PAST TIMES BY JOHN ASHTON
Editor’s Note: John Ashton’s Past Times column is returning to The News and will run Mondays until September.
One of Canada’s worst lumber camp disasters happened in the woods between West River Station, Pictou County, and Riversdale, Colchester County, in the year 1918. This terrible tragedy was among the near 2,200 work-related deaths to occur in Nova Scotia in a nine-month period from July 1917 until March 1918. These human losses in our province did not include the carnage that took place in this time period during the First World War.
Lumbering in the Nova Scotia forest during World War One had increased significantly. Pictou and Colchester counties had hundreds of men set up in winter camps plying their trade as wood cutters and small jobbers. Woods contractors from all over the province constructed lumber camps of all types, deep in the woods to supply the demand for this precious resource. Working as a wood cutter during this time was very hard and tiresome; the loggers usually stayed in the lumber camp for the winter months well into the spring thaw.
Well-known woods contractor Alvin. A Sutherland of Oxford, Cumberland County, decided to set up his camp in the deep woods on the boundary line between Pictou and Colchester counties. In the fall of 1917, A.A. Sutherland had erected a brand new lumber camp. “A two-storey structure, the upper part reached by three different stairways, was used as a sleeping room, the lower part as a kitchen, dining room and smoking room.” The upstairs area was divided into three parts, the workers room, A.A. Sutherland and his son Max’s space and the third portion given to the camp cook and his wife and their six children. The camp was windowless; to save the much-needed wood heat in winter and it did have two small doors located at either end of the building.
The cutters had put out a good quantity of wood that winter. And on that Friday, March 15, 1918 night, everything seemed to go as usual. Around 9 o’clock the workers headed to bed to be ready for an early rise on Saturday morning. They had hung their wet clothing around the large stove in the kitchen, and as usual they had laid bags of straw used as seats on the their wood-hauling sleds to dry before morning. During the winter months it was customary to keep a good fire going all night, but something went terribly wrong around 12 o’clock that night. A fire started possibly from the drying clothes or straw that was placed near the kitchen stove.
Camp owner A. A. Sutherland was first to be awoken: he heard the faint sound of a woman crying and immediately went downstairs only to discover the camp ablaze at one end. A. A. darted back up the stairs and aroused his son Max, and they immediately ran out one of the two doors. At the same time two badly burned wood cutters from the upstairs workers’ loft barged through the other end door. With a wind tunnel effect the open doors fanned the flames into a raging inferno. No others could escape.
“So fierce and hot was the fire “all twenty individuals died as they lay. The two burned woodsmen were cared for as best possible, a teamster that was housed in another building was sent to West River Station, “where a train going east was flagged and the two injured lumberman were sent to the Aberdeen Hospital in New Glasgow.” Unfortunately the two men taken to the Aberdeen succumbed to their injuries.
Truro coroner and Pictou County native Dr. W.R. Dunbar arrived Saturday morning to begin the inquest. The remains of the 20 individuals, some burned beyond recognition were placed in caskets and taken by train back to Olive Funeral Home in Truro. Dr. Dunbar immediately appointed a jury of men from Lawrence MacKay’s lumber camp located a half mile away. The verdict: “The individuals came to their death by being suffocated and burned in a camp. We find, according to the evidence, that the fire was accidental and the cause unknown.”
The 22 individuals who died in this catastrophe were from all over the province. One entire family, camp cook Alfred Guthro, his wife and six children from Hants County, perished and William Wilson of Truro had just started work at the lumber camp that terrible Friday. Logging contractor, Alvin A. Sutherland never did return to the woods after this disaster and eventually died in the asylum at Pugwash, Cumberland County, in 1942
An article in the Pictou County’s Eastern Chronicle newspaper dated March 19 stated, “No doubt many lumber camps of Nova Scotia are fire traps such as this one seemed to be. One door as a rule and but few windows to offer an avenue for easy and quick escape.” Lumber camps were constructed with the view to warmth and no thought for escape. Contact was made with the Department of Natural Resources and the Nova Scotia Legislative Library to see if any provincial laws were changed in 1918, concerning mandatory windows, doors and escape plans for lumber camps. None to date have been found.
Footnote - The author is hoping to locate the exact location where this disaster happened and place a memorial indication for the memory of the 22 individuals who perished on March 16, 1918.
John Ashton of Bridgeville is a local historian and the province’s representative to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.