The Stony-Great Rattling Fire of 1935

Right now I am pretty deep into research into primary sources. To the best of my knowledge I’m the first person who has had a really good crack at these materials. On my initial scan I came upon some forms, actually hundreds of them, that which gave some invaluable information on woods operations. On the forms were the names of the camp contractors for 1936. One particular batch peaked my attention; these were on forms for Badger Division, and the camp contractor was Jim Rowsell. Jim Rowsell, if I recalled correctly was the foreman that my Great Grandfather cooked for in Bishop’s Falls Division, but Badger? I thought he was a Bishop’s Falls Division contractor. The year on the forms was 1936 that would have significance when I found something else in another box.

In 1935 a forest fire on the south side of the Exploits River gutted Anglo-Newfoundland’s Bishop’s Falls Logging Division. For some reason a detailed report of this survived for 85 years and the closure of the mill. Perhaps it was because it was from the insurance company, since, as I had taken for granted until recently, just about everything the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company had in the woods was insured.

Over 40 dams were lost or damaged in this conflagration. Though it is not apparent in the surviving report, I have little doubt that a corresponding number of camp buildings were lost as well. The loss of the dams was assessed at some $28,000.00. Even adjusted for inflation this number is not great, coming in at about $520,000.00; but one has to remember this was in the middle of the Great Depression, and the wages for building these dams were likely in the vicinity of 10-13 cents per hour, plus the vast majority of the materials used were sourced from the area. In clearer terms, they were built from logs cut nearby, lumber sawn from trees cut nearby, and filled with rocks from the vicinity. The only manufactured materials used in the construction would have been the spikes, bolts and other hardware, most of which that would have been made “in house” by the blacksmith at the Rattling Brook Depot. The overall loss, amounted to $145,943.29.

The fire appears to have started somewhere between Stony Brook and Great Rattling Brook on August 13, 1935. It was attributed to poachers carelessly smoking, or inadequately putting out a fire.[i] It was initially sighted from the Tote Brook fire tower, at 3:40 that afternoon; unable to communicate with the Hodge’s Hill tower, the location of the fire was triangulated with a compass reading from the acid tower of the Grand Falls mill. At 5:30 a Mr. Sam Arnold and eight men were dispatched to the site of the fire with axes and handpumps. Soon a general mobilization of fire fighting forces began. Men were dispatched under Richard Lacey from Norris Arm, Joe Burke was “ordered to be ready at daylight” to guide members of the Government Fire Patrol to the fire.

The next day, the fire could no longer be seen from either the Acid Tower or from Tote Brook, in the absence of radio communication, it was assumed that Sam Arnold’s crew had the fire under control. It was later found that this actually was the case. William McCraw, Forestry Engineer with the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company, with a crew of ten men equipped with firefighting gear set out to relieve Arnold’s crew on August 15th. While McCraw and his crew were in transit to the site of the fire the winds picked up. The fire started moving towards Three Brooks, the site of a logging depot. With this George Martin, Superintendent of Bishop’s Falls Division was ordered to mobilize the available loggers in the area for firefighting duties. In total, Martin was able to muster 150 men and put them at Three Brooks Depot under the supervision of W.D Alcock. By 4:30 on the morning of the 16th, Alcock’s crew were at the “head of the fire between Little Rattling Brook and Indian Brook.”[ii]

In the meantime, the AND Company had requested that the government dispatch an aeroplane to help spot the fire. By 3:30 the plane was in Botwood, and about an hour later it was in the air with a Mr. Lingard as an observer. The flight proved that there were actually two separate fires, the large one burning towards Three Brooks, and a smaller one in the vicinity of Stony. At 10:30 that night, it was reported that the fire had reached the Southern Boundary of Reid Lot 59, it was getting close to Grand Falls. By this time the fighting of the fire was taking on the image of a coordinated military operation. Crews were working on two fronts, aerial reconnaissance was being deployed, and reinforcements were being mobilized by the Woods Department. A request for fifty men “under a competent foreman”[iii] was made to Hugh Cole in Badger and a locomotive and box car was sent to retrieve them and bring them to Grand Falls.[iv]

