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The Burnt Lands Part 3 – The Great Fire of 1870

The Burnt Lands Part 3 – The Great Fire of 1870
The Ottawa Citizen
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
07 Dec 1929, Sat  •  Page 2

Some nights I go to bed and worry about the Burnt Lands. Not much I can do personally, but I can keep people aware. It really needs to be protected better, and respected.

Burnt Lands Road is named for a fire that swept through the area more than a century ago. The road is on an alvar, a flat landscape also known as a limestone pavement, where soil is thin or non-existent. It is part of a rare and fragile ecosystem. Ottawa Gatineau Geo- heritage calls it “an outstanding example of this globally significant habitat.” The cracked and fractured limestone is dotted with stands of cedar, spruce, balsam fir and poplars. It supports some 82 breeding bird species, 48 butterfly species and 98 owlet moths and is home to a globally rare orchid called the ram’s head lady’s slipper. Some of the alvar is on private land. About 610 hectares of it has been designated an Area of Natural and Scientific Interest by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.

In 1986 Pat Taylorosa had a passion for the history and shapes of rocks returned to university to complete a study on the Burnt Lands of Almonte, an area famous for it’s great fire of 1870 and it’s many rare and unusual species of plants. Mrs Taylor, the mother of two young children, has a love o f geology that knows no bounds. Recently, she sat in her living room with the floor covered in geological maps and books, explaining the interesting facets of Almonte’s Burnt Lands. “The Great Fire ” of 1870 started at Pitch Hill, a few miles from Almonte and swept along throughout Huntley and March townships, consuming a great part of Carleton county.

Mr. Currie told how the combination of wind and fire, when it hit a tamarack swamp at Stittsville, threw whole trees into the air, with ashes and living flames hurled far and wide. read- CLICK HERE

The line cedar log fences for which the area was noted, acted as conductors. According to a report in an Ottawa paper of the day “ it was said that no horse could gallop as fast as those flames spread along the fences.” The air was on fire, presumably from combustible gasses gathered during the sweltering heat of the preceding weeks.

According to the information, people hid anywhere they could to escape the ravages of the flames. Hundreds spent the night submerged in the river at Bells Corners, which was the focus of the fire. It was said that people could read by the light 50 miles away, and the smoke was seen in upper New York state. About a dozen human lives were lost and a great deal of livestock.

After the fire The Almonte Gazette reported that a cow could be bought for four dollars, because there was not a trace of feed or grazing space left. Fires had been prevalent all that summer, and The Gazette didn’t report this one until a week later when it listed names of people and the losses they had suffered. The area was ripe for fire because of its topography; a thin layer of soil overlying limestone “ pavement” at the highest point on the landscape. This resulted in excellent drainage which left the plateau bone dry as the summer passed, it was August at the time of the fire, and the bush was like tinder. It was a natural for such a great fire.

Today, little has changed in the Burnt Lands area anymore, as farming is not possible with the thin layer of soil, but the trees still grow —-notably white pine, white cedar and white spruce. The Burnt Lands, like all of this area up to the Mississippi River was under the Champlain Sea until about 12,000 years ago, and according to Mrs Taylor, this accounts for the line of gravel pits extending along the edge o f Ramsay Township. These were beaches at one time: In these areas and in similar sand deposits are being discovered whale and seal bones and seashells. By 1870, of course, the sea had receded to it’s present location. ( read- Whale Sightings in Pakenham and Smiths Falls – Holy SeaWorld! and – Whale Sightings Outside Smiths Falls– Part 2)

The Burnt Lands has long been recognized as having a unique assemblage of plant life divided among the three types of habitat on the plateau. The areas mosaic the plateau. Communities of low pasture grass, open coniferous forests and bare limestone pavement are the most noticeable.


The grassy meadows are perhaps the most interesting, according to Mrs. Taylor Richardson Philadelphia Witchgrass and dropseed which are found here are considered to be rare in the province of Ontario. In the early summer can be found the showy yellow balsam ragwort and later on the white flowers of the Uplant white aster can be spotted.

