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Kinmount’s Great Fire of 1890

March 17, 2024

The Main Street of Kinmount, post 1890: There is no known image before the Great Fire of 1890

By Guy Scott

The words “Kinmount” and “fire” are often used in the same sentence. The village has suffered from major conflagrations on numerous occasions in its history: especially 1877, 1890, 1917, 1922 and 1942. The Great Fire of 1890 was one of the largest, and changed the history of the village.

Before 1876, Kinmount village was a sleepy little hamlet astride the Bobcaygeon Road bridge over the Burnt River. The arrival of the Victoria Railway in that year ushered in a period of economic growth that transformed the sleepy little hamlet into a boom town. The business core along Main Street grew by leaps and bounds throughout the 1880s. The result was a haphazard collection of various structures: some small, some large. On September 26, 1890, fire swept away “ancient Kinmount.” In a twist of irony, many Kinmount residents were gathered in the Baptist Church (now the Masonic Lodge) to hear noted Temperance advocate Joe Hess speak on the evils of alcohol. While the meeting was going on, a fire broke out in the stables of the Dunbar Hotel (one of the largest purveyors of the demon rum). A furious wind soon whipped the fire out of control. There was no fire department. The only recourse was local citizens with pails. Despite the gallant efforts of this local bucket brigade, the fire on the east side of Main Street was soon out of control. The flames leapt the street and soon devoured the west side. An emergency request for help was sent by telegraph to Lindsay; the nearest organized fire brigade. By heroic efforts, a special train raced the Lindsay Fire Department north to Kinmount in a mere 50 minutes! But it was already over by the time they arrived. The fire had burnt itself out. Lost in the fire were the following businesses:

William Dunbar – Victoria Hotel

James Watson – General store and house

James Wilson – General store and post office

Samuel Henry – Blacksmith, implement dealer and house

Mrs. Jewitt – Dressmaker, millinery and house

A.Y. Hopkins – General Store

Charles Wellstood – Boot and shoe store

Alex Moore – Jewellery store

Curry & Johnson – Drug store

Swanton, Brandon & Co. – General store

Richard Brown – Confectionary shop

M. May – Blacksmith

Orange Lodge

Spared were the following businesses:

Searle Scott – Northern Hotel

Getchell’s Livery Stable

Dundas-Sadler Feed Depot

Scott’s Butcher Shop

These four businesses were at the north end of the street and were safe from the domino effect of the fire. Bowies Hotel was saved because it was built of brick: unusual for old wooden Kinmount. The Railway Station was also untouched, rumoured to be protected by the ghost of Sir William Mackenzie, its famous builder!

No lives were lost. The fire broke out during regular business hours and ample warning was given for everyone to make it to safety. The time of day also allowed many shop keepers to save some of their merchandise. In the confusing aftermath of the fire, accusations of “looting” by local residents began to circulate. It was rumoured that some goods saved from the fire were taken on home by helpers. Arthur Martin’s letter deals with these accusations. Nothing was ever proved. Most businesses had some insurance, but it never really covered the losses. The biggest loss was incurred by Swanton-Brandon & Co. store. It was estimated the losses were $6,000 after insurance. This company had just purchased the business from Henry Graham, who moved to Toronto. After the fire, the Graham family returned and reopened a business on their old site.

The nascent village of Kinmount was devastated by the Great Fire. But the loss was actually a blessing in disguise. The optimism of the local businessmen was not diminished by their loss, and every single businessman touched by the fire immediately rebuilt their business. The new structures were much improved, larger and ‘better’ than the ones destroyed. The ‘Old Kinmount’ pictured on photographs (and the town mural) dates from after the fire. There are no known pictures of Kinmount before the 1890 fire. If you have one, please contact us!

The following letter to the editor was printed in Lindsay’s Warder newspaper on October 31, 1890. It deals with rumours and accusations circulating around the village (and in the papers!) about looting in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1890. Certain people were accused of stealing goods as they helped the store keepers save some of their stock before fire consumed their stores. In this case, it was a hat. The letter also contains some useful eye-witness accounts of the fire. There is no word if the hat issue was ever solved.  

Kinmount Fire Still Burning, Snowdon, October 31, 1890

Dir Sir

Will you kindly give place in your valuable columns for the following letter intended especially for the people of Kinmount, as your paper is well circulated around here. We are not writing over any fictitious name. We believe the people of Kinmount deserve censure for their abuse of the “country people” wholesale, and we are neither ashamed or afraid to let them know it and sign our name in full. It is very seldom we trouble editors. We believe they are good men who have a good deal to think about, and should not be troubled with any correspondence unless it is important, or we might often drop a few lines that seem important to us but perhaps not so to them and would only find its way into the waste basket.