By the 18th things were becoming more desperate, a request for 50 buckets was made, as no further “Indian pumps” were available, they were sent in a car to the firefighters. Martin and Alcock’s crew were now becoming exhausted, and some were in need of medical attention. They were relieved later that day, though Martin suggested that 50 more men would be needed to keep the fire in check, and that some of ground that the fire had burned was still burning. The next day, further reinforcements were brought up, along with an additional gas fire pump from Badger Division, along with a further 50 men from that division. The next morning, the 19th, aerial reconnaissance suggested that the fire was getting under control, then a North West Gale fanned the flames and caused the fire to get worse. The following day, as the fire spread, the Three Brooks Depot was burned. The rapidly spreading fire caused the abandonment of two gas fire pumps, and the evacuation of the families at the 30-Mile Depot. Luckily, there was already a fairly good road network in the Great Rattling Brook area, and trucks were able to move firefighting loggers out of harm’s way. That day, Jack Turner, former Assistant Woods Manager with AND and now Government Forestry officer arrived on the scene. Turner soon wired for a special train with firefighting equipment be dispatched from St. John’s. International Power and Paper in Corner Brook, also dispatched with a gas pump, hose, and some 40 fire pumps.  By now the fire had crossed over Great Rattling Brook, and the Rattling Brook Motor Road, the telephone lines had been cut, hampering communications with the crews. With the road cut one of the Goodyears (probably Joe or Ken) as to the logistics of portaging supplies in by horse, they said it could be done, but a trail needed to be cut. I believe this may reference having to go in from Grand Falls, as the report mentions the following: “The scow was obtained and arrangements made to portage horses and supplies over to the Stony Brook side of the river at one o’clock the next day. Osmond was to be on hand to open the boom at the island to let the scow through.”[v]

Things were looking grim on the August 21, as the winds changed again. Flankers were falling on Bishop’s Falls and crews were hosing down the pulp mill there. That afternoon ash was falling on Grand Falls, and crews were hosing down the mill and wood piles there. The fire department started to hose down houses and other buildings as well. In the woods away from a good road connection, gas had had to be packed in on foot to feed the gas pump engaged on the western front of the Stony Fire. The fire was four miles from Grand Falls. There were fears that the fire may jump the river, and patrols were sent out on the Botwood Railway close to Grand Falls.

At approximately 5:00 pm on August 22, 1935 it started to rain. It rained all night into the 23rd. On the 24th it was reported that 2.1 inches of rain fell, and that “any danger of the fire spreading had passed.” Hot spots continued to burn until September 10.[vi]

The grim task of initially assessing the damage was given to Hugh Cole and his assistant John Bigelow. A more thorough investigation was carried out in the middle of September, when representatives from the insurance company arrived. This survey was headed by William McCraw, with a newcomer to the AND as his assistant-Mr. Frank Hayward, as well as Mr. Fennimore from the head offices of the AND Co, and two unnamed guides.

In total, it was reported that over one hundred and twenty square miles of forest had been destroyed in the fire. 475 men had been employed fighting it.

Unfortunately the report does not give an idea of how many camps were lost, though it does note that there were 23 camps and two depots in the area of the fire, approximately forty dams were either partially or totally destroyed. The existing logging infrastructure in Bishop’s Falls Division had been gutted, scrapping any long term cutting plans for the area. This most likely led to a premature expansion of the road network further south on Great Rattling Brook. This also explains why some Bishop’s Falls formen would have been shifted over to Badger.

Epilogue. 

Arch Sheppard, foreman on the Stony fire suffered ended up with burned feet and a case of smoke blindness. His son Ross, who would have been about ten at the time, later became the Woods Manager for Price Newfoundland.

William McCraw stayed with the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company as forestry engineer until about 1947. Little is actually known about McCraw’s work in Newfoundland, besides the fact that he was a driving force in the widespread use of tractors in wood hauling, and may have supervised the construction of the Rattling Brook Line, and the Sandy Motor Road. In 1936 he even patented a skid plate for easier mechanical wood hauling (US Patent Office). He left Newfoundland to take up a position with Caterpillar Tractor as a logging consultant. He was with Caterpillar for nine years. McCraw died in 1978. Obituary for William McCraw

Frank Hayward, who had recently come back to Newfoundland after receiving a degree in Forestry from the University of Toronto, later became the first Chief Forester with the AND Company. I have little doubt that the devastation of this fire impacted his views, Hayward would also later be Chairman of the Newfoundland Forest Protection Association. Shortly after the fire he was appointed Superintendent of Terra Nova Division.

[i] Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company A Loss. Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador

[ii] Ibid Page 1

[iii] It appears that this may have been Mr. Arch Sheppard, who is mentioned later in the report.

[iv] Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company A Loss

[v] Ibid page 4 The Grand Falls boom was attached to an island, it is also much closer to Stony Brook than Bishop’s Falls. There is reference to an Osmond’s landing in that area as well. There is also mention of the Stony Dam, which would have been in the area of Chico’s Landing. Oddly there is no reference to the Tramway that was in that area, which was probably discontinued at this point. 

[vi] Ibid

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