ARRIVAL AT DARLINGTON. -- KIND RECEPTION. -- MY FRIEND'S LOCATION. -- HIS INEXPERIENCE. -- DAMAGE TO HIS LAND BY FIRE. -- GREAT CONFLAGRATION AT MIRAMACHI. -- FOREST FIRES. -- MIGHTY CONFLAGRATION OF THE 6TH OF OCTOBER. -- AFFECTING STORY OF A LUMBER-FOREMAN. -- HIS PRESENCE OF MIND, AND WONDERFUL PRESERVATION. -- THE SAD FATE OF HIS COMPANIONS.
I WAS now very near to my ark of refuge, and the buoyant spirit of early youth, with its joyous anticipations of a radiant future, bore me exultingly forward. It might have been said of me in the beautiful lines of the poet:--
"He left his home with a bounding heart,
For the world was all before him;
And he scarcely felt it a pain to part,
Such sun-bright hopes came o'er him."
Alarie A. Watts.
Two hours' brisk walking brought me to the long-looked-for end of my journey. I was received with the greatest kindness and hospitality; and, in a few days, felt quite at home and comfortable in my new quarters. After some days' rest, I commenced operations by assisting my friend on the farm and in the store. From my practical knowledge of farming, acquired upon my mother's estate, I was soon installed as manager in that department.
Our farm contained upwards of two hundred acres of cleared land, the largest proportion of which consisted of meadows and pastures, but the soil was light and sandy, and altogether very indifferent. My friend, Colonel B----- had been imposed upon by the Yankee, of whom he had bought it,--and no wonder, when I tell you that my friend had formerly held a situation under Government, and had lived in London all his life.
Only the first three concessions of this township were settled at this time, the remainder of the land being generally in the hands of absentee proprietors. I am happy to say, the absentee tax has had the effect of throwing vast quantities of these lands into the market.
This township, like Whitby, is now well settled, and though not generally equal in regard to soil, is still considered a good township. Bowmanville is the principal town, containing about twelve hundred inhabitants. In 1825 it only boasted a grist-mill, saw-mill, a store, and half-a-dozen houses. I mention this, merely to show how much the country has improved in a few years. This is not an isolated fact--it applies to nearly all Canada West.
My intention was, to stay with my friends till the ensuing spring, and to get a little insight into Canadian farming, clearing land, &c., that I might have some experience before commencing operations on my own account.
The situation of my friend's house was close to the Toronto road, partly built of logs and framework: it had been designed by the former Yankee proprietor, and could certainly boast of no architectural beauties. We lived about a mile and a half from the lake shore, and I took advantage of my vicinity to the water to bathe daily. I found great refreshment in this, for the weather was very hot and dry. The drought lasted for some time, and among its consequences, I may mention the prevalence of extensive fires.* Several broke out in our neighbourhood, and, at last, the mischief reached our own farm. It destroyed several thousand rails, and spread over forty or fifty acres of meadow land. We ultimately stopped its further progress in the clearing, by ploughing furrows round the fire and a thunder-shower in the evening completed its extinction. Fire seldom runs in the woods on good land, and where the timber is chiefly deciduous, but on sandy, pine, or hemlock lands, or where evergreens chiefly prevail.
[* Fires in Canada are of frequent occurrence, and are generally caused by the burning of brush-wood or log-heaps by the settlers. In dry weather, with a brisk wind, the fire is apt to run on the surface of the ground in the bush, where the dry leaves are thickest. In clearing the land a good deal of brush-wood and tops of trees are thrown into the edge of the woods. It follows, as a matter of course, that the greatest danger to be apprehended is the burning the boundary-fences of farms. I have heard it asserted that these fires are sometimes caused by spontaneous combustion, which I consider altogether a fallacy.]
I have seldom known very serious damage by these fires done in Canada West, although occasionally a barn or house falls a sacrifice to the devouring element. Not so, however, in some parts of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, where extensive conflagrations often devastate the country for miles round. Of such a character was the great fire at Miramichi, which nearly destroyed Fredericton, and was attended not only with an immense loss of property but with the sad loss of many valuable lives. I will presently give in his own forcible and feeling language the history of a lumberer who escaped from destruction after being for some time in imminent peril of his life. He was one of the few persons who had the good fortune of escaping the great conflagration in Miramichi, which broke out in the October after my arrival, and excited so much general sympathy. Fifteen of his comrades perished in the flames.
