Audio

A century later, Great Matheson Fire of 1916 still deadliest in Canadian history

Nobody knows for sure how it started. But the bush around Matheson caught fire on July 29, 1916 and burned for days. By the time the flames were extinguished, some 200 people had suffocated or burned to death.

Disaster inspired provincial government to invest in forest fire protection

Photo of the remains of Matheson taken after the Great Fire of 1916. (Killer in the Bush by Michael Barnes, from the Collection of K. Towsle)

Nobody knows for sure how it started.

But the bush around Matheson caught fire on July 29, 1916 and burned for days.

By the time the flames were extinguished, some 200 people had suffocated or burned to death, with coffins piled up on the railway tracks.

Whole communities were completely destroyed, including Matheson and Iroquois Falls.

The village of Nushka was wiped off the map as well. When it was rebuilt, it was renamed Val Gagne, for local priest Wilfrid Gagne, who died rescuing his parishioners from the flames.

Interview with Matheson fire survivor Amelia Veitch, who was 20 when the fire burned her town in July 1916, first aired on a CBC Radio program called Voice of the Pioneer in 1979. The interviewer is Bill McNeil. 9:12

Harvey Monaghan was 13 at the time. He told CBC in the 1970s that his family's farm outside Matheson was one of the few left standing.

"I was up on the roof and they handed water up to me. It did catch fire a few times, a paper roof, you know? And I kept putting the fires out," Monaghan said.

In the days that followed, those that survived the flames were at risk of starving, with no supplies in what was then a remote area.

A sack of flour at Monaghan's farm was turned into biscuits to feed the community, while others remember eating potatoes that were baked while still in the ground.

Interview with Matheson fire survivor Amelia Veitch, who was 20 when the fire burned her town in July 1916, first aired on a CBC Radio program called Voice of the Pioneer in 1979. The interviewer is Bill McNeil. 8:01

Amelia Veitch, who was 20 when the fire struck, said in an interview decades later, that her family was lucky to survive.

"You didn't have to look far before you saw somebody worse than you. There were men with feet burnt. Their shoes started to burn and then they couldn't take them off," she said.

A century later, the so-called Great Matheson Fire of 1916 remains the deadliest in Canadian history. 

With 223 dead, burying all the victims of the Great Fire of 1916 was a big job for the survivors. (Killer in the Bush by Michael Barnes)

Laurentian University historian Mark Kuhlberg said one lasting legacy of the fire was the founding of a provincial firefighting corps.

Kuhlberg said the Ontario government had been marketing the Temiskaming area to immigrants, trying to keep them from moving west to start farms on the prairies and needed to quell fears about wildlfires. 

"I think there was tremendous pressure on the government to take action, to at least be seen as taking as much action as it could," he said. 

Kuhlberg says the Matheson fire also changed how people viewed forest fires, which he says has had some unexpected consequences.

"That fire seered into the public consciousness that forestry was about forest fire protection. It laid the seeds for an attitude towards fire, where fire was seen as negative, as something to be fought," Kulhberg said.

But today if you talk to forest fire specialists, they'll tell you we have to let some of these fires burn."

These melted bottles from the 1916 fire are in the collection of the Black River-Matheson museum. (Black River-Matheson Museum )