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The Inferno at J.W. Howry & Sons

August 24, 2023

View down the Fenelon River, looking towards the Red Mill. This mill was built by R.C. Smith and later operated by J.W. Howry and Sons

The Largest Sawmill Ever in the Kawarthas – The Largest Fire Ever in Fenelon Falls

In 1892, J.W. Howry & Sons, a large lumber firm based in Saginaw, Michigan purchased timber berths from Mossom Boyd & Company, who were phasing out local operations, largely because standing timber was becoming too expensive. The Howrys began refitting the Fenelon Falls mill with new machinery, and even electric light. For 1896, they increased the annual capacity to about 40,000,000 feet, equal to about 1/5 of all lumber operations tributary to the Ottawa River, and triple Boyd’s former production.

On June 19, 1896 their lumber yard caught fire and soon the flames were jumping from pile to pile. The villagers rallied to try to contain the inferno, fighting desperately through the night. But it was not dark—the fire produced so much light that it could be seen 20 miles away, and W.T. Junkin recalled “you could see to read a newspaper on the Church Hill [across town] at midnight as plainly as in daylight.” By 10 pm Lindsay’s fire brigade and volunteer citizens had arrived by special train, and an hour later the Peterborough engine and fire brigade had joined the struggle. Boyd dispatched Bobcaygeon’s firemen and engine by the steamer Esturion. At this time not all municipalities had a fire engine, and they were not particularly portable.

The volunteers tried to extinguish the fire by throwing the lumber into the river. But then the river caught fire. In the mayhem, a rail car was driven into the river, that divers still find to this day.  When the smoke cleared, approximately $250,000 worth of mill produce had burnt, in an era when being a millionaire was like a billionaire today. The desperate efforts of all the volunteers managed to save the town, and the sawmill—only to see it burn in another fire on September 9.

The yard fire bankrupted the entire Howry firm, which had once been a major producer throughout the Great Lakes region—the second fire, only made them that much further from solvency. Not long after, John H. Howry slipped out of town on a special train, never to be seen again. His famed father committed suicide by drinking morphine on a train in Kansas City, leaving a note explaining that he was ending his life because of his financial troubles. Heritage House (RWH) had been the office of the Howry Company (and its predecessor R.C. Smith) and survives to this day.

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