Cranberry Portage Fire, June 4, 1929
June came in as a scorcher. Since the spring break-up, we had seen no rain. The sun rolled above the pines at 4 A.M. and got in sixteen hours of vicious work daily, before a long-suffering Mother Earth could heave up a protecting shoulder. Each breeze became a withering blast that dragged moisture from the very tree roots. The forest quiet was punctuated with a million faint cracklings. Undergrowth wilted and browned; leaves hung motionless. Spruce and pine slashings along miles of right of way waited for just one spark to transform them into screaming explosions of flame.
So wrote Ruth and Jack Paterson in their book Cranberry Portage (McClelland and Stewart, 1970). Fire was ignited as the rail lines to Flin Flon and Sherridon were being laid.CRANBERRY PORTAGE FIRE OF 1929 CRANBERRY PORTAGE FRONTIER LIFE AT THE CROSSROADS OF THE NORTH By: Jack & Ruth Patterson Compiled by: Mary-Ann Playford Date of publication 1970 Introduction:
The Paterson family settled in Cranberry Portage in June 1928. Jack Paterson was a writer who took a gamble of living and finding stories up north. He wrote a book about his time up here - Cranberry Portage - Frontier Life at the Cross Roads of the North.
Ruth and Jack Paterson wrote in their book Cranberry Portage (McClelland and Stewart, 1970). Fire was ignited as the rail lines to Flin Flon and Sherridon were being laid.Story:
June came in as a scorcher. Since the spring break-up, we had seen no rain. The sun rolled above the pines at 4 a.m., and got in sixteen hours of vicious work daily, before a long-suffering Mother Earth could heave up a protecting shoulder. Each breeze became a withering blast that dragged moisture form the very tree roots. The forest quiet was punctuated with a million faint cracklings. Undergrowth wilted and browned; leaves hung motionless. Spruce and pine slashings along many miles of right-of-way waited for just one spark to transform them into screaming explosions of flame.
In the V formed by the Cold Lake rail junction, a mile north of Cranberry settlement, 200 men were fighting a fire that had crawled from farther up the line. With both wide, cleared right-of-ways at their backs, they seemed to have it licked. Then a strong wind grew, and changed direction. A fierce gust lifted the fire over the tracks both ways. It caught, flared, and escaped southward toward the settlement, sweeping through thick woods on both sides of the railroad.
We rushed out. Bud was right. From the north came a steady roar, with added explosions. Through the woods we saw a spot of red. Gone. Another, this time a steady glow, followed by a sudden flare and distant crackling.
We tossed clothing, silverware, office files, and typewriter into two trunks, dragged them through the birches, and dropped them down the well. The wardrobe trunk, huge and heavy, we almost abandoned in mid-yard. Bit it held clothes we would need if the cabin burned, and we stuck with it. Grub, kettles, pans, all the blankets, anything needed for camp life, followed.
By the time we had shoveled in five feet of protecting sand, flaming twigs were burning our backs. Carrying a rifle and axe, arms loaded with grub, Ruth was chased to the lakeshore. Bud had packed a toy hat bag with her own treasures.
The heat drove us lake-ward. Pete and I stopped for a last look at the cabins, the beautifully treed setting, birches with leaves already shriveling in the furnace blast. Suddenly I remembered the gasoline lamps and a four-gallon can of gas. We raced back to the cabin, grabbed them, and tossed them into the eight-foot sump-hole that was part of our private sanitation system. The trees around us sizzled and moaned. Those already on fire shrieked in their agony. A gusty treetop explosion rained fire on us. Heat fanned my cheek like a blowtorch, and I felt my eyebrows frizzle. We ran.
People on the new town-site, further up the hill, had got an earlier warning. As we raced down toward the main street, they were already running for the lakeshore. The main street itself was jammed with hurrying people. Women struggled under loads of bedding, clutching tots by their hand, losing half their load and, when they bent to recover it, losing the other half. Dogs ran whining among heaps of household goods. Teams, hitched to wagons loaded with belongings from the upper town-site, careened at full gallop through the mob. Heavy motors roared as Airways planes were taxied to safe moorings, far out in the bay.
Now a real panic threatened, because nobody knew what had happened to the kids who had been in school when the fire reached us. Women were everywhere, fighting their way through the crowds, calling their children by name, beseeching help.
