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Aultsville: The Village That Was Burned To The Ground for Science

Aultsville was once a sleepy village in the Canadian Province of Canada. But when authorities decided to build the St. Lawrence Seaway, it had to go.

The original plan was to demolish the buildings and flood the area for the Seaway, but scientists had other ideas. Since the buildings were to be destroyed anyway, why couldn’t they be used for science?

And so, in the late 1950s, an international team of building researchers selected and then burned to the ground some houses and larger buildings in the town. Once people’s homes and businesses, these buildings were sacrificed so that many more families around the world would more likely to survive fires in the future. 

Whilst the event was tragic, and a little controversial at the time, Aultsville’s sacrifice was probably more than worth it.

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What happened in Aultsville?

Aultsville was once a sleepy village in Ontario, Canada. It is most famous for being one of the so-called lost villages of Ontario today.

The reason it was lost is that the occupants of the village were forced to move to make way for the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the 1950s. Today the site of the town has been completed flooded but you can still make out the old roads, sidewalks, and building foundations from aerial and satellite imagery.

The town of Aultsville was founded as Charlesville in the late 1700s. Founding members of the town were United Empire Loyalists and its population peaked around 1880. 

At this point in time, it had somewhere in the region of 400 residents. At the time of its flooding, the town had had a population of just over 300.

Residents were hastily relocated to Ingleside before any demolition and flooding works could begin. But, as if the flooding wasn’t enough, the town had one last role to play. And all for science!

Because the town, now abandoned, had been marked for demolition and flooding, scientists thought it might be useful to conduct some experiments first. They postulated that since the buildings were to be destroyed anyway, why couldn’t they run some controlled fire experiments on them first?

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The idea was to burn down a selection of the buildings to study the entire process of how a fire starts, spreads and destroys a building. The data collected from the experiments was incredibly important and was later integrated into the Canadian building code.

Why Aultsville burned down?

The reason that Aultsville was burned down was to study how fires start, spread and consume buildings. The research was undertaken by the Building Research department of the Canadian National Research Council.

Other international authorities also took part in the study including the British Joint Fire Research Organisation, the U.S. Federal Civil Defense Authority, e Ontario Fire Marshal and staff, and lastly the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario.

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The old village sign at Lost Villages Museum. Source: Roeymills/Wikimedia Commons

Controlled fires were started in six houses and two larger buildings. The entire process was recorded on film, as well as detailed measurements of smoke, sound, and temperature were taken. 

Other measurements, such as ventilation rate. radiant temperature, radiometer data, resistance thermometer measurements, and gas analysis were also collected. A summary report was then compiled after the conclusion of the burning of Aultsville.

Prior to this rare experiment, fire investigators and scientists had only the remains of previous real fires and small-scale model experiments to work with. It represented a very rare opportunity to study fire in buildings on real-life sites.

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Scientists could also control every aspect of the experiment, within reason, to see how fire spreads through a building. It was also a great opportunity to investigate how fires can also spread between neighboring properties. 

aultsville today
You can still make out buildings and roads from aerial and satellite imagery today. Source: sunkenvillages.ca

What did the burning of Aultsville achieve?

Investigators were able to collate a lot of valuable information from the experiment. They were able to record things like carbon monoxide concentrations, smoke density, the rise of temperature, oxygen levels, etc.

They also, interestingly, mounted microphones in some of the bedrooms of family homes that were set ablaze. This enabled investigators to determine that sound levels during a fire were not enough to wake sleeping occupants when the bedroom door is closed.

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This was critical information. The sounds levels in particular completely changed some general assumptions in the fire protection and prevention industry.

Prior to the experiment, it was generally thought that sound levels during a fire would be enough to wake people up. 

Another assumption was that the primary reason fires spread through, and between, buildings was convection. In fact, it appeared that radiant heat was the most significant contributing factor.

This meant that one burning wooden, or timber, frame house could ignite another wooden frame house 40 feet (12 meters) away being set alight. But there was more, even a generally non-combustible solid construction building, could cause another house around 32 feet (just under 10 meters) away from catching fire. 

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All of this data was not just of scientific interest. It had some very real-world impacts in Canada and around the world. The findings of the experiment were used to change the building codes in Canada.

The sacrifice of the families who were forced to leave the town and meant that countless more lives have been saved thanks to this research. 

Aultsville was controversial

Whilst the experiment was certainly a unique opportunity for science, it was not without its controversies. These buildings were once people’s homes and businesses. 

Of the buildings selected six were family homes, and the other two larger buildings including a school.

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But these were not just buildings. There was, and still is, a family element to the story.

The houses, in particular, had been homes for families for generations. The local school and community hall were also once the beating heart of the community.

To some, the experiment was something of an insult to the memories of living members of the community had their lives forcibly uprooted. It was, to borrow a phrase, an insult to injury.

Many of the families were not even told about the planned experiment. Many of the actual researchers also chose not to watch. Even the volunteer fire chief told people in an interview many years later that “watching the flames was devastating”.

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But, for many, the experiment was probably worth it. The data collected has proved invaluable in making other buildings safer for occupants during a fire.

aultsville old home
Tintype of the Merkle Home in Aultsville, Ontario, circa 1860. Source: Cornwall Community