The Great Fire of 1916

Nushka

The subsequent details of the 1916 fire which completely wiped out the village of Nushka (since then named Val Gagné), the cause of 64 victims in this community are herewith given by still living <at the time this story was written> witness of the tragedy. Albert Boucher, a resident of this community was at that time a young man of twenty-five years old. A jobber for the Abitibi Power Co., his work finished for the season, he had arrived home, the day before, with his father, Narcisse, his brother Arthur, and three friends of the family, the Plante brothers. It is probably due to the fact that these six men standing watch two at a time while the others wrapped in blankets, and wet towels over their burning eyes saved his family from the same fate as those living in or close to the village. When a flying spark ignited the six together could manage to put it out as water was near at hand and in abundance. A large clearing stopped the fire from reaching too close to the building. Other members this family still living <at the time this story was written> and who were young boys and girls at that time are Blanche, Yvonne (Mrs.E. Beauvais and Mrs. W. Lamarche) and Philippe, all three of Val Gagné, Annette (Mrs. M.J. Kelly, Timmins) in Sturgeon Falls and Emilien in Smooth Rock Falls.

According to these witnesses, the heat, the heavy smoke, and the air filled with flying ashes was unbearable and when, finally after having battled the blaze almost four hours, a shower which cleared the air a little, was a welcomed relief to the exhausted fire fighters.

How could such a fire strike so suddenly that practically no one could escape? The cause seems to be only circumstantial An extremely dry weather had prevailed for the last two months.

Everywhere brush fires used to clear land were numerous, and on that particular day, July 29, the work accomplished by these fires seemed to be a blessing to the settlers. About five o' clock in the afternoon a high wind struck the region and fire was every where.  Nobody knew if the disaster had struck only at his place or if his neighbors were in the same predicament as himself. Nightfall, heavy smoke, and exhaustion prevented everyone from finding out.

At the Bouchers, no one knew of the disaster and of the ghastly sight that would welcome them when they would reach their small village. Around 10 p.m. T.A. Lalonde who was contracting lumber along the Abitibi River in partnership with Simon Aumont, reached the Bouchers.

Mr. Lalonde and one of his employers, a Mr. Dumas, were coming from their camp site by motor boat and on reaching Matheson by way of the Black River, learned that their home town was also hit by the disaster. Lalonde knew that his family was away visiting, but as owner of a store, he was anxious to find out what had happened, so he set out walking a distance of ten miles on the railroad track.Reaching the first inhabited place, the Bouchers, they took a lantern and proceeded to the village, a distance of about 14 miles.  Well within the hour, they were back at the Bouchers to inform them of their findings. Before reaching the village, they stumbled over sprawled bodies along the track. To their repeated callings, they received no answer.  There was very little hope of finding any survivors.

At daybreak on their way to town, the eight men met the Alfred Gauthier family and Mr. and Mrs. William Thompson. These lived about 3/4 mile from the village on the east side of the track. They had survived by wrapping themselves in woollen blankets and lying face down in an oat field. They had seen nor heard anyone and were walking in the, hope of meeting someone. One of the Gauthier family, Eloi, and employee of the 0.N.R still resides in Val Gagné. No sign of life could be seen or heard, only bodies; some badly burned, others hardly burned at all, was the scene awaiting them. The section men who had escaped because they had taken refuge in the culvert at the entrance of the large cut. (canal dug in a rather high and steep hill to lay the track)

In that cut, 36 bodies were lying suffocated. Realizing that no help could be immediately given to anyone they returned home to get organized for the grimly task that faced them.
        
    

Early in the afternoon, they were joined by the Damase Charlebois <family>, the Labreches, the Dorvals the Dupuis and Odilon Houle <family> (now in Noranda). These people, living in Stock Township (a distance of four to five miles from town) were informed of the tragedy by Jos. Bourgeois. The latter had managed to save the family of his friend, Joseph Aumont, by keeping them wrapped in wet blankets and making them lie in a grain field.  When heavy smoke filled the air, Mr. Bourgeois, who was living in the village, went to his friend's place about 3/4 of mile on the south west side of town because he knew that Mrs. Aumont with three children was alone and must be frightened by the not too reassuring shift of wind velocity. Mr. Aumont and his oldest son Albert, eight years old, were away visiting in Joliette P.Que. (Albert and Yvan are residents yet).

