Toronto's peculiar, innovative relief efforts for the catastrophic fire in the Temiskaming District.
When a wildfire devastated Temiskaming (or Timiskaming) District on October 4 and 5, 1922, destroying residences, schools, farms, homesteads, and churches in and around the area’s towns, the rest of the province was quick to donate food and clothing to Haileybury, New Liskeard, and other communities. In response to what is still considered one of the country’s worst disasters, the City of Toronto’s contribution was unorthodox: 87 decommissioned streetcars to be used as temporary housing as winter closed in on Northeastern Ontario.
Each fall, farmers in the Temiskaming District—who’d been attracted to the area’s fertile land of the Clay Belt since around the turn of the 20th century—set small fires to more speedily clear their land of brush and trees. Knowing this practice, fire rangers sought special permission in 1922 to remain on the job into the autumn, fearing that the summer’s hot and dry conditions would persist. The request was denied, and once fire permits were no longer required, farmers went ahead with clearing their land as usual.
When winds gusted on Wednesday, October 4—eventually rising to hurricane-force winds over the course of the day—several small bush fires blew together, merging into a massive, uncontrollable forest fire spreading across the landscape.
In Haileybury, it was common for residents to see smoke-filled skies caused by farmers’ fires around the county seat—which, after the discovery of silver in the area touched off a mining boom, had all the trappings of a bustling city with courthouse, municipal land office, and its own stock exchange. In this case, they were slow to react. “The sky kept getting blacker and blacker but we just sat around the house talking,” Kathleen Keddie, then a student at Haileybury High School, recalled to the Globe and Mail in 1972. “My God, we’ve got to run for our lives,” her brother, who’d been keeping watch on the roof of the house, suddenly shouted.
“We saw this huge black cloud rolling over. It opened suddenly and a big tongue of flame leaped out,” Keddie continued. “We started to run and by the time we reached the end of our street our house was on fire. We lost everything we had.” Like most Haileybury residents, Keddie and her family fled to the shore of Lake Temiskaming and waded into the cold water. Others, who’d remained in their homes seeking refuge in their root cellars, were later found to have suffocated.
Rev. Frank H. Hincks, rector of St. Paul’s Church, described the lakeside scene in a letter to his wife, who was visiting relatives in Toronto:
By this time there was a stretch of blaze even out to the warehouse on the wharf and we were cut off from the south end. Hundreds of people were gathered on the shore, some of them covered with little canopies of wet blankets. The smoke became more intense and began after a quarter of an hour or more to blow in from directly west and northwest. A heavy pall of smoke hung over the lake and there was no daylight.
Just as we began to fear that nothing could stop the fire approaching now from the northwest, the wind began to veer and in a few moments was blowing like a hurricane off the lake. It brought back all the smoke first but kept getting fresher all the time and we realized that the danger was past.
The changing wind, just at the critical time, saved hundreds from suffocation.
From the moment a Haileybury telegraph clerk banged out a message to North Bay—”Haileybury is on Fire. Send help!”—word of the fire spread across the province. In Toronto, Alice Hincks, visiting relatives with her two children, worried about her husband until the middle of the night when a telegraph messenger delivered a brief communiqué: “Safe thank God. Don’t be Anxious—Frank.”
In the days to follow, newspapers across the province carried news of the devastation. The fire burned nearly 1,700 square kilometres in the Temiskaming District, damaging 18 townships, and inflicting a toll of 43 fatalities and $8 million in property damage. The small communities of North Cobalt, Charlton, Thornloe, and Heaslip were wholly wiped from the map. The town of New Liskeard was largely spared from the fire, due to a last-second change of wind direction, as were Englehart and Cobalt. In just six hours, Haileybury, the county seat, suffered 11 fatalities and was 90 per cent destroyed.
Newspapers also carried accounts of heroism displayed in the face of the conflagration. There was the 14-year-old girl from Belle Vallée (now part of Casey) who saved her toddler brother and sister when, fleeing along a road through the woods, they took refuge in a culvert—which, it turned out, also contained a bear escaping the flames. There was also the story of Gervais Sutherland, the only Haileybury firefighter to die in the inferno. The 30-year-old gave up his seat in a packed automobile carrying survivors to the lakeshore when he spotted two little children lost among the streets of the burning town. Insisting the children escape by taking his place in the crowded vehicle, Sutherland died, and his body—found near the Holy Cross Cathedral—was only identifiable by the keys he’d been carrying.
Six thousand people were left homeless across the district, with 3,500 of that number in Haileybury. Survivors jammed into the few houses left standing, mostly on Lakeshore Road North and Brewster Street. Winter was closing in—snow WAS already falling by October 5—but most survivors had only the light clothes on their backs, and no local stores remained from which they could buy new supplies.
Within days, relief supplies began pouring in from Toronto elsewhere in Southern Ontario. The Eaton’s and Simpson’s department stores sent clothes and other necessities by train. The government-endorsed Northern Ontario Fire Relief Committee was soon at work collecting donations of boots, coats, blankets, household goods, and building supplies.
Within 10 days of the fire, more than 110,000 pounds of groceries and 123,000 pounds of provisions had arrived in Temiskaming. Some citizens and businesses clearly saw it as an opportunity to get rid of their junk or unsellable goods in the name of a good cause. Relief stations in the north, the North Bay Nugget (November 10, 1922) reported, were soon trying to dispose of items like “women’s high-heeled light tan boots” and a “chiffon boa.”
Premier E.C. Drury, who spent two days in early October touring the devastated district, said: “Too much cannot be said in praise of the fortitude and helpfulness of the Northern people. Throughout the fire area, while the losses have been tremendous, there has been no despondency and I find everywhere a brave determination to rebuild on a better and surer basis.”
