The Devastating Wildfire of 1922 Changed Northern Ontario Forever


It’s been a century since one of the worst wildfires in Ontario’s history destroyed entire villages, left thousands homeless and changed a northern town forever.

In the fall of 1922, the flames killed 43 people and wiped the communities of Thornloe, Pearson and Uno Park off the Temiskaming District map.

However, it is often known as the « Haileybury Fire » as most of the then prosperous city burned down, leaving thousands homeless.

Morning North8:00 a.m.100 years since the great fire of Haileybury

We take you back to 1922, when several towns in the Temiskaming District were devastated by wildfire, including the then prosperous town of Haileybury. We hear from local historian Chris Oslund, as well as the voices of those who live through the fire of our archives.

In the 1970s, Jack Mason told CBC Radio how people could smell smoke for days before the flames came to town on October 4, 1922 and when the tide turned that afternoon, the fire was pushed to the heart of Haileybury.

« Then everyone realized we were in trouble. We couldn’t fight it anymore. We had no water, » Mason said.

« Word spread to beat him to the lake, bring your families and beat him to the lake and there we spent the next six hours. »

This nondescript house in Haileybury was owned by a man named George George in 1922 and was one of the few in the heart of the city to survive the flames. (Erik White/CBC)

There were stories of windows exploding, barrels of nails and the terrazzo floors of banks melting in the extreme heat and farm animals dying in the fields with burnt lungs.

The thousands of homeless people left crammed into the few houses left standing and awoke to a heavy snowfall the following day.

« People sought refuge towards Cobalt, all the way to New Liskeard. They didn’t really know when they were leaving whether New Liskeard or Cobalt were better off than they were in Haileybury, » said Chris Oslund, former curator of the Haileybury Museum.

A phonograph record player shows obvious signs of burning since the Haileybury fire in 1922.
A partially burned gramophone is one of the artifacts from the 1922 fire on display at the Haileybury Museum. (Erik White/CBC)

Eighty-seven old streetcars from Toronto were sent to the railroad for use as temporary shelters. The Ontario government also provided wood for the construction of small houses to protect people from the coming winter.

« A lot of people didn’t have fire insurance at the time, there were stories of people trying to get to the insurance brokerage here as the fire was coming. Of course they been turned down, » Oslund said.

He said the fire broke out just as the nearby Cobalt silver mines, which had made Haileybury one of the wealthiest towns in the north, began to decline and investors focused instead on the gold mines of Kirkland Lake and Timmins.

A Toronto streetcar, fitted with chimneys and surrounded by snowshoes and firewood, lies in the snow in Haileybury in the days after the Great Fire of October 1922.
Eighty-seven streetcars from Toronto were sent to Haileybury as temporary shelter for the homeless after the fire, which was immediately followed by a heavy snowfall. (Haileybury Museum)

« We didn’t worry, we accepted this thing, » Mason told CBC decades later.

« What was the future? And yet everyone was thinking the same thing, talking the same way and obviously the city was going to be rebuilt. »

Oslund said many of those who decided to stay and rebuild took out « relief loans » and then struggled to repay them when the Great Depression hit a few years later.

A small garage with white siding on a sunny day
This North Cobalt garage was originally built in 1922 as a temporary shelter for the homeless left behind by the cold fire. (Erik White/CBC)

« It was just easier to move on. So Haileybury’s population actually went down by about half, » he said.

« We are almost where we were today, as it was at the time of the 22 fire. »

Oslund said when he started working at the Haileybury Museum he was mainly focused on the history of the fire and was involved in efforts to restore one of the trams and build a memorial on the front sea ​​of ​​the city for those who perished.

Chris Oslund stands in a restored tram from the 1922 fire
Former Haileybury Museum curator Chris Oslund is offering guided tours of the area as part of the 100th anniversary festivities. (Erik White/CBC)

Oslund will be offering guided tours this week as part of festivities marking 100 years since the Haileybury fire, which will also include a gala dinner, fireworks and a commemorative swim in Lake Temiskaming to remember those who went into the water to get away from the fire.

« I think it’s important for us to know what happened before and to learn from those lessons, » he said, noting that younger generations in Temiskaming are still learning from the 1922 fire in school.

« It’s part of our collective memory. A place maker in our collective history. »

A model at the Haileybury Museum showing a recreation of the town in 1922, including churches, homes and businesses
This model from the Haileybury Museum shows what the city looked like before the fire of 1922. Almost all the buildings depicted have been totally destroyed. (Erik White/CBC)


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