Then Tobacco Jowls appeared, in shirtsleeves, his white head bare. He waved a great arm and bellowed, "The kids are safe! They were took from school, and put on a gravel train. They're gone to Mile Thirty-seven. Look out for yourselves! The kids are safe!"
Women now gathered in groups, where some of them nearly collapsed with relief at the news.
Tobacco Jowls waved me over. "Where's the fire rangers?" he demanded. "Godammit, they're needed here to handle things! Some of the town-site people could be trapped."
We'll get up there, I yelled. Nobody's seen the bloody fire-rangers. On our way toward the railway we encountered another frantic mother. To this Polish woman, wearing only a scanty housedress, the news of the children's rescue had brought no relief. Her two kids were not of school age. She had left them at home, and gone to the drugstore. Nowhere log shack was in flames. She fought men who were holding her, screaming, "I go there me! Son of a beeches! Not stop! I go!"
"The train! They're with the others," I shouted at her. She was past hearing. We saw the walls of the shack move then; it folded to the ground in a tangle of blazing sticks. The woman fainted. (Later exhausted and desperate. Telegraph and telephone wires were down, and she had run fourteen miles over rough gravel and ties to find her own. They were there among the others, wide-eyed and wondering.)
Men were returning through the murk, "All clear above the track, except for the Finns at the hotel. Can't get to 'em. They're surrounded.
As they spoke, the main wall of fire left the half-burned buildings on one side of the street, and pounced across the gap to the other side. The buildings there, already smoking from the heat, were ready at the slightest touch of flame to hell-flare skyward. Following a sudden lift in the smoke, I saw the train dispatcher's office collapse; the engineering buildings beside it were a framework of fiery skeleton uprights. The front windows of Mrs. Sauna's place exploded with a sighing scream, and seconds later the walls went down.
In such a scramble, it was hopeless looking for anyone. Work engines were on the lakeshore siding, clearing boxcars, bunk trains, strings of gravel cars-panting, groaning, wheels spinning to start an overload.
Gritty faces poked from their cab windows. All Company manpower was now concentrated on a mile-long fire-front, attempting to save millions of dollars in rail-construction equipment and supplies.
The lake waters were at their summer low, too shallow for big planes to reach the shore docks. Instead, Airways used great loading barges moored well out in the bay. In addition to freight, these barges were now crowded with women and younger children. Loaded canoes lined a beach piled with household furniture, bedding, and boxes of canned goods from trading stores. I saw Pete coming. "If the women are all clear, let's take a whack at saving the cabins," Pete said. "They're still standing."
I grabbed a shovel and wet sacks and ran with Pete up the hill. The cabin roofs, both smoldering with spot fires, came first. We scrambled up, beat out the fire patches with set sacks, then found time to look around.
The heat was hellish. When one flare-up was killed, others came alive on each side. There was no spelling off, as the odds got tougher. Pete and I stuck together in case either should falter and go down. We were completely fagged, eyes smarting from thick smoke, noses and throats burning.
Late that afternoon a trainload of reinforcements reached the settlement, and the first wave of fire fighters dragged wearily to the lakeshore for a gulp of breeze. Those with families shouted across the water to the barges, where women prepared food, or sat, heartsick, just watching. It was hoped that the evening dampness would bring a lull in the fire fighting, but that night there was no dampness, no lull. Forestry and Company pumps rattled through the night. The women came ashore at dark, and billets were arranged for the homeless. Then a change of wind brought rain.
It was a deluge. The bay was lashed with whitecaps. Along the shore, great piles of construction supplies, still intact, hissed under the downpour; steam filtered upward from burning moss to show against the naked black corpses of trees. Hundreds of fire-marked men dropped their axes and shovels. Those who had lost homes or businesses crawled in somewhere to sleep a few hours, then reached wearily for hammers and saws. Already people had begun to rebuild.
As a direct result of our fire clean-up day, the original settlement by the lakeshore had been saved. Higher up, on both sides of the track, everything was gone. The hospital car, set on a private rail by the heroic action of the doctor and his helpers. The railway engineering buildings were burned, along with files, maps, and records, which had cost a year of field and office work."
The following pages reveal the story of the day that fire swept through the town. We do not know who took the pictures. The selection of photographs and the caption text are by Mary-Ann Playford.