Mica Jorgenson

“Sir, would you please if possible let me know the fate of my Sister, Mrs. F. Wilde…she opened a restaurant or hotel in [Porcupine] this spring…I have one of her boys at school.” [1] So begins the letter written by Mrs. Mary Coutts on 14 July 1911 in the aftermath of the Great Porcupine Fire of 1911 – the first in a stack of correspondence between the Canadian Secretary of State Thomas Mulvey and a world full of worried relatives of northern Ontario residents.

The Great Fire of 1911 reached its peak on July 10th, when it destroyed three towns, levelled most of the existing mining infrastructure, and killed seventy-one people. It started when a summer storm whipped up  smaller brush fires into a gigantic blaze fuelled by unseasonably dry northern Ontario timber. Panicked telegrams out of Porcupine the morning of the 10th alerted the outside world in the hours before the town was hit, and the news of the disaster spread quickly in the press. But Porcupine’s communications and transportations infrastructure burned with the rest, and for a long time after those last telegrams only silence came from the still-smouldering north.

Northern Ontario Swept by a Roaring Wall of Fire The Globe 12 July 1911 p1.png
Northern Ontario Swept by Roaring Wall of Fire,” The Globe, 12 July 1911, p1.

It took weeks for searchers to find the bodies, still longer for the lists of dead to make it out of the remote Ontario bush, and longer still for notices to make it to families – especially in cases where names were misspelled or unknown.

Under the circumstances, relations of Porcupine miners understandably took matters into their own hands by writing to the government for news of their loved ones. [2] Out of the ashes emerged a documentary record of intimacy and emotion otherwise invisible in the archives – preserved as a result of the government’s mediary role in communicating information after the fire.

From: The World, To: Porcupine

Gold rushes, including the Porcupine, are inherently transnational events. People migrate from all over the world following news of a gold strike – this phenomenon is well documented by historians of California (1848), Victoria (1851), Otago (1861), the Fraser (1858), and the Klondike (1897). Porcupine (1909) was no exception. When migrants came they brought not just their bodies but also technology, politics, culture, economic networks, and geological science generated on earlier gold fields. Once arrived, they sent knowledge and ore generated at Porcupine back out into the world, connecting the landscape tightly to a transnational mining context.

While corporate, scientific, and political networks produced by gold rushes are undoubtedly interesting subjects of study in themselves, the chaos of the fire also highlights more intimate interconnections. Mary Coutts in England was tied to Francis Wilde in Porcupine by ties of family, love, and obligation. [3] Although not usually the sort of thing preserved in documentary records, the Porcupine fire momentarily highlighted such individual “intimate networks,” suggesting that transnational history is more than economy, science, and politics – it’s also personal.

The rest of the Porcupine Fire letters further illuminate this point. Spouses, siblings, parents, and family friends all wrote in the weeks following July 10th. Mrs. P.T. Bolan of Newcastle on Tyne wrote to the secretary on 17 July to ask after her husband, who had been working on the Asquith Claim. “I am nearly distracted to read of the terrible fires in South Porcupine,” she wrote, “and fear for my husband.” [4] Words like “distracted,” “terrible,” and “fear” suggest personal emotional attachment linking the Bolans across space and political boundaries.

CPC-00707-001
Mouth of the West Dome Shaft in which Captain Weiss and Family with 27 Companions died,” CPC 00707, William Ready Division of Archives and Special Collections, McMaster University.

News eventually did come: The Porcupine Relief Committee responded to requests when it could and issued (alarmingly error-filled) death-lists by telegram. They also began individually notifying relatives of the deceased just a few days after the fire. But many relatives heard nothing, or disbelieved the veracity of reports. Mrs. K.V. Taylor, after receiving a telegram notifying her of her husband’s death, wrote to Mulvey to ask if there had been a mistake, and that she “should like further evidence that this William Taylor was my husband” and provided other details about his life which might be used to identify the body. [5]

Those who did not receive official notices read familiar names on the media’s death lists and worried. For example, the Daily Telegraph listed “M. Martin, Thoringey, Los Angeles” among the dead. One Mr. Stanley Moon wrote to Mulvey with a copy of the clipping. His family friend, Miss Thoringey, arrived in Quebec on July 10th from Liverpool, and Moon, clearly unfamiliar with Canadian geography, worried she’d ended up in Porcupine. She hadn’t – as Mulvey testily wrote back, “Mr. Martin Thoringrey” was in fact a consulting engineer from California, and “in any case it is extremely improbable that a woman landing at Quebec on the 10th of July would have gone into the Porcupine district.” [6]

In another example Ann Hogben of Folkestone, England wrote to ask for clarification regarding her son Arthur Dexter. The name “Charles Dexter of Folkestone” had appeared in the death list, and Hogben “feared that the name given, Charles, was merely a mistake made in the general confusion.” [7] If her son had indeed died, Hogben wanted to know what had been done with his body and belongings, and whether or not she could recover them. Hogben’s distrust of the news reports and her attempt to verify them through correspondence with Mulvey preserved a record of her intimate connection to Porcupine through her son.

connectionsofthedead.png
Data from the Porcupine Fire Relief Committee telegrams, RG 6, Vol. 150, File 1703, Secretary of State Correspondence 1911, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Click here to view interactive map

From: Porcupine, To: The World

Outgoing telegrams from the relief committee contain hints about the experience of Porcupine residents in the days immediately following the fire. Survivors cared for the injured and combed the debris for bodies. Many were severely burned (one man had his feet burned off), and some died in transit to hospital. [8] A telegraph from Porcupine dated 13 July states “tents blankets and provisions urgently wanted. Conditions underestimated.” [9] Periodic reports suggest an ongoing search for bodies, many of which were buried in place by survivors. One telegraph reports “Mike Johnson found on Trout Creek night Hawk district committed suicide” and “remains of man and Spaniel found under Theatre at South Porcupine supposed to be “Cripple Creek an old Western prospector.” [10] These must have been difficult days, and it is unlikely many had the ability to write home under the circumstances.

