Weather Report in 1825
from Rev. William Bell Diary
The diary of Rev. William Bell provides a wealth of information that I feel has been neglected when researching the settlement period of Lanark County. So much of what has been referenced from his diaries has focused on his personal moral standards and his often-critical commentary about events in the new settlement of Perth. One topic of interest to me was his weather report for the summer of 1825. The following excerpt made me think of recent changes to weather patterns that we are experiencing, especially those that have given rise to extensive forest fires. The landscape affected by the fires in this record was also affected by the Great Fire of 1870 that devastated much of the Ottawa Valley.
In August 1825 he wrote:
“The want of rain was much felt this summer. In harvest the ground was so dry that every fire, lighted out of doors, ran over the ground in any direction the wind happened to carry it. Mr. Jackson, one of my neighbours, had all his crops burnt, besides about thirty cords of firewood. Fires were running in all quarters; but it fortunately happened that, at this time, there was little or no wind; so that the damage was not so great as it might have been; for the woods were on fire from the Atlantic to the Mississippi. So dense was the smoke for more than a week, all over the country, that the steamboats would not make their regular trips, and both man and beast became sick. But a dead calm prevailed, or the country might have been ruined.
“The province of New Brunswick was less fortunate. While the fires were in the woods there, a hurricane rose, which carried the flames, like a fiery deluge, over the country with incredible rapidity laying everything combustible in ashes. Houses, stores, barns, lumber, ships, crops, standing trees, and even the vegetable soil were consumed. The number of persons destroyed or wounded was great, amounting to several hundreds. Even those spared had lost their dwellings, cattle, clothing, furniture, food, and at the commencement of a long and rigorous winter. But the nature and extent of their calamity touched the heart of the benevolent, and in almost every part, not only of the British colonies, but in the United States also, liberal subscriptions were made in money, clothing, and provisions, both by the government and by individuals.
“Though we suffered no such calamity, yet our gardens and fields were so dry and parched that many plants died, and vegetation was at a stand. When the soil was turned up a cloud of dust ascended as from a heap of ashes. The fences and woods around us were so frequently on fire that we were kept in state of continual alarm.
“My next neighbour, Mr. McKenzie, having thoughtlessly put fire into a rotten stump to burn it out, a gust of wind spread it over the field, by which he lost ten acres of hay and as much of oats, besides fence and firewood. The fire had just reached my fence when the neighbours turned out, and, with hoes and other implements, arrested its progress. At the same time Mr. McKenzie put his oxen to the plough and drew a furrow round the outside of the fire, by which it was prevented from spreading farther.
“A day or two after this, a breeze having sprung up, the fire on Mr. McKenzie’s land again broke out and destroyed the greater part of his crop. I had two men clearing in a swamp, and burning the brush, when the fire began to run, in a short time the greater part of the swamp on fire, by which I lost many cedar posts and besides firewood.
“The men repairing the log-bridge on the Mississippi road, having fire in a stump to light their pipes, it began to run, and set the adjoining cedar swamp on fire. The sight was terrific. The flames flashed and crackled, and dense volumes of smoke soon darkened the air in all directions. In the following night the fire took into the log-bridge, and before morning a large part of it was destroyed. All that day the fire raged in the swamp, which extended a mile to the north. Huge masses of dark smoke could be seen at Perth, three miles distant, like mountains piled on each other, spreading over the sky, and giving a murky hue to the light of day. Showers of white ashes and half burnt leaves were falling over the town at this time, and fires were springing up in all directions there is no saying what destruction might have followed had not a kind Providence interposed in our behalf. But just when the danger seemed greatest, dark clouds of a different description were observed gliding over the sky, and in a short time it began to rain. Never was a shower more needed both to refresh the parched fields and to extinguish the fires, which were now raging in all directions, and threatening destruction to buildings, fences, and crops. The rain fell thick and fast, so fast indeed that the earth, dry as it was, could not receive it as fast as it fell. Three hours this rain continued, refreshing vegetation, and spreading universal joy over the land. It was delightful to see the happy effects of this seasonable supply on the fair face of nature.
“But what brought safety to some brought death to others. The storm, which brought benefit to the thirsty land here, appeared along the west bank of the Otty lake in the shape of a hurricane, which destroyed crops, buildings, and prostrated the largest trees as if they had been corn stalks.
“A Mr. McDonnell and his son were mowing near the lake when the storm began. Hail as large as pigeons eggs beginning to fall they ran towards the house, while trees were falling in all directions. The young man reached home first and expected that his father would soon follow. As he did not make his appearance, after waiting some time, the mother and son went in search of him. They had not gone far when they found him, crushed to death, under the trunk of a large tree. What they felt on finding his mangled remains, I shall not attempt to describe.
And later that summer he wrote:
“On the night of the 9th August, not being able to sleep from pain, I had an opportunity of seeing a splendid phenomenon. At first my attention was attracted by the room being light and dark alternately. The light was so clear that I started up, fearing that some house might be on fire. On looking out at a south window I beheld a scene truly grand. Every other second the whole hemisphere was lighted up with a splendor of a dazzling brightness. The air was still and the night dark, except during the flash, when the whole landscape was seen as in the clearest day.
“After admiring the scene for half an hour I retired to bed. The light continued to play some time longer when distant thunder began to roll. It approached nearer and nearer, and waxed louder and louder, till it actually shook the bed on which we lay. The night was now shrouded in pitchy darkness, except when lighted up with the flashes, which still appeared at intervals. The air, which before had been still, was now agitated to a state of fury, and raged and roared as if threatening to overturn everything in it’s way. This war of the elements soon wakened all in the house. Some lay still trembling, while some of the children jumped out of bed and came running into our apartment. Even the brutes were terrified. Silvia, the housedog, howled with fear, and a kitten two months old screamed aloud.
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