Great Porcupine Wildfire – 1911

The first train arrived on July 9 1911. Before that, most people reached Porcupine Lake by canoe, like the 18th century fur-trappers working for the Hudson Bay Company, or by wagon, like the thousands of raw hopefuls who followed the professional prospectors to Canada’s gold fields. Porcupine’s gold rush began in 1909.

Northern Ontario was already full of miners and engineers attracted by the silver strikes at Cobalt further south. They flocked into Porcupine’s wilderness of forest and lakes, 680 km (425 mi) north of Toronto, throwing up tent cities that became instant townships strung along 50 miles of sinuous gold seams. The early spring and long days of hot, dry weather in June and July of 1911 meant that progress was rapid; and the coming of the railroad meant quicker, easier rewards.

Two days after that first train, the wind changed to a southwesterly. Suddenly, local brush fires that were a regular part of the natural wilderness cycle blazed into a single, united front. Fanned by the growing gale, a consolidated wall of flame ripped through Timmins, South Porcupine and Porquis Junction. It enveloped Cochrane – 80 km (50 mi) from Porcupine – in a horseshoe-shaped inferno 36 km (22 mi) wide with flames 30 m (100 ft) high.

It sucked the oxygen out of the atmosphere with such intensity that mature trees were ripped from the ground; and people sheltering like gophers in the mine shafts were asphyxiated as the wildfire stole their last breath. Others drowned when a boxcar of dynamite exploded by the shore of Porcupine Lake, lashing the surface of their refuge with waves 3 m (10 ft) high. One – the owner of one of the Big Three mines, and a gold millionaire in his first year – died saving his cat.

Only nature could end what it had begun. After eight days, heavy rain stopped the destruction.

When was the Great Porcupine Wildfire: July 11-19 1911

Where was the Great Porcupine Wildfire: Timmins and South Porcupine, Ontario, Canada

What was the Great Porcupine Wildfire death toll: Officially there were 77 deaths. Eyewitness estimates suggest at least 200 died, with hundreds more burned or injured trying to save property. Around 2,000 sq. km (772 sq. mi) of wilderness forest was razed, and several townships were fully or partly destroyed.

You should know: With the gold rush at its height and human nature so predictable, the mines were working again within two months. Even the injured survivors stayed: whole communities claimed the disaster had renewed their sense of purpose. It was true – eventually the Porcupine Gold Rush produced 67 million troy ounces of gold against the Klondike’s total of roughly 12 million.

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