According to the Millstone Burnt Lands is just a scrubby, bare piece of land on which there had been some fires in the past. Well imagine our surprise when we found out that our (Yes, our) Burnt Lands was in fact an Alvar – and a global (Yes, global) rarity to boot.
What’s an alvar? They are naturally open areas of thin soil lying over flat limestone or dolostone. The vegetation is generally sparse and is usually dominated by shrubt know about yous and native herbaceous vegetation. Trees seldom grow in these habitats because of the restricted soil available and because of drought conditions during the growing season. When trees are present, they can be found in the deeper and wider cracks in the bedrock where soil has accumulated over time”.
I don’t know about you, but I had no idea about any of this. Time has healed the dreadful burning of that land–but the scar remains-even after all these years. It was on the 17th day of August in 1870 that fire swept across Huntley Township. It is hard to imagine the devastation, and there are surely no eye witnesses now.
There had never been a drought like there was that year in 1870. For weeks before the harvest not a drop of rain had fallen and the fields were parched and the woods were tinder dried. The cedar log fences were hot from the sun, and the summer days passed and no rain came.
In the Almonte Gazette small reports of dire distress caused by wildfires was scantily reported. The dry weather was disastrous to Ramsay and neighbouring townships. Another fire had raged near Bennie’s Corners destroying timber fences and growing crops.
The editor of the Almonte Gazette did not do the fires justice in his paper and printed more about the Franco-Prussian War and “The Woman in White” than feature articles on Stittsville and Bells Corners burning to the ground. In Clayton people were in alarm due to the close proximity of a fire in the woods and had moved all their furniture out of their homes ready to flee. This fire was serious enough, but nothing like the fire that raged over the concessions northeast of Almonte. One swept very close to Almonte- but there remained smouldering moss on the floors of the swamp, and one gentle sweep of the wind an ember could spark a new fire.
The Big Fire began somewhere to the northwest of Pakenham that day in August. The flames rose to hurricane force and made its presence known in Fitzroy, Huntley and Goulburn Townships. What had remained smouldering from the previous fires rose up with increasing winds and the country of which Highway 44 crosses became a charred desert. The fire was now advancing at two miles an hour and twelve people lost their lives, and the destruction in most places-complete.
It was chronicled far and wide but not in Almonte, and one has to wonder if the fire had just been too close, or too many telegraph lines burned to the ground. However, it was said one man in Almonte was concerned and that was Pat Reilly the owner of the British Hotel who later built the Windsor Hotel (co-op). He hired a team of horses filled with spades and shovels and along with a team of men made his way to the scene of the fire by Long Swamp Road. Those lads dug and cleared a fire-guard west of the buildings but sadly the fire turned and passed on the far side of the 11th line.
Now information is long lost–and this is all we know about the Big Fire of 1870.
August 20 1870 Almonte Gazette— page 2
The Fires: The topic of local interest at this time is that of the great amount of fires in every county. Reports of house and barns being burnt down in every direction. Besides immense injury to the woods, this county is in deplorable state and if we do not get rain, as soon we will be surely ruined. Horses and cattle are wandering in promiscuous flocks over the country, vainly seeking food where not even a green twig is to be seen. It is impossible to say how many farmers are irretrievably ruined, their houses, barns, farm implements, crops are destroyed; not food left them for a day, nor shelter of any description. What cattle have survived the fire must be either sold or killed. The fire has had so ruinous an effect even upon the wealthiest of farmers that four or five years hard and continuous labour will be necessary to repair the damage alone, as to retrieving the loss we are not over estimating the time required by putting it- at 20 years.
Fire at Stittsville
It has been reported in Stittsville a small place 12 miles below Ashton that it has been completely burned and not a house standing.
Bells Corners Burned
We learn that the village of Bells Corners near Ottawa has been consumed by fire and several people were burned to death. The new depot of the Canada Central Railroad was destroyed. We can give no further particulars in this issue.
Independent Directions to this Site: From Highway 417 (The Queensway) take exit 155 (March Road or Regional Road 49). Turn left or southwest onto March Road and follow it for 9.6 km to the entrance on the right or northwest to The Burnt Lands Alvar PNR – SE Block, less than a kilometre beyond Burnt Lands Road.
Mississippi River Valley Route Directions: From the junction of Old Almonte Road & Ramsey Concession 12, go northwest for 2.8 km on Ramsey Concession 12 to March Road or Regional 49. Turn right and drive northeast 1.8 km to the entrance on the left or northwest to The Burnt Lands Alvar PNR – SE Block.
Dave Rooney Someone who literally wrote the book on the Great Fire is former ADHS French teacher and football coach Terry Currie. His book is listed on Amazon.ca, but is unfortunately now out of print. One interesting point is that the Great Fire was more than just Huntley Township… it spread across the river into Québec, and reached as far as Dow’s Lake!
I also have a family connection to the fire in that my great-great-Grandfather James Rooney was still working his farm on the land that’s now at the corner of (ironically) Burnt Lands Road and March Road. I haven’t seen anything to indicate what happened at his farm, although we know he stayed there until the 1880’s when he moved into Almonte and lived with one of his sons.