The Bruce Peninsula Bush Fire of 1908 – Part 1

From The Bruce County Historical Society Yearbook 1969, Pages 20 – 25
Adapted by Bob Johnston from the original article written by Gordon F. Hepburn

I am going to try to write the story from memory. I was five years old and the memory of this fire with all its terror was so clearly emblazoned on my mind that even yet I can recall the picture in all its frightening horror and destruction.

The fire burned across half of Amabel and St.Edmund Townships and surrounding areas of the Peninsula. It came in from the west, starting near the Lake Huron shore and crossed to the waters of Georgian Bay, lying to the east. I will recall it as it was experienced by my family, one of many others who suffered the losses, dangers and setbacks which were to befall this area.

Perhaps at this point it would be well to recall the Bruce Peninsula of 1908. There was no centre road where Highway 6 is today. There was one road up the Lake Huron side and one up the Georgian Bay side, each starting at Wiarton. There were no cars then, all transportation on land being by horse-drawn vehicle. The bush for many miles of these roadways grew right up to the graveled portion, in many places forming a canopy over the head of the traveller.

Much of the clearing of land was taking place in the large Eastnor Township swamp about five miles west of our home. The bush areas, having been the scene of winter timbering operations each year, had acquired extensive coverings of dried and rotting brush on the forest floor. This became the fodder to lead and carry this fire. Thus, in August, 1908, after a prolonged period of heat and with a summer breeze freshening from the west, the fire began at the Eastnor swamp’s perimeter. At about ten o`clock in the forenoon, we noticed a rising column of smoke which quickly rolled over the whole of the western horizon.

Our parents realized this was going to be a bad fire and began to make hasty preparations to fight it and save what they could. The men rushed to remove portions of log and rail fences close to our buildings, got all animals and persons out of those structures, readied containers of water and instructed all the children to stay in one specified spot with our mother and older sister in the yard.

At about eleven o`clock the smoke began to reach us, soon blotting out the sky and surrounding bush. This was the beginning of the frightening part of the fire now bearing down on us. The sun began to fade and even it seemed now to be deserting us. Our home and the Bruce Peninsula was our whole world and it was being swallowed up and engulfed in an acrid pall of blinding smoke. The heat from this fire began to reach us. 

The Bruce Peninsula Bush Fire of 1908 – Part 2

From The Bruce County Historical Society Yearbook 1969, Pages 20 – 25
Adapted by Bob Johnston from the original article written by Gordon F. Hepburn

I am writing this story from memory. I was five years old. The fire burned across the northerly half of Amabel Township, Albemarle, Eastnor, Lindsay, and the southerly half of St. Edmund Townships. It came from the west, starting near the Lake Huron shore and crossed to the waters of Georgian Bay. It was a hot, dry August day in 1908.

At about 11 o’clock on that morning, the smoke began to reach our farm, blotting out the bush and the sky. Our mother put wetted cloths over our faces and had us lie flat on the ground in the dooryard. We could hear timber crashing, occasionally a frenzied animal rushing madly by in the smoke. All this added to the sense of impending doom. As the heat and smoke increased until it was almost unbearable, with embers falling around, firing our clothes at times, with the ground covered with ash as a light snowfall, we began to have difficulty in breathing.

At this time a very peculiar happening took place, a freak of nature or what you will. A wave of cold air rose off the Georgian Bay, confronted the wall of fire to the west of us and rolled back the heat and smoke. As I look back to that day, it seems as if that breeze might have saved us. Soon after, the heat and smoke came down again and closed us in, but with less intensity. Shortly after this, the fire crowned over us, leaping forward as in an explosion, travelling over the clearing and catching on to the bush beyond to the east, racing toward Georgian Bay.

Now to view the damage—the loss of most of the fences, many haystacks, some buildings, many animals, and most serious, the loss of pasture for the surviving animals. Even the birds were scarce for several years after. With fences gone, grain and root crops so much needed for the winter, had to be protected from starving, roaming animals. I can remember, even at my age, having to herd our own animals, fire-driven strays and wild animals. At all costs, they must not be allowed to destroy the fodder, which would be in short supply for the coming winter.

Often we would step in hot embers as we rushed over burned areas. Our bare feet would be blistered and our mother, before putting us to bed, would rub them with grease. There were lost animals to hunt and bring home. Many animals, while running in the smoke, had plunged over the cliffs, to die on the rocks below. Now we had to prepare for winter. 

The Bruce Peninsula Bush Fire of 1908 – Conclusion

From The Bruce County Historical Society Yearbook 1969, Pages 20 – 25
Adapted by Bob Johnston from the original article written by Gordon F. Hepburn

After the devastation caused by the fire, we now had to prepare for winter with what we had, by saving and storing every bit of feed we could find. The cows would have to be fed as whatever diminished flow of milk they could produce would have to provide our winter food and income. The first winter after the fire, we took the cattle to the bush and cut down saplings which had escaped being burned in some secluded glen. They browsed on the fine twigs of these to assist the pressing shortage.

Spring came at last. Everyone hoped green pasture would grow up over the burned area, but this was not to be. Instead, there came a full cover crop of nothing but mulleins. These, the animals could not eat. The result was a very lean period for animals and people. That summer we had to grow large garden crops, which we children hoed from morning til night, it seemed.

Winter passed and a second spring rolled around. Great hopes for a crop of pasture were again doomed as in the place of the mulleins, came a complete crop of Canada thistles. Cattle could eat these only when the plants were very young. So passed another summer of hoeing and a bit of fence-building.

The third spring following the fire! But this was the greatest spring ever. No mulleins, no thistles, but in their place and equally dense was a crop of red raspberry bushes. These, the animals ate to their heart’s content and finally rounded out in flesh. We children picked enough for mother to preserve two hundred quarts in large sealers to store in the basement.

Now we could see the whole picture of recovery unfold. Nature, with her crop of mulleins, thistles and berry bushes, had been busy nurturing and protecting a new crop under the cover of these. Under this cover, in the fourth spring, came countless numbers of little baby trees of many species, some of which have since been cut to lumber. We now see the great waste of burned ashes and bare rock taking on new green life. So I say to all as you move into your Bruce place in the sun, please be careful with any fire in your care.

I leave two friends of mine, which I shall not soon forget; the trees I have seen born to life and Georgian Bay, which at that critical moment, literally rose up and spat in the face of the hot fire. Truly friends indeed!

Contributions by