July 29, 1916 brought a blow to Matheson’s progress and optimism. With the day came tragedy in the form of fire which swept over the town from the southwest corner destroying every building north of the railroad. How the fire started is not exactly clear. The railway employees were burning brush along the right of way. This had been going on for several weeks. On the day of he fire, another blaze was burning close behind the one on the railway. It came from further south.
On the morning of the fire, the men and boys were working to prevent its spreading to the town. One person, who was here at the time, reported to his hometown paper that twenty-five teams hauled water from the Black River while men, women and boys worked feverishly soaking houses and soil to withstand the oncoming heat.
Conditions were ideal for fire. There was no rain for three weeks and the sun was very hot. This left the bush extremely dry. The muskeg and small bushes provided good conditions for ground fire and the dead, dry trees ignited easily. A strong wind was blowing. Its speed had been estimated at 70-75 miles per hour. It caused white caps on the river and was strong enough to lift the roof from one house that escaped the ravages of fire.
The fire entered the town near the corner of Railway Street and Sixth Avenue. Within minutes flames engulfed the town because of the intensely heated air brought by the wind. The thick spread of the flames is witnessed by the escape of the town residents. Those living close to the railway fled to the standing freight train which took them south to Englehart, while those at the north end of town had only time to grab a few belongings and run for the north bank of the river. Others in the south end of town made their way to Hough’s Lake.
The people on the north bank of the river protected themselves as best they could against the heat and smoke. Like their friends at the lake, they covered themselves with blankets which had been soaked in the water.
Mr. Frank Ginn was with this group. He was clerk-treasurer and had come in from his farm to get the town files. Unable to return before the fire, he stayed at the river. Finally after several unsuccessful attempts, he got through to his family and found them safe. One of the ladies who was at the river remembers his carrying the brief case with the town papers.
When the fury of the flames had passed, someone’s cow came wandering down to the river. One of the men milked her and gave milk to those with children. With the remainder be bathed the smoke swollen eyes of the group.
In late afternoon, a motor boat driven by Bill Dorsey came down the river. The passengers, Harry Grumbill, Walter Benson and others took shelter. By evening, the fire had died down, although it was still too hot for the people to go up into the town. Therefore, the boat took them down the river to Mr. Walter Monahan’s farm.
The next day, people began returning to survey the loss. There was the usual loss of timber and pulpwood, along with the townsite, the dwellings of the homesteaders and their crops and animals. But the grim task was counting the loss in human lives. No town resident lost his life in the fire, but in surrounding districts the number of known dead was set officially at 223 while many in a position to know set the loss of life at a much higher figure…..300 or more.
One Monday, July 31, 1916, the whole front page of the Cobalt Daily Nugget was given over to this tragedy. The bold banner line stretching across the seven columns of the pater told the tragic stroy in three words. “North Is Devastated”.
On the evening following the fire, a relief train came from the south. Soon relief sheds were erected beside the railway. The red Cross set up in one of the four remaining houses on the south side of the railway. Soldiers came from Camp Borden to clean up and for a while the town looked like a military camp. The town’s residents lived in tents until fall when they were able to build houses with relief lumber which had been sent in.
Slowly life returned and the residents settled down to build bigger and better. Their optimism and belief in what they could do were not overcome as is seen in their proposal to install a water sewage system.
Ramore During The 1916 Fire
The fire of 1916 spread from Nellie Lake to Ramore which was the Southern limit. Forty miles of land was destroyed by a huge wall of flames. It was reported in the Daily Nugget that fourteen people who lived in Ramore died in the fire. However, there could have been more lives lost. The families that died in the fire were the Pion family of six, the Pepin family of four and the Clement family with exception of the father. It is said that also many prospectors probably lost their lives because they were trapped in the flaming bush between Ramore and Quebec. Because of heroic efforts of the settlers, the school and other buildings were saved but there were also many losses. Mr. Moffat owned a large logging company which lost the entire logging equipment including a new bark stripper. The bridge on Wild Goose River was also destroyed. July 29, 2916 was a mournful and tragic day with the deaths in three families and the destruction of many homes and businesses in the Ramore area.
Val Gagne (Nushka) During the 1916 Fire
This fire killed 64 residents from the community. The train came through collecting the survivors and rescuing the settlers from the firestorm. Father Gagne who was the town’s priest was returning from Haileybury on this train. He refused to stay on the train because he wanted to help his people. This convinced others not to board the train. The town was renamed Val Gagne in Father Gagne’s honor after his brave heroic efforts in staying with his people. Unfortunately, he led people to a clay ditch near the railway tracks where he thought they would be safe. The 26 people suffocated. Most of the people in the town died. Three days after the fire, the railway track was fixed and a train brought clothes and food for the people that survived the tragedy. The army brought them tents so they could live in them while everyone got together and worked hard to get Val Gagne back on its feet.