in summer time, but not entirely unknown. 0ut of a clear sky, suddenly, a wind stirs up dust, whirls it round and round in a cone until it funnels up, and, just as suddenly as it rose, it evaporates before your eyes.

Sometimes though, and you never know when, it’s the rogue wind. Like a colt that’s felt the sting of the whip, it takes the bit in its teeth, and it’s off, a runaway, ripping and tearing through farmyard and field, into the bush, knocking down trees, swirling across open stretches, hitting bush under full acceleration, stripping leaves off maples, oaks and birches. Horror winds those are, true rogues, roof-lifters, barn-burners, hit-and-run weather vandals entirely.

The leader of that rogue wind gang struck the Ottawa Valley Wednesday afternoon, August 17th, 1870, at four-thirty p.m.

Within minutes snippets of sparks, loosened from a burning stump possibly, and, under the lash of a wild wind, landed in dry grass, jumped to a pile of slash in the bush next door, and, like the runaway, fire in the Valley spun away, clean out of control.

Men, struck dumb by its horror, this tornado of smoke and flame, came unhinged trying to comprehend. They saw it leap across the country, and with a taste of pine rosin from a stump pasture, lick up more flames, spit fire into slash and whoosh! Look out behind! This terrible rogue wind’s picking it up, flinging fire into the grass, and it’s roaring ahead, whistling like hell’s own piper. The whole countryside’s ablaze!

Smoke drifts east and reports trickle into the city. “Those poor farmers”, people remark. “Fire is sweeping the countryside. They’ll lose everything, barns, outbuildings, farmhouses too. The smoke in the city is suffocating, far worse today than yesterday. Even the gas lights have come on and it’s only three o’clock in the afternoon. Is the city in danger?

Heavens, what’s the council doing? Don’t they know that fire is moving right at Ottawa, consuming everything before it at the rate of five miles every hour? It’s far more than an isolated outbreak through ten acres of bush. Just look at the smoke: it’s blanketing the whole of the Valley.

In the village of Almonte they cringed from the smoke and turned their backs to the wind, and feared. The village sat right beside the Mississippi River, but that awful wind could change in an instant! The Rosamond Woolen Company’s new No. 1 Mill began manufacture of woolen cloth on the first day of February, 1870, and if the flames drove into the village, the mill, and perhaps the entire village would be in fearful jeopardy.

Just two miles away, at the town line separating Huntley and Ramsay townships, hot ashes and sparks got into the bush, roaring out of the west across the plains of Huntley towards the Long Swamp. Uncle Mick Kennedy got up on the roof of the barn and spread the best blankets from the house on the roof, soaked them with water, and succeeded in saving his barn from the flames.

Such horrors! Flames licking at trees, with all that resin in the pines and spruce and the oils in the cedars. With a roar like a train on a trestle a tongue of fire licks at a clump of spruce and pine, and Whoosh! Flames roar up through needles, erupting like a cluster of Roman candles exploding in a fireworks. Trees explode, vomiting flame, spitting fire at their neighbours so that one after another Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh! tree after tree after tree vomits, and wind roars with maniacal fury of the Beast!

A fire-snorting dragon is loose in the country, an insane monster that latches on to the cedar rail fences, and follows the rails straight up to the barn and the house. Every fence leads to the house. Awful, awful, heart-rending, the destroyer roars inside the compound and grabs hearth, home, cattle and kind.

In lower Huntley and March townships, farmers down tools, race to rescue the families, and whip fear-crazed horses and rigs straight into the Ottawa River. Others less able to run, hide down in the well, cringing as walls of flame roar overhead.

In the city prayers beseeching mercy are scarcely heard, for fear, bald, naked fear paralyzes tongues. So little they say, only “God help us, and the poor farmers who’ve lost all.”

Right up to the gates of the city the roaring flames gallop and stamp on the very threshold. At Bell’s Corners stands the brand new station of the brand new railway line, the Canada Central, from Ottawa to Carleton Place.

Enter flames, snatch a bite out of the station, and reduce the entire structure to smoking cinders. Along the newly-laid right of way flames find the ties that bind the rails, ties of black ash, white oak, ironwood, tamarack, old hickory and white elm.

Merciful heavens!

Too much! Too much! A belt of fire rages across the countryside, twenty miles long and seven miles wide, and a whole week of mid-August is gone in perishing flame.

Eventually, as in all evil, winds die away, flames lick no more, ruined households stand ashen.

Survivors creep up out of wells, look to the clouds for rain, pick up charred cedar pieces from the rail fences to begin anew, from nothing, the making of meals and the care of children. From nothing.

Fall gives way to winter. November falls, December enters, and blithesome winter bandages over the wounds to shield the eyes of children from the horrors of the Burnt Lands.

Though snow in December blankets the desolation, people wonder why wisps of smoke rise up through winter’s snow, only to discover that the fire that had burned across the countryside in August had burned right down deep and consumed even the soil itself.

Such was that week of August, 1870, when fire broke out on the 17th day of the month at four-thirty in the afternoon. At the end of that week nothing was left in the Burnt Lands but flat rock. Ever since 1870 the wise men under sweat-stained fedoras who sit on the front step of the blacksmith shop have declared that even a rabbit venturing across the Burnt Lands has to carry a lunch pail. Yes, so saith wise men of the Anvil Parliament, the place where legends of our time reside.

No lives were lost in Almonte village, nor in Huntley and Ramsay townships, but down in March township, one man driving the mail, caught out in the open by the whirling fire, perished.

For a number of years after 1870, people in Huntley township and parts of Ramsay and Pakenham added an extra intercession to the Litany of the Saints: “From the perils of another August like that of 1870, O Lord deliver us.”

Fire, air, earth, water, in the annals of an ancient historian, make up the basic elements of our universe. In one corner of the vast universe, North Lanark, at the end of August, 1870, it was easy to see why fire came first in the historian’s list. Treacherous! Fire proved it could be traitorous that month. Undeniably it had been a friend, a very close friend most of the time, but August, 1870 showed it to be one who could in the blink of an eye turn traitor, ravage the countryside and ruin the wealth of a nation. Evidence lay all about: devastation, thy name is Burnt Lands, from Fire, out of control, lashed by a rogue wind, of August, 1870. A foretaste of Armageddon!

John Dunn.

Dec. 2004.






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