Once Upon a Time: Land of the Big Smoke

In early June 2023 smoke from wildfires in Quebec blanketed Ontario and turned New York City skies orange. Bruce County escaped the worst of the big smoke, but it hasn’t always been so lucky.

Locally, bush fires peaked in the late 19th century and early 20th. Not content with clear-cutting the old-growth forest, lumber companies left behind “slash”—logging debris of wood chips and branches. Add a prolonged drought, high winds and one lightning strike and you have the recipe for a devastating conflagration.

Whether called wildfire, forest fire or bush fire, the result is the same: a blackened landscape, crops and buildings destroyed, animals killed.

The drought of 1881 led to many bush fires. In eastern Michigan the Thumb Fire of September 5 burned over a million acres and killed 282 people. Thick smoke blew east, turning the sky yellow in New England.

That month, bush fires were common in Bruce County too. There had been no rain for a month, wells and creeks ran dry and barns burned. In Port Elgin fire destroyed George Grier’s shingle mill.

On Sept. 2, 1881 the Wiarton Echo reported Wiarton was enveloped in wild fire smoke so dense as to be almost suffocating. Out on Georgian Bay the Norcross was forced to turn back.

The Owen Sound Advertiser said on Sept. 13 that Lake Huron was covered with the bodies of thousands of birds smothered by the heavy smoke.

When historian Bruce Krug interviewed Stuart Robertson of Lucknow in 1965, Stuart recalled the smoke from the 1881 fires. “My father was sowing fall wheat and it became so dark that he couldn’t see the wheat track to sow the wheat. There was a lady living nearby and she had no timepiece. With the darkness she did not think it was time to get up and when they informed her of the smoke she became frightened and thought the end of the world had come—so she carried her furniture out of the house.”

Gordon Hepburn remembers all too well the Bruce Peninsula bush fire of August 1908. As he wrote in the 1969 Yearbook of the Bruce County Historical Society, though he was five years old at the time it was forever “emblazoned on my mind”.

A fire started at the Eastnor Swamp in the slash left from winter timbering operations. A hot summer breeze drove the fire toward the Hepburn home five miles east of Hope Bay. Around 10 a.m. they noticed a rising column of smoke which quickly rolled over the whole of the western horizon. “Our parents realized this was going to be a bad fire and began to make hasty preparations to fight it and save what they could. The men rushed to remove portions of log and rail fences close to our buildings, got all animals and persons out of those structures, readied containers of water and instructed all the children to stay in one specified spot with our mother and older sister in the yard.”

At about 11 a.m. their home became engulfed in an acrid pall of blinding smoke and they could feel the heat. “Our mother put wetted cloths over our faces and had us lie flat on the ground in the dooryard. We could hear timber crashing, occasionally a frenzied animal rushing madly by in the smoke. As the heat and smoke increased until it was almost unbearable, with embers falling around, firing our clothes at times, we began to have difficulty in breathing.”

Many animals, while running in the smoke, had plunged over the escarpment, to die on the rocks below.

The children would often step in hot embers as they rushed over burned areas in bare feet. Before putting them to bed their mother would rub their blistered feet with grease.

Lynn Watson of Tobermory recalled how his grandmother, Martha Watson, survived the great fire of ’08. She was living in a lumber and fishing camp at Johnston’s Harbour on Lake Huron when the fire started. They escaped onto Lake Huron in a wooden fishing boat with four-year-old Louis and two-year-old Myra and some supplies. The smoke was so thick it was difficult to breathe, so they soaked blankets in water and covered the children. They couldn’t venture far from land, as sudden winds could swamp their overloaded boat. Martha saw deer, bears, foxes and wolves outrunning the fire, jumping into the water and swimming out to rocky points of land. It took two days before it cooled down enough to return to land.

Gordon Hepburn told Bruce Krug of a big forest fire in 1912 which started in the Eastnor Swamp and spread eastward. In the whole of July he couldn’t see the Hope Bay schoolhouse because of the smoke, though it was only a short distance from the farm. At night it never got dark because of the glow in the sky from the fires. During the day the sun appeared as a copper disc. A layer of soot and ashes kept falling on everything. Afterward the ground was bare rock—not even any moss left.


by Robin Hilborn
for the Bruce County Historical Society