June/July 2013

The Great Porcupine Fire

Timmins rises from the ashes

By Correy Baldwin

Residents pack boats and set off on Porcupine Lake to escape the flames of the Great Porcupine Fire | Toronto Star/Library and Archives Canada/PA-179598

The shores of Porcupine Lake, in northeastern Ontario, were a pristine wilderness at the turn of the 20th century. Early surveys had found evidence of gold, but the area was too inaccessible to generate much interest.

All that changed with the coming of the railway. In 1903, a line was built to the east of Porcupine Lake, allowing prospectors to survey deeper into the bush. Construction had just begun when railway workers discovered silver, and the resulting Cobalt Silver Rush brought even more prospectors to the region. A few began poking around Porcupine Lake, including Klondike veteran Reuben D’Aigle, who prospected the area in 1906 and 1907. He found only small amounts of gold though, and abandoned his tools in his last pit before leaving. However, this monumental misfortune would put D’Aigle in the history books: mere feet from his last pit lay a hidden gold vein that would become one of the three big discoveries to spark the Porcupine Gold Rush.

It began in the summer of 1909, when a former railway worker named Jack Wilson led a party of four to Porcupine Lake. That June, they came across a rocky outcrop of quartz, flecked with gold. They trenched around it, and in one night recovered 132 pounds of gold. They named the outcropping “the Dome,” and the rich vein that it held became the Dome Mine.

News of the discovery spread quickly, and prospectors already in the area raced to the Porcupine. One of these was former barber Benny Hollinger, who stumbled on D’Aigle’s abandoned pit – and on the gold vein that D’Aigle just barely missed. Hollinger and his partner staked 12 claims and flipped a coin to split them up. Hollinger sold his claims to Noah Timmins, a businessman who had invested in Cobalt’s silver mines. Soon after, Scotsman Sandy McIntyre staked four claims north of Hollinger’s and struck the McIntyre mine.

When the snow melted the next spring, the gold rush began. Thousands of people moved in, staking claims and working in the mines. A string of work camps sprung up along Porcupine Lake, as did several town sites – Golden City, Pottsville, South Porcupine, Tisdale – attracting businessmen and families.

The railway built a spur line to Golden City, though construction was delayed as railway workers kept abandoning their jobs for the riches of the gold fields. Eventually, the province sent a prison crew to finish the job and the line reached Golden City in June 1911, at the height of the gold rush.

Then disaster struck.

The spring of 1911 was hot and dry, and the drought continued into the summer. By July, temperatures exceeded 40 C, with no rain for weeks. On July 10, the tinder-dry forest gave in to several small bush fires that were whipped into a huge single blaze by strong winds the following day.

The fire grew, reaching 30 kilometres wide, and as it bore down on the towns and mine camps, people fled, mostly into Porcupine Lake, by boat. Others escaped into mine shafts, where they suffocated as the fire sucked the oxygen from the mines. A railway car loaded with dynamite caught fire and exploded, and the shockwave sent massive waves across the lake, tipping boats and drowning their passengers.

The fire was devastating. It destroyed 200,000 hectares of forest. South Porcupine burned to the ground, as did Pottsville and most of Golden City. The mine camps were not spared either. The next day, much of Cochrane, 60 kilometres away, also lay in ruin. Early fears were that thousands had perished. The official death toll was 73, but as many as 200 may have died – no one knows how many prospectors had been trapped in the bush.

But the people were resilient, and the Porcupine recovered. Even as the ground smouldered, they knew they could not leave – not when so much gold remained in the ground. Almost as quickly as the fire had destroyed, people began to rebuild. Renewed interest in the region even sparked new industry, and soon a pulp mill was operating alongside the rejuvenated gold mines.

That Labour Day, Noah Timmins auctioned off building sites at the former Hollinger mine camp, and the new village was incorporated as Timmins on New Year’s Day 1912. Gold mining continues there to this day.

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