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A Scourge of Fire, Victoria County, Ontario Canada

A beneficent catastrophe overtook Lindsay on July 5, 18 61. An election had just been held, and the town was thronged with visitors, waiting to hear and celebrate the official announcement of the returning officer. About 11.30 a.m., when it had just been announced that James W. Dunsford (Liberal) had vanquished John Cameron (Conservative), a fire was noticed in a small frame house on the south side of Ridout Street, about where Dr. Blanchard's residence now stands. It has always been supposed that the owner of the house, who had put up the building but could only rent the land, set the place on fire as the climax to a quarrel with his landlord.

A south wind rose with the fire and swept the flames from building to building. Both sides of Kent Street west to William were soon in ashes and all buildings between Kent and Peel streets destroyed except one little log cabin. owned by a widow named Murphy, on the southeast corner of Peel and William streets. Farther east, the flames licked up Fournier's Hotel (on the present Cain site), the grist and saw mills, and all adjacent buildings, leaped across the river by way of the bridge, and consumed Brown's Alma Hotel and the Part Hope and Lindsay Railway station.

By 3.30 in the afternoon the fire had burnt itself out. The area destroyed was, roughly speaking, bounded by Russell, William, Peel, Queen, Caroline, and St. Lawrence streets. Four hotels, two mills, the post office and customs office, and 83 other buildings lay in charred ruins, and about 400 people were without shelter. No lives were lost, but the loss of personal property was in most cases complete, for fire insurance was still only in its infancy.

Distress was great, though much food and clothing was supplied by unharmed citizens and farmers in the country near at hand, and for several days the trains from Port Hope were besieged by refugees seeking bread. The west side of Cambridge Street, between Peel and Wellington, was then a common and many camped here for weeks, at first shelterless and later in tents.

Although ruinous to the individual, the fire was a blessing in disguise to the town as a whole. Disaster seemed only to stimulate courage, and steps were at once taken to erect fine brick stores in place of the wooden buildings which had been swept away. A brick yard had been begun five years before on the farm of Frank Curtin, lot 15, Con. V, a mile south of the town, and the proximity of such building material made these ambitious projects possible. Within a year. the Britton block, Funk's Hotel (McConnell's), the eastern half of the Keenan block (four stores and an hotel), and the Bigelow (Spratt and Killen's, and McBride's), Wilson (Kennedy), Wright (Armstrong and Forbert), Knowlson (Gregory and adjacent stores), McLennan, and Baker (Adams) blocks were completed. Nearly all were handsome three story brick buildings, remarkable in their day and environment, and still a credit to the town. The fire was thus the making of the town.

Further Threats of Fire

Never again was the town destroyed by fire, but there have been occasions when destruction seemed very close at hand.

In August, 1881, a phenomenal drought scorched and blistered the whole of Ontario, and for days the thermometer ranged from 95 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. Fires broke out in Victoria county on August 30th, and swept across the countryside before a west wind. Forests, crops, fences, and farm buildings were consumed. Railroad bridges were burned away and the rails twisted out of shape. The Long Swamp west of Lindsay was ravaged; towering clouds of ashes, smoke, and dust brought darkness and suffocation to the town; and a band of fire fighters battled all day long on the 31st against a wave of flame that licked hungrily around the western boundary. At 6.00 p.m. on September 1st, a torrential rain brought this fiery chapter to a close. Most of the county had been wiped out, and the following year saw a huge emigration of farmers to Manitoba, Dakota, and other western areas.

A similar season of fire came in September 1887, bat as no fuel had been left in South Victoria by the holocaust of 1881, the blaze was confined to the northern townships. An impenetrable pall of smoke lay over the whole countryside, however. Even in Lindsay visibility was limited to a few feet, eyes were tortured, and ashes fell like snow.

Some of the more serious local small fires during the past fifty years have been the following: The Doheny block, northwest corner of William and Kent, 1875, loss $35,000; Parkin's sawmill, 1882, 1884, 1886, and 1892; the Scugog Paper Company's mill, 1886, loss $75,000; the McDonnell block, southwest corner of William and Kent, 1888 ,loss $16,500; the Flavelle warehouses, East Ward, 1888, loss $28,000; Peel Street, in rear of the Elsmure block, 1902, loss $25,000; the Kennedy and Davis sawmill, 1907, loss $13,000; the Carew sawmill, 1908, loss $14,000.

Town of Lindsay

Victoria County


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