LAC Graves of Victims of Great Forest Fire 1911 MIKAN no. 3298974
“Graves of Victims of Great Forest Fire 1911,” Toronto Star, PA-179599, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada,

Nevertheless, a few scattered notes and postcards held at the William Ready Archives (from other years) provide hints of the “other half” of emotional networks reaching out from Porcupine into the world. [11] One undated letter reads “Well mother Dear I am always on the lok [sic] out for Lils nice letters…with best love to you all and trusting you are all well, From your loving son.” [12] Another refers to a missed dinner last time the author had been in the city. [13] One, on the back of a postcard showing a wooden shack, reads “Dear Mother, how would you like to live in a house like this?” [14] The notes suggest that Porcupine miners thought about and wrote to their distant families when they could.

CPC-00712-001
“Fighting Fire Last Stand Powells Point,” CPC-00712, William Ready Division of Archives and Special Collections, McMaster University.

Also out of the fire came a series photographic postcards taken by H.C. Peters, who documented the event with unusual thoroughness. One shows stacked coffins on the dock of Porcupine Lake. Others images show lines of men with buckets putting out still-smouldering hot spots. Another shows three grim-faced men sitting next to burned shaft entrance. This last documents one of the saddest events of the fire: twenty seven people died of asphyxiation in the shaft, including women and children. [15]

As the chaos subsided in the fall of 1911, so did the visibility of intimate networks – which ceased to be mediated by the government and returned to direct and private avenues of personal letter-writing, visits, and telegrams. Yet the moment of the fire provides an abject lesson. Even when we cannot see them in the preserved records, such networks undoubtedly shaped Canadian history. The Porcupine correspondence reminds us that behind the big broad sweeping movements of transnationalism lie individual human stories with their own intimate networks quietly shaping human lives across time and space.

 

Mica Jorgenson is a phd candidate in environmental history at McMaster University. Her dissertation examines landscape change, community, and transnationalism in early 20th century gold mining camps.


[1]  “Mary Coutts to Secretary of State, Ottawa,” 14 July 1911, RG 6, Vol. 150, File 1703, Secretary of State Correspondence 1911, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Three weeks later, Wilde was reported safe by the Porcupine relief committee. “Relief Committee to Thomas Mulvey,” 1 August 1911, RG 6, Vol. 150, File 1703, Secretary of State Correspondence 1911, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

[2]  Mulvey was not the only politician inundated with letters. Lord Strathcona, Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, telegraphed Mulvey’s office two days after the fire to say “much anxiety and many enquiries respecting Porcupine Fire glad to have names of victims as they become known and fullest particulars available.” “Dominion to Secretary of State, Ottawa,” 13 July 1911, RG 6, Vol. 150, File 1703, Secretary of State Correspondence 1911, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

[3]  Coutts and Wilde corresponded regularly. Coutts had a letter from Wilde dated 2nd July 1911, just a week before the fire. “Mrs. Mary Coutts to Secretary of State, Ottawa,” 14 July 1911.

[4]  “P.T. Bolan to Secretary of State,” 17 July 1911, RG 6, Vol. 150, File 1703, Secretary of State Correspondence 1911, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

[5]  The stakes for Taylor were high. She had sold her home to pay for her husband’s passage to the mines, and had planned to join him when he found a job. “If you could inform me in any way I should be thankful as myself and three children are left destitute,” she wrote. When Taylor was found dead, she requested her name be given to the Relief Committee for possible financial support. “K.V. Taylor to Lord Strathcona,” 17 July 1911, RG 6, Vol. 150, File 1703, Secretary of State Correspondence 1911, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

[6]  The comma in the death list had been an error. “Thomas Mulvey, Secretary of State, to Mr. Stanley H. Moon,” 1 August 1911, RG 6, Vol. 150, File 1703, Secretary of State Correspondence 1911, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

[7]  “Secretary of State to Relief Committee,” 11 September 1911, RG 6, Vol. 150, File 1703, Secretary of State Correspondence 1911, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

[8]  “Murphy to Dominion, London, England,” 14 July 1911, RG 6, Vol. 150, File 1703, Secretary of State Correspondence 1911, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

[9]  “S. White, Mayor to Hon. Chas Murphy,” 13 July 1911, RG 6, Vol. 150, File 1703, Secretary of State Correspondence 1911, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

[10]  “Telegraph for Charles Murphy, Ottawa,” 27 July 1911, RG 6, Vol. 150, File 1703, Secretary of State Correspondence 1911, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

[11] Special thanks to Bridget Whittle at the William Ready Division of Archives for finding, digitizing, documenting, and alerting me to these sources.

[12]  “The First Wedding in Porcupine,” Porcupine, Ontario, Canada, CPC-03090, William Ready Division of Archives and Special Collections, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

[13] “Stock Exchange – Porcupine – A Has Been,”  4 October 1910, Porcupine, Ontario, Canada, CPC-00729, William Ready Division of Archives and Special Collections, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

[14]  “Blacksmith Shop, Timons Gold Mine,” CPC-00708,  William Ready Division of Archives and Special Collections, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

[15]  “Mouth of the West Dome Shaft in which Captain Weiss and Family with 27 Companions died,” CPC 00707, William Ready Division of Archives and Special Collections, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

 

Title Image: CPC-00348 “Getting Mail after the Fire,” CPC-00348, William Ready Division of Archives and Special Collections, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.