The narrative which I introduce here, anticipating by a few months the proper order of narration, was related to me by the man himself with that native eloquence which often surprises, and always interests us in the uneducated. The class to which he belongs is one peculiar to America. Rough in manners, and often only half-civilized, the lumberer, as an individual, resembles little the woodsman of other lands. He is generally a Canadian Frenchman, or a breed between the Irish and the native of the Lower Province. However, some Yankees may be found among these denizens of the woods and wilds of Canada. The fearful conflagration to which our poor lumberer nearly fell a victim, has been thus ably described in M'Gregor's "British America." "In October, 1825, about a hundred and forty miles in extent, and a vast breadth of the country on the north, and from sixty to seventy miles on the south side of Miramachi river, became a scene of perhaps the most dreadful conflagration that has occurred in the history of the world.
"In Europe we can scarcely form a conception of the fury and rapidity with which fires rage through the forests of America during a dry hot season, at which period the broken underwood, decayed vegetable substances, fallen branches, bark, and withered trees, are as inflammable as the absence of moisture can make them. To such irresistible food for combustion we must add the auxiliary afforded by the boundless fir forests, every tree of which in its trunk, bark, branches, and leaves contains vast quantities of inflammable resin.
"When one of these fires is once in motion, or at least when the flames extent over a few miles of the forest, the surrounding air becomes highly rarefied, and the wind consequently increases till it blows a perfect hurricane. It appears, that the woods had been on both sides of the north-west partially on fire for some days, but not to an alarming extent until the 7th of October, when it came on to blow furiously from the westward, and the inhabitants along the river were suddenly surprised by an extraordinary roaring in the woods, resembling the crashing and detonation of loud and incessant thunder, while at the same instant the atmosphere became thick darkened with smoke.
"They had scarcely time to ascertain the cause of this awful phenomenon before all the surrounding woods appeared in one vast blaze, the flames ascending from one to two hundred feet above the tops of the loftiest trees; and the fire rolling forward with inconceivable celerity, presented the terribly sublime appearance of an impetuous flaming ocean. In less than an hour, Douglas Town and Newcastle were in a blaze: many of the wretched inhabitants perished in the flames. More than a hundred miles of the Miramichi were laid waste, independent of the north-west branch, the Baltibag, and the Nappen settlements. From one to two hundred persons perished within immediate observation, while thrice that number were miserably burned or wounded, and at least two thousand were left destitute of the means of subsistence, and were thrown for a time on the humanity of the Province of New Brunswick. The number of lives that were lost in the woods could not at the time be ascertained, but it was thought few were left to tell the tale.
"Newcastle presented a fearful scene of ruin and devastation, only fourteen out of two hundred and fifty houses and stores remained standing.
"The court-house, jail, church, and barracks, Messrs. Gilmour, Rankin, and Co.'s, and Messrs. Abrams and Co.'s establishment, with two ships on the stocks, were reduced to ashes.
"The loss of property is incalculable, for the fire, borne upon the wings of a hurricane, rushed on the wretched inhabitants with such inconceivable rapidity that the preservation of their lives could be their only care.
"Several ships were burned on shore, while others were saved from the flames by the exertions of their owners, after being actually on fire.
"At Douglas Town scarcely any kind of property escaped the ravages of the fire, which swept off the surface everything coming in contact with it, leaving but time for the unfortunate inhabitants to fly to the shore; and there, by means of boats, canoes, rafts of timber, logs, or any article, however ill calculated for the purpose, they endeavoured to escape from the dreadful scene and reach the town of Chatham, numbers of men, women, and children perishing in the attempt.
"In some parts of the country all the cattle were either destroyed or suffering greatly, for the very soil was parched and burnt up, while scarcely any article of provision was rescued from the flames.
"The hurricane raged with such dreadful violence, that large bodies of timber on fire, as well as trees from the forest and parts of the flaming houses and stores, were carried to the rivers with amazing velocity, to such an extent and affecting the water in such a manner, as to occasion large quantities of salmon and other fish to resort to land, hundreds of which were scattered on the shores of the south and west branches.
"Chatham was filled with three hundred miserable sufferers: every hour brought to it the wounded and burned in the most abject state of distress. Great fires raged about the same time in the forests of the River St. John, which destroyed much property and timber, with the governor's house, and about eighty private houses at Fredericton. Fires raged also at the same time in the northern parts of the Province, as far as the Bay de Chaleur.
"It is impossible to tell how many lives were lost, as many of those who were in the woods among the lumbering parties, had no friends nor connections in the country to remark on their non-appearance. Five hundred have been computed as the least number that actually perished in the flames.