Within days of the fire, on October 6, P.W. Ellis and George Wright, respectively chairman and commissioner of the Toronto Transportation Commission (TTC), suggested to Mayor Charles A. Maguire that Toronto donate its old streetcars for use as temporary homes in Northern Ontario. The TTC, after taking over the city’s public transportation system from the Toronto Railway Company (TRC) on September 1, 1921, had assumed ownership of nearly 230 kilometres of track and a fleet of 830 streetcars.
The cars’ state of repair varied. Some were built relatively recently; others were antiquated, nearing 30 years of service, and had been driven into the ground as the private company, knowing it was losing its franchise in 1921, refused to incur the costs of maintenance, replacement, or modernization of the cars. Among them were at least two horse-cars dating back well before 1891, complete with receptacles for oil lamps. Some old horse-cars had been converted into trailers pulled behind electric streetcars, increasing passenger capacity on the busiest routes. Others had ends cut off so they could be fused with other cars to form a single, extra-long vehicle.
Finding them “worthless for the operation of a modern street railway,” the TTC consigned hundreds of old TRC streetcars to the city’s “street car graveyard” on Coxwell Avenue, south of the Danforth, where, as the Star (October 7, 1922) described it, they rusted away, “unfit for use, owing to their age and decrepitude.” City officials tried to sell them, but found no buyers.
The mayor’s office extended the TTC’s offer to his counterpart in Haileybury. City staff’s only hesitation about making the donation was that a final price had yet to be determined for the acquisition of the TRC’s assets—a process which would take several more years and an appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council—and some worried that finding a use for the outdated streetcars would increase their appraised value.
On the morning of October 10, Mayor Maguire received a telegram from the mayor of Haileybury, which read: “Your wire received. We accepted your offer of cars through Government Relief Committee yesterday and now wish to confirm our acceptance and express to you our sincere appreciation of your kind offer.”
The very next morning at 7 o’clock, workmen began loading old streetcars onto railway flatcars. The cost of shipment north was to be borne out of the city’s relief fund.
By October 17, the first batch of “houses” arrived in the north, hauled from the train to their resting places by teams of horses, and the new owners set about converting them into homes. In all, 87 streetcars were sent north, with 60 destined for Haileybury, 10 each for North Cobalt and Charlton, 5 for Thornloe, and 2 for Heaslip.
Just outside Charlton, the recipient of one streetcar—No. 100—surveyed his new home; it had a small coal-burning stove in the corner, sliding doors with brass fixtures, rows of glass windows as walls, and thin hardwood for floor and ceiling. Looking like it had just arrived from carrying commuters down Yonge Street, the streetcar even still had its bell. The new owner immediately set to work, as recounted in a 1968 article reprinted in The Great Fire of 1922:
One of the first things to be done was to reduce the number of windows, so Newton doubled some of them and blocked up the empty spaces with lumber and fibre-board. He put down a new floor, and used the rest of the new lumber to make a bunk and a table and one or two other necessities.
The owner and his wife added a small cook stove, given by the relief committee, and collected firewood—itself in short supply after the massive forest fire.
Still, it made for a cold home during a particularly cold winter, prompting the owner to pile snow high against the wind-blown structure for added insulation. On the other hand, James McTavish, his wife and two children, among the first recipients of a streetcar home in Haileybury, told a Toronto Star reporter that the vehicle made for a cozy, comfortable home even at 40 below.
When a North Bay Nugget reporter visited an Icelandic woman and her husband, occupants of a streetcar at Thornloe, the woman chucked good-naturedly at her predicament: “They told me when I said I was getting a street car that it was only a horse car but I said I didn’t care whether it was just a dog that pulled it. You know I used to grumble and say my kitchen was a little small. Now I say I shouldn’t because the Lord’s put me in a glass case!”
By the time the Star‘s reporter visited Haileybury in February, only a handful of streetcars were still in use as dwellings—although a number were used as offices or businesses, including one converted into a lunch counter. “I am not doing a bit of business now,” P.H. White, the proprietor of the restaurant, told the Star, “but just wait till spring. Haileybury is going to boom then. There will be two or three thousand men in then. There will be lots of work for all of us to do.”
Haileybury was, by mid-winter, in full rebuild mode—just as Drury predicted. Over 500 basic, wood-frame houses had been constructed with donated lumber despite winter conditions. Small businesses had reopened, first in tents or streetcars, then in wooden or even brick buildings, with work on grander projects—churches and public buildings—slated to begin in the spring.
Over the years, most of the old streetcars were dismantled for scrap or wasted away in the elements. When, in the late 1980s, the Minister for Northern Development and Mines promised funding if the Haileybury Fire Museum (now the Haileybury Heritage Museum) could locate and restore one of the streetcars as a tourist attraction, the search proved an exceedingly difficult task. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the museum found one—No. 124—which had been reasonably well preserved through its conversion into a shed many years prior. The vehicle’s restoration began in May 1992, with most of the work completed in time for the 70th anniversary of the fire that fall.
Sources consulted: The 75th Anniversary of the Great Fire of 1922 Committee, The Great Fire of 1922 (Highway Book Shop, 1997); Mike Filey, Toronto Sketches 10 (Dundurn, 2010); Rob Galloway, “The Great Fire of 1922,” Forestory (Spring 2013) [PDF]; and articles from the Globe and Mail (October 11, 1922; and October 4, 1972); and the Star (October 7 & 12, November 17, 1922; February 10, 1923; and July 1, 1995).