On Tuesday, July 11, 1911, the Porcupine Camp felt the breath of hell.
In the hurry to wrest the riches of gold and silver from the virgin soil of the pine forests of Northwestern Ontario, little thought was given to fire breaks. Nor did anyone think about properly clearing the land around the mines and settlements skirting the edges of Porcupine Lake. Any trees not used in the construction of buildings, bridges, and roads, stayed where they fell. Stumps studded the landscape like five o’clock shadow.
The winter had been mild with little snow. The bush baked tinder-dry in the heat of one of the hottest summers recorded in Canadian history. High winds fed every spark, however innocent. Ignoring the danger, settlers set fires to clear their land. That, coupled with natural events, cost the residents of the area dearly. The Hollinger Mine dissolved in flames. Dome Extension burned, as did other mines. Burgeoning townsites: Gold City, Pottsville, South Porcupine, were threatened and bucket brigades kept busy staving off what had become an obscenely normal part of life.
The devil’s breath grew warmer.
The weatherman forecasted high winds for July 11. Under normal circumstances, a breeze on these hot days was embraced like a long lost lover. However, this “breeze” quickened to a 70 mile an hour gale. The lake took on whitecaps, more trees fell, and once isolated fires joined hands to form a horseshoe around the lake. It took only 20 minutes for the flames to engulf South Porcupine.
Porcupine Lake became an obvious place of refuge and soon the shallower waters were dotted with people. In deeper water, horses harnessed to their wagons and anything that could float, battled against the fierce winds. One banker loaded the assets of the vault into a canoe and headed for the middle of the lake. The force of the wind on the water made standing difficult and several people, exhausted by the struggle, quietly disappeared. Prospectors, miners, lumbermen, and settlers, all pitched in to fight the flames. In some places, firefighters were forced to retreat, overwhelmed by 150-foot flames.
Only after the fire did the terrible and heroic stories of death and survival come to light. A man by the name of Weiss realized that he couldn’t save his property. He hurried his family and 17 others into a mineshaft to escape the flames, lowering them down in a bucket. The shaft was fairly new and not very deep. When the fire passed over, it pulled the air out the shaft. All of those below died of asphyxiation.
However, hell had yet a hotter breath to blow.
The Temiskaming & Northern Ontario Railway provided a lifeline to feed the booming gold fields of the north. As the fire approached, every train headed south away from the danger. One lone boxcar stayed on a siding. Unfortunately, this was filled with dynamite, some 350 cases of high explosive. The irresistible met the immoveable and the effects were devastating. The blast obliterated everything for 300 feet around, further churned up the lake where people had sought shelter, blew out windows 2 miles away, and dug a crater 15 feet deep and 47 feet wide. As the saying goes, there is no ill wind that doesn’t blow someone some good. The blast also disturbed an underground spring, filling the crater with water that would serve the survivors well in the following days.
The Great Fire of 1911 took five hours to destroy two towns, eleven mines, and take at least 73 lives. Only God knows how many prospectors, alone and isolated, also died out in the bush, their bodies providing fertilizer for the spruce, cedar, birch, and jack pine soon to rise out of the ashes.
One of the few physical reminders of this catastrophic event in the Porcupine Camp’s early history is a blob of metal on display at the local Museum. It takes a bit of faith to believe that this lump was once seven silver coins that had melted and fused together. Since silver melts at 961.93 degrees Celsius, or 1,762 Fahrenheit, it’s easy to gauge just how hot it got that day.
The lust for gold willed a speedy recovery. Decades later, when the veins petered out and wealth had been made and lost, the true gold of which a real northerner is made, remained. The blood of the pioneers who once faced hell to make a home continues to flow in the Porcupine Camp.
Shunia is an Indian word for “gold”
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