Although a little over a month has passed since Kinmount village was burned; it still keeps smouldering away in the minds of many and every day we hear of it breaking out afresh. We expect better things for the people of Kinmount. It seems not enough to brand “the country people” wholesale as “thieves and robbers,” the night of the fire, but still they keep at it, and we see by your issue on the 24th that it reached as far as Lindsay. But the latest novelty of the affair is the sending of letters to some of the ministers (perhaps all!) asking them to talk to their people to bring back the goods taken away. Of course the country people are poor and ignorant, and it is their place simply to allow the refined and intelligent “city bugs” of Kinmount to trample them down and impeach them with anything they like. I do not wish here to be misunderstood. My little experience gained by belonging to a fire company for 10 years in the town of Brampton taught me that there may have been things taken away by some parties, but why brand the country people wholesale! I have seen several people who have attended every fire regularly who do not seem to have anything to do but watch around for something to pick up. But I would have been very sorry to accuse everyone who had not a bit of store or the country people with carrying and hauling away everything they could get their hands on, especially when they were working as if for life and death to save property. I would like to let the public know how the country people worked at the fire. I know of no better way of doing so than by telling how we worked ourselves, and not for a moment thinking that we were doing any more than others, for I know there were many other far better able.

We were in the Drug Store when the cry of “fire” rose and we ran for the stable, and my son being quicker than I got there in time to cut the horses from the stall, seeing there was no time to untie them, the fire being in the stalls behind them. They were rushed out into the street, without bridle or halter, the neck yoke keeping them together. I rushed back to get our wraps which were put into an empty stall, but the flames would not let me within a rod of the door. Before the bridles were on the horses, Mr. George Rawlinson asked us to haul away his goods. We hitched up and our two sons took charge of the team and goods, and as quickly as possible his stock was delivered safely to Pym’s Hotel. The two women of our company, being busily engaged helping to pack up in the drug store, we then made a raid for whatever would be the most useful. Pushing off our shirt sleeves, we assisted Mr. Wilson, Mr. Watson, Mr. Brown and Mr. Hopkins; which was the last store caught. When all was enveloped in flames, Mr. Jewitt asked me if I thought he could get the (Salvation Army) “barracks” to put his stuff into. I told him I would try and see the captain or some of the soldiers, which I did, and as soon as we could get admittance we assisted in carrying his goods in there.

Now sir, I thought (just as you might expect ignorant country people to do), that it was a blessing there had been a public lecture announced for that night to bring so many of the country people out to assist them so that so much valuable goods may be saved from destruction. For I do not hesitate in saying that I handed hundreds of dollars myself. Yet notwithstanding all of this, the country people were slanderously accused of being thieves and robbers. If they know anyone who took goods, why don’t they go like gentlemen and demand them back. Or take some means of getting them back, not say discriminately that the country people took them off in wagon loads. I could patiently bear it all in good conscience, but sometimes patience ceases to be a virtue, and it becomes our duty to defend our character and our families so that we may not be a reproach to our neighbours and a stumbling block in the way of others.

A few days after the fire, Andrew (one of my sons) went to the village and was told by two or three that a story was going around that he stole a hat the night of the fire. He explained as best he could that he did not get a hat the night of the fire, but it seems as if no explanation is sufficient to keep some people from circulating a bad story.

Now I think it is but fair and just that the stealing of the hat should be brought to light. In the hurry and excitement of the fire, his hat was knocked off and the crown torn out of it. After the hurry was over, his head began to feel very cool, and not being able to work for nearly a year previous, he was afraid of getting a relapse and thought he might as well buy a hat that night and have the benefit of it, as wait until some other time. He went to the man in charge of Mr. Hopkins goods and asked him where the hats were and explained what he wanted, but he could not find any (as he wanted to get one to take the place of the one which was a Christie Stiff marked $3.50, but as he was getting a suit at the time, he got it for $3.25 at the City Store, Lindsay. It was very much work as you know country people cannot always wear a Christie Stiff. He then got Mr. Hopkins’ son to go with him to pick out a hat somewhere that would fit him. They got one so near to fitting him that he decided to keep it, and he would make it all right the first time he was in, as soon as he could find out who owned the hat. In a few days, he was in and made inquiries when the private mark showed it had been taken from Mr. Hopkins’ goods. He then went to Mr. Hopkins and showed him and explained the matter. The hat was marked $1.50, but said he would only charge him $1.00. If this is not a truthful confession of the stolen hat, the parties involved with it are all living yet and may be consulted.

I have so far in my life paid every man 100 cents for every dollar I owed him, and I have got my living, such as it has been, without stealing. I dare any responsible person to say that I, or any one of my family, carried away as much from the fire as they could roll around their finger. I feel very much like saying what I heard a man say yesterday. If he saw some of the stores on fire again, he would put his hands in his pockets and say “help yourselves.” I hope a good and useful lesson will be learned by the time Kinmount is built up again.


Arthur Martin, Kinmount P.O.

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