Where the Lalonde store stood, only piles of smoking rubbish were found. Later, two bodies were discovered.  They <There> were the remains of Father Gagné, named resident priest of the community only a month or so earlier. Father Gagné had a room on the floor above the store. It was later related by a railway conductor that Father Gagné, who was returning to his parishioners after attending a priests' retreat in Haileybury, had preferred to come to the aid of his charges in need, even though the conductor had wanted him to stay on the train as it looked too risky to get off there, in the heavy smoke that filled the air. A few hours later, Father Gagné was the victim of his unbounding courage and self sacrifice for those under his spiritual care. In memory of such heroism, the new village that sprung on the ruins of the wiped out Nushka was named Val-Gagné.

Riding the section men's hand car, Mr. Boucher and his companions reached Monteith, their closer neighbours, a distance of only three miles. Its residents were most generous and ready to help. They provided man-power, and material unsparingly. This fortunate town had escaped untouched by the raging fire. A large clearing, part of the Experimental Farm, separated the town from the path of the flame. The names of some fifteen to twenty victims, living on farm surrounding Monteith are given later. Mr. Filmore, the owner of the store provides us with bolts of various kinds of material, which we used to cover the victims. Some were so burned that they could be moved only after having been carefully wrapped. As many victims as possible were placed on the push car pulled by the hand car and were taken to the railway station in Monteith. After having been carefully identified each one was laid in the station while employees of a local saw mill built coffins.

A group of residents dug graves for a temporary burial. The last two victims to be taken to Monteith, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Guillemette, (grandparents of Mrs. A. Bilodeau of the Val Gagné Creamery). The Anglican minister, whose name is not known, with the help of a few others carried them on two stretcher a distance of of a mile to the railway track. Then all were buried on piece of land, the property of the Experimental Farm. It was then one a.m., heavy hearted and with only a flick of strength remaining, everybody returned home. About eight to ten days later, all these bodies were taken to Haileybury for a permanent burial. That night, residents of the village who had survived either at work or away at the time of the fire had nowhere to go but to the Bouchers.  A few available tents housed as many as possible. Quite a few had to sleep in the barn. Three days later, after the damaged rails had been repaired, a relief train brought food and clothing.  Up until the army put up tents on the site of the village, some 50 to 60 persons were staying at the Bouchers.  Bearing the true symbol of the settlers, courage and determination, these ambitious people soon began to rebuilt on the ruins of Nushka, the flourishing farming community that is Val Gagné today.

See Also:
Deaths resulting from the fire, as transcribed from the Ontario Archives
        This excerpt was taken directly from The Corporation of the Town of Iroquois Falls Commercial Professional & Tourist Guide, printed in 1972, and added here simply for your enjoyment. The Iroquois Falls Pioneer Museum is an excellent source of history related to Iroquois Falls and its surrounding area.         
    

The Family of Narcisse Boucher 1919The Boucher Family

(Adults: back row, from left to right)Albert Boucher and wife Léa Aumont, Arthur Boucher and wife Élisabeth Kelly, Wilfrid Lamarche and wife Yvonne Boucher, Charles Plante (widower of Marie-Louise Boucher d. 1917), Marie-Anne Boucher (future wife of Côme Laforest), Blanche Boucher and husband Émmanuel Beauvais. (Front, seated) Narcisse Boucher and wife, Amanda St-Onge. Photo taken in front of the Boucher barn in Val-Gagné, on the wedding day of Arthur Boucher and Élisabeth Kelly, September 2, 1919. This is the same building that three years previous, temporarily housed approximately 60 survivors of the forest fire.
(Photo submitted by Denise DeForge)

After the 1916 Fire
    

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