"The destruction of bears, foxes, tiger-cats, martens, hares, squirrels, and other wild animals, was very great. These, when surprised by such fires, are said to lose their usual sense of preservation, and becoming, as it were, either giddy or fascinated, often rush into the face of inevitable destruction: even the birds, except these of very strong wing, seldom escape. Some, particularly the partridge, become stupified; and the density of the smoke, the rapid velocity of the flames, and the violence of the winds, effectually prevent the flight of others."
It was from this mighty destruction that the forecast and admirable presence of mind displayed by the lumberer, whose pathetic story I am about to relate, saved him. I could not fail, while rejoicing in his escape, to impute his self-possession to the compassion of the all-wise Being who had made him such an instance of His mercy.
"The weather," said he, "had been unusually dry for the season, and there had been no rain for upwards of three weeks before this calamity took place. We had only just completed our shanty, and had commenced felling timber ready for squaring, when it occurred. We had heard from our teamsters, who had brought us out pork and flour, the day previous, that fires were raging in the woods some miles to the eastward of us. However, we paid but little attention to what appeared to us a common occurrence.
"After supper, one of our men went out of the shanty, but immediately returned to tell us 'that a dreadful conflagration was raging within a mile or so of our dwelling.' We immediately rushed out to ascertain the truth of his assertion. I shall never forget," he continued, "the sight presented to our view: as far as the eye could reach we saw a wall of fire higher than the tree-tops, and we heard the mighty sound of the rushing flames mingled with the crashing fall of the timber.
"A single glance convinced us that not a minute was to be lost; we did not stop even to try and secure our clothing, but made our way as quickly as possible to a small river about two hundred yards from our shanty, and which we knew was our only chance of preservation.
"We reached the stream in safety, where I determined to take my stand. My comrades, however, were of a different opinion: they contended that the fire would not cross the river, which was upwards of thirty yards in width. Unfortunately, no argument of mine could induce them to stay, though I was well aware, and represented to them that such a body of flame would not be stayed a minute by such a barrier.
"My comrades, hoping to reach an old clearance of some acres, about half a mile in advance, in spite of all entreaties crossed the stream, and were soon lost to my view--never more to be seen alive by me.
"I waded down the stream, till I found a place where the water was up to my arm-pits, and the bank of the river rose about six feet over my head. There I took my stand, and awaited the event in breathless anxiety. I had no time to look around me. The few minutes which had elapsed, had greatly added to the terrors of the scene.
"As the wall of fire advanced, fresh trees in succession were enveloped by the flames. A bright glare crimsoned the clouds with a lurid glow, while the air was filled with a terrible noise. The heat now became intense. I looked up once more; the trees above me caught fire at that instant, the next, I was holding my breath a foot beneath the surface of the running stream. Every few seconds I was compelled to raise my head to breathe, which I accomplished with great difficulty. In a few minutes, which seemed ages to me, I was enabled to stand upright, and look around me. What desolation a short half hour had effected! In front, the conflagration was still raging with unabated fury, while in the rear the fire had consumed all the under-brush and limbs of the trees, leaving a forest of blackened poles still blazing fiercely, though not with the intense heat caused by the balsam and pine-brushwood.
"It was several hours before I durst quit my sanctuary to search for my companions, the blackened remains of whom I found not a quarter of a mile from the river.
"Our shanty,* and all that it contained, was utterly consumed. I, however, succeeded in finding in the cellar beneath its ruins, as much provisions uninjured as served to carry me through to the settlements, which I ultimately reached, though not without great difficulty."
[* A shanty is a building made with logs, higher in the front than the back, making a fall to the roof, which is generally covered with troughs made of pine or bass-wood logs; the logs are first split fair in the middle, and hollowed out with the axe and adze. A row of these troughs is then laid from the front or upper wall-plate, sloping down to the back plate, the hollowed side uppermost. The covering-troughs is then placed with the hollow reversed, either edge resting in the centre of the under trough. A door in the front and one window complete the building. Such is commonly the first dwelling of the settler. The lumber-shanty differs both in shape and size, being much larger, and the roof sloping both ways, with a raised hearth in the centre of the floor, with an aperture directly above for the escape of the smoke. It has no window. One door at the end, and two tier of bed berths, one above the other, complete the tout ensemble. These shanties are generally constructed to accommodate from two to three gangs of lumber men, with shed-room for twelve or fourteen span of oxen or horses--span being the Canadian term for pair.]
Last revised 2005-02-28