May 28, 1917 Night Fire

UrNBbm4May 28, 1917

I was sleeping in my tent when I heard the three whistle blasts – twice. That meant fire. The train engineers were instructed to signal fire if they saw anything on the track, or any fire for that matter. That was the case tonight. The blasts came just after 1:30 a.m. , according to my watch. I knew it was the night eastbound freight train coming from Depot Harbour. It likely was hauling a shipment of grain from one the lakers. It might have been hauling munitions too. If it was the night westbound, it could have been hauling whisky. Whisky comes in by the boxcar load from Montreal and switches off by Scotia Junction. Late last year, 4 boxcars full of whisky disappeared from Scotia Junction and the empty cars showed up weeks later abandoned on a siding in Toronto, empty. George and Lowrie swore they knew nothing about the whisky heist, despite the admission that the railroad and section men were in on it.  When the moonshine ran low, I didn’t ask questions when a quality product from Montreal seem to appear from nowhere and only dispensed in very discreet circumstances. There are times when you don’t ask questions.

Suffice it to say I know the train schedules well. Whenever I was waiting at Scotia Junction or Canoe Lake Station, I would study the schedule for the Grand Trunk 32nd Sub-Division, or the Booth Line as it used to be called. I had it committed to memory, mostly. It was handy to know the times and intervals between the nearby stations. Scotia Junction to Canoe Lake: 2 hours and 15 minutes; Joe Lake: another 3 minutes; Sims Pit: 2 minutes and the Highland Inn another 18 minutes. It was not on a few occasions that we would ride the rails to save a half-day’s hike between the hotels. More often than not, the Station Masters would let me on the train knowing that I’d return the favour with freshly caught trout.

I estimated the whistle blasts to be near Sims Pit. Ever since the big fire last year in Cochrane (where over 200 people perished), Park Superintendent George Bartlett was nervous that the Big Fire of Damnation was well nigh in the Park. In springtime, it was still the habit of many to burn dead vegetation off the land. But after Matheson and Iroquois Falls were wiped off the map along with several hundred souls, the Province decided to enact fire prevention legislation. This gave the Fire Rangers powers of an arresting officer and the authority to issue travel permits in the parks. Whenever there was a fire, the Rangers had the power to second anyone they saw fit into firefighting duties. To refuse meant arrest. There was also the expectation that the guides had the same responsibilities as the Rangers and the unofficial deputation of powers, if necessary. Fire fighting was an understood duty of having a Guide’s license. Bartlett informed me that if I didn’t show up when the need arose to fight a fire, he’d take it away  – and my potential livelihood in the Park. He knew that I was a Fire Ranger last year, but he also knew I was an artist. He didn’t think the two should go together, and if he had any doubts about my willingness for duty, he’d be more than willing to take my license away.

“Artists not wanted in the Park.” Bartlett could have said it out loud, but he knew that it had more power left unsaid.

After hearing the whistle blasts I got dressed as quickly as possible. I grabbed my spade and took my canoe up Sims Creek as far as I could. It was another quarter of a mile by foot, and as I got near I could see the flames and smoke. Mark Robinson was there too. The shelter house at Joe Lake was a similar distance so we arrived at the same time. Then a few other characters popped mysteriously out of the darkness armed with shovels. Together we managed to get the fire out. Brush that hadn’t been cleared from the tracks had caught fire. It was probably started by sparks when the train was negotiating the curve in the track. The longer the train, the more tendency for sparks. It must have been a long train full of grain, or army supplies on their way to Halifax.

As soon as the fire was out, the mysterious characters went back into the darkness, leaving Mark and me alone. I had a vague notion of who they were but asked Mark to confirm this notion. I was right – Bartlett was looking to set up another internment camp for the Government, and they were looking at Sims Pit. They were testing it out with a few men, about two dozen or so. It’s a suitable spot because of the rail sidings along the main track. Good for loading and unloading and Sims Pit is where the opposite trains wait to pass each other on the line. I heard the men talk, they sounded German, although they spoke English.

I didn’t get back to my campsite until 4:30am. Mark had invited me back to the shelter house but I said I would visit him tomorrow. He looked like a wreck. I could tell his war wounds were bothering him. He invited me out of politeness, but I could see he needed to get back and rest up before he reported the incident in full in the morning. I asked Mark to make sure that he mention me to Bartlett and that the artist showed up for duty.

Mark smiled, “G’night, Tom. I’ll be sure to do that.”

With that goodbye he limped with his shovel back to Joe Lake.

When I returned to my campsite the moon was overhead in its first quarter. The full moon would be in about a week’s time. Tonight, there was enough light that I could see the column of smoke drifting away from Sims Pit, blocking the fainter stars. Hints of dawn were starting to show over the hills. The lake was calm, like glass, I undressed and fell asleep.

I didn’t wake up until late morning. After the previous night’s drama, my clothes smelled of cinder and soot. Ordinarily, the smell doesn’t bother me, but the fire on the tracks must have been burning something else than just brush or wood. It was oil or grease and that left a heavy unpleasant smell on my clothes.

I had another change of clothes back at Mowat Lodge. When I did go camping, Annie said that I didn’t have to vacate the things from my room unless the lodge was full. And that certainly wasn’t the case so far this spring.