The limestone pavement habitat looks just as it sounds, with flat bare rock patches edged with mosses and miniature plants growing in the soil trapped in cracks. Here is found in spring the Early Saxifrage, which only lives for a day. Later, the tiny Rock Sandwort and attractive blue Harebell can be spotted.

Later on in the summer are many of the showy flowers called Hairy Beardtongue and the lovely blue Fringed Gentian. The open evergreen forests also have their share of rare and unusual plants with equally intriguing names. In May is the, rarely found in Canada, exotic, Ramshead Lady-slipper orchid and the showy red columbine. Pink gaywings and another orchid, the yellow lady-slipper can be found along with the hairy honey suckle and the rare Cooper’s Milkvetch which is known in Latin as “neglected star galaxy” (rough translation).

The area is a suitable habitat for small mammals and even some deer and is especially accessible for hiking.

With files from the Almonte Gazette 1985.

The Gazette didn’t report this one until a week later when it listed names of people and the losses they had suffered.
All Clippings ==August 1870– Almonte Gazette

Lanark County Hand Typed Notes –Burnt Lands

The Drought of 1871 and the Mills on the Mississippi River

How Many Stitts of Stittsville Remain?

The Bush Fires of 1870 Perth Courier — Names Names and more Names of the Past

What Do You Know About the Burnt Lands?

Ottawa Valley’s Great Fire of 1870


Part 1, Making Land

Also read–

Whale Sightings in Pakenham and Smiths Falls – Holy SeaWorld!

Whale Sightings Outside Smiths Falls– Part 2

The Mystery of the Masonic Rock – Pakenham

Lanark County Hand Typed Notes –Burnt Lands

Lanark County Hand Typed Notes –Burnt Lands


The Burnt Lands are more than a local curiosity. They are a textbook example of an alvar, a mosaic of open forests, meadows and boggy patches on a limestone plain. The variety of ecosystems is maintained by drought because what little soil forms on the rock flats tends to burn off in the summer heat. There aren’t many alvars on the planet. They exist in Norway, a few American states and Ontario.
The Burnt Lands alvar is the province’s largest. It is also home to a variety of rare significant plants and insects, including owlet moths. Most of the land in the alvar is owned by private citizens, many of whom have built houses. Other landowners include the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources, the Department of National Defence and two quarries. Several years ago, the Ministry of Natural Resources designated the Burnt Lands an area of natural and scientific interest. In an effort to protect it, ministry officials want development limits on alvar property incorporated into Ramsay Township’s revised official plan.

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Christine Macfarlane—This is a pic of Hal Kirkland before he left for war.

The Big Fire That Created

The Burnt Lands in Huntley

(Written by Hal Kirkland in 1964) Hal Kirkland –A Machine for Making Money

            We all know what the Burnt Lands look like now; we see the  barren, desolate stretches, bare  rock and stunted trees when we travel over Highway 44. Time has healed the dreadful burning of the land, but the scars still remain – after more than ninety years.

            Ninety years is a long time to go back for first hand knowledge of an event-too long-as this writer well realizes now. He should have started asking about the Big Fire sooner-forty or fifty years sooner. It was on the 17th of August, 1870, that the fire swept across Huntley Township. Even with the evidence on both sides as we drive on Highway 44, it is impossible to picture the devastation that would strike the eye of a traveller crossing  Huntley in the fall of 1870. Only from the faded pages of old newspapers can we get any idea of the loss and suffering caused by that terrible fire. There are no eye witnesses now.

            About a year ago I visited a dear old lady, but old lady in the sense that the years of her age were many. She had just celebrated her 100th birthday. She was born on St. Patrick’s Day in the year 1863. The fire crossed Fitzroy Township where her parents farmed and probably passed not far from her home. Yes, she had heard them talk about the fire. “But I guess I wasn’t much interested,” she said. “You see, I was only a small girl of six or seven then. I was too busy playing and going to school, to be bothered about the fire.” Had she, by chance, any old pictures? “Yes, I have. I’ll get them and show them to you.” She went to another room found them and brought them back in a minute. They were pictures taken on her wedding day. Ah, Mrs. Green had not dwelt on fires and disasters.

            There was never a drought in Ontario like that of 1870, and thank goodness, never since. For many weeks before harvest not a drop of rain had fallen. The fields were parched: the woods were tinder-dry and the leaves were withering on the trees; the swamps were drained of moisture. The cedar log fences were hot with the sun, and also the barns and stables. People felt that even the air was filled with combustible gases. The smallest spark could in a few seconds start a raging blaze. The summer days passed and no rain came.

            It was the same all over Eastern Ontario. In every issue of The Almonte Gazette during these months there were reports of the dire distress caused by wide-spread fires. In the issue of July 30 there was this item: the long spell of dry weather has proved disastrous to many farmers in Ramsay and neighboring townships by the prevalence of fire in the woods, which already has done incalculable damage. Near Bennie’s Corners, a fire has raged for several days and destroyed valuable timber, fences and growing crops. The heaviest, sufferer is Mr. William Philip whose buildings at the Corners were threatened. We have heard of these and other fires, but could not ascertain extent of damage in any particular instance; it must, however, be considerable.”

            Mr. Templeman, the editor of The Gazette at that time, did not give the fires a very big play in his paper. There was more about the Franco-Prussian war (the Prussians were crossing the frontier and advancing on Paris, and about Louis Riel in Manitoba). Also there was a serial running in these issues – A Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Of course Mr. Templeman did not have the instant communications of our day, and his readers were more dependent on their local paper for news of the outside world.

            In the Aug. 20 issue, there was a paragraph headed “Fire at Stittsville,” with this story: “It is reported in Almonte that Stittsville, a small place about 12 miles below Ashton was completely burned up on Thursday not a house having been left standing.”

            In the same issue there appeared another story of the fire which was titled “Bell’s Corners Burned.” It reads: “We learn that the village of Bell’s Corners, near Ottawa, has been wholly consumed by fire, and that several people were burned to death. The new depot of the Canada Central Railway was also destroyed. We can give no  further particulars in this issue.”

            The editor must have been hampered considerably in getting news from distant and out-of-the-way places like Bell’s Corners and Stittsville, because in the same issue we read: “The high wind on Wednesday, assisted we suppose by the fires in our country, interrupted our telegraphic communication with Ottawa for a time.”

            Incidentally, the whole front page of these issues was taken up by the weekly instalment of “A Woman in White.”

            But to get closer to home. In the next issue The Gazette reports: “At Clayton the people were in great alarm, owing to the close proximity of fire in the woods, many of them having removed their furniture to be ready for instant flight. One man near Clayton, named Hogan, had his house and barns burned and lost everything.” This was serious enough, but it was not nearly as bad as the fire that raged over the concessions north-east of our town.

            This was the fire that passed perilously close to Almonte, and is still spoken of by the people in Huntley as The Big Fire. It is now no more than the name of an event that happened a long time ago; the grim details have been lost over the years. But this much we know: that there was still smouldering moss on the floor of swamps and that there were still live embers in partially burned logs in the woods; in a wind a spark could start a conflagration.

            The fire started somewhere to the north-west, around Pakenham. On that 17th day of August a wind came up. It increased in velocity; it apparently rose to hurricane proportion. The smouldering top-soil and charred logs remaining from previous small fires were soon fanned to flames; the windstorm swept the flames across Fitzroy, Huntley and Goulbourn townships. On the afternoon of the 17th the country over which Highway 44 crosses was a charred desert covered with a pall of dense smoke. It swept eastward toward Stittsville and the next morning had burned the dwelling and buildings of Mr. Graham at Graham’s Bay. It was reported that the fire advanced at a speed of more than two miles an hour.

            The loss was terrible. Most deplorable and sad was the loss of human life. It is believed twelve human ‘beings perished in the fire. A mother and her children sought safety in a swamp and became separated, the mother and one child perished, the other children survived.

            Mrs. Patrick Egan, who lived on the 9th concession line of Huntley, took her year-old twins up on a bare hill to escape the fire. Providentially, the wind changed direction, the fire bypassed the Egan farm, and the mother and children were unharmed. This mother was Father Egan’s grandmother.

            Here and there some houses and outbuildings were saved, but the destruction was, in most places, complete. Homes and barns were burned to the ground; the crops were either consumed by the flames or rendered useless; the scorched carcasses of horses, sheep and cattle lay where they perished from suffocation and heat. Those that survived wandered aimlessly over the black land. A cow could be purchased for four dollars. The owners had no food for them. The log fences were obliterated.

            On August 27th, The Gazette carried a story of the fire, with a credit to the “Times,, (which I presume was an Ottawa paper) which concluded with this helpful note: “On account of the sweeping destruction of fencing and building material in some localities it would appear as if the farmers shall have to carry on their farming operations on the joint principle adopted by the earliest Puritan Settlers in the New England States.”

            About a month after the fire, on September 24th, there was this short item: “The Ottawa Free Press says that fires are again blazing up throughout different parts of the country and although, as a general thing, is no danger to be apprehended, still there are some places that are not yet safe, until there is another heavy fall of rain.”

            In the September number of “The Country Gentleman” there was a letter from a Mr. Conner of Rowlandville, situated near the left bank of the Susquehanna, eleven miles above the head of Chesapeake Bay. He wrote: “The smoke was so thick here for some days after August 20 that the sun was partially obscured and objects at a mile distant almost entirely so. The burnt smoke smell was quite strong.

            Ottawa, around which the great fire raged is 300 miles from here.  Looking over the papers last week I find that fires 50 by 12 miles in extent were raging were around Ottawa. On this day a terrific gale occurred – direction not given. Smoke appeared here at dawn on August 21.” So the Big Fire was noted by a man living 360 miles away.

            How was fire noted in Almonte, only a few miles away? No one ever chronicled it, as far as this writer knows. Perhaps it was too close.

            But at least there was one man in Almonte who was concerned. He was Mr. Pat Reilly, the proprietor of the British Hotel, who later built the Windsor House, now occupied by the North Lanark Co-op. Mr. Reilly hired a team of driving horses and a carriage which could accommodate 10 to 12 men. He gathered up spades and shovels filled the carriage with men from town and set out for the scene of the fire, by the Long Swamp road. They arrived at the farm house of Hugh Kennedy between the twelfth and eleventh lines of Huntley, which appeared to be threatened by fire. They dug a fire-guard west of the buildings, but fortunately the fire passed on the far side of the 11th line.

            The foregoing was told to me by Mr. Edward Kennedy. Of course, this all happened before Mr. Kennedy was born, but he remembers his older brother Hugh telling him about being posted on the roof of the stable with a churn full of water to extinguish flying embers and sparks which might alight on the roof.

            Truly, any information that can be gleaned about that fire is meager indeed. To the people of Fitzroy, Huntley and Goulbourn Townships that disastrous conflagration is still spoken of as The Big Fire…


Fires in the Woods
Considerable damage has been done to woods, fences and pastures in the eastern part of the Township of Drummond by fires. Scores of men were out fighting the devouring element until the late shower stemmed the progress of the fire, and prevented any serious damage being done. The only wonder is that with such dry weather as this, there are not more and greater fires in the woods and swamps.


What Do You Know About the Burnt Lands?

Hand Typed Notes Ramsay Township

Sutherland Genealogy– Ramsay Township Looking for GEORGINA

PATERSON Families of Ramsay Township

The Moir Family of Ramsay Township

Almonte and Ramsay Pioneers – Rafted Down to Their Locations

Tidbits About Ramsay S.S. #9 The Tannery School

Women of Ramsay – Spindles and Flyers–Sarah Ann

Ramsay 1927 — The Depression

  1. The McArton’s of Ramsay

  2. Some Cold Hard Facts- First Tailor in Ramsay and a Cow Without a Bell

  3. Ramsay Settlers 101

  4. What is the Biggest Change in Your Lifetime? Ramsay 1979

  5. Hand Typed Almonte History Notations Part 2

  6. Hand Typed Almonte History Notations Part 1

What Do You Know About the Burnt Lands?




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.