The Great Fire of 1870, or how Dow’s Lake saved Ottawa

by Sue Stefko

2 1870 fire dows lake and st louis dam 1887 map_RGB
The St. Louis dam, named after Jean-Baptiste St. Louis, helped create what is today Dow’s Lake. During canal construction 1826–1832, the Great Embankment was built at the south, and the St. Louis Embankment at the north, containing the waters in the basin and draining the notorious Great Dow’s Swamp that stretched four miles between the Rideau and Ottawa rivers. Surveyor John McTaggart described the area as a muddy, malaria-infested swamp and “one of the most dismal places in the wilderness” before being transformed into the 20-foot deep Dow’s Lake. By damming the swamp, the area that is now Little Italy was drained and able to be developed. Source: Map of the City of Ottawa and the City of Hull, compiled by John A. Snow and Son, 1887.

When the people of Ottawa reflect upon the great fire, the vast majority think of the 1900 fire that started in Hull and tore through Lebreton Flats down to Dow’s Lake. However, many people do not realize that an earlier, much larger fire, the Ottawa Valley’s Great Fire of 1870, came upon Ottawa’s doorstep, threatening much the same area. In fact, that earlier fire came up to the borders of what is now the Glebe Annex, and without some quick action (and luck), much of the city of Ottawa would have been destroyed.

Workers who were burning brush from the Central Canada Railroad line near Almonte started the fire on August 17, 1870. With the region parched and dry after no rain for four months and gusts of wind fanning the flames, the fire quickly grew out of control. The winds soon increased to 100 miles per hour, relentlessly spreading the fire in all directions. Hundreds ran for their lives to either the Mississippi River or the Ottawa River, while some tried to hide in their wells. Those who couldn’t reach bodies of water fast enough dug trenches in their fields, covered themselves with dirt and wet blankets and hoped for the best.

Most of those in Ottawa felt fairly safe compared to the plight of their agrarian neighbours due to both distance and the city’s acquisition of a new steam fire engine, “the Conqueror,” but that was soon to change. Signs that the fire was drawing closer became apparent when two thousand “refugees” from the fire streamed into the city the morning of August 19. Later that day, the sky grew dark, thick and acrid with smoke. Street lamps had to be lit in the middle of the day. Dust and ash pummelled buildings in a howling wind that people could barely stand up in.

A courier interrupted a City Council meeting to tell them that a “typhoon of flame” was obliterating Carleton County and had reached Rochesterville (today’s Little Italy), within a mile of Ottawa itself. Emergency measures were put in place and cries of “Fire, fire, fire” quickly spread across Sparks Street, church bells rang, businesses were closed and all “able-bodied men,” including the local militia, were drafted to fight the fire.

The front line of fighting the fire went south from the Chaudière Mill to Mount Sherwood, along Bell Street. Although the efforts of thousands of people fighting the blaze all night were important in holding the fire at bay, it was the waters of Dow’s Lake that were pivotal in helping the city escape the fire. Although reports as to who ordered the opening of the St. Louis Dam at the north end of Dow’s Lake vary, the order was passed. Mill workers hastily dug a channel through the dam, allowing a deluge of water to flow along the depression of what used to be the northern part of Dow’s Great Swamp, which spread two and a half miles between Dow’s Lake and the Ottawa River. The flow of water was immense. It centered on Preston Street, and was approximately 900 feet (more than 270 metres) wide, creating a moat to separate the city from the ravages of the fire. And there are stories of those who had to swim across what is now Booth Street for safety.

2 1870 fire extent of fire_GRAY
Final extent of the fire, September 24, 1870. The area was huge, encompassing 3,000 farms and 125,000 acres. Source: Terence M. Currie’s The Ottawa Valley’s Great Fire of 1870 (with permission) Photos: City of Ottawa Archives/2011.0032.1

These efforts, as well as a lessening of the winds and their change of direction, helped save the city. While Ottawa itself was spared, the fire devastated much of the region from the Rideau Lakes in the south, as far north as Wakefield, Quebec, and Arnprior to the west. All in all, the fire devastated several hundred square miles (more than 125,000 acres). An estimated 20 people died and entire herds of livestock were killed in the blaze. The entire town of Stittsville was decimated and only two buildings were left standing in Bell’s Corners.

It took another month and sustained rains in late September to finally quell the blaze. Even that following winter, people saw wisps of smoke coming from the ground in many of the scorched areas, signs that the fire was still alive under the ground, likely burning tree roots.

The fire served as a warning to many as for 20 years prior various groups had been sounding the alarm, calling for the removal of the huge piles of lumber along the Ottawa River. The Ottawa Free Press estimated that four square miles of lumber were stacked in Ottawa and Hull, posing a huge fire hazard. Unfortunately, the city’s richest and most influential were the “lumber kings” who owned those piles of wood and the warning was not heeded due to their political influence. Those huge piles of wood, almost disastrous in the 1870 fire, were indeed much of the fuel that fed the fire in the disastrous Great Fire of 1900 and again in Ottawa’s second Great Fire of 1904.

Sue Stefko is president of the Glebe Annex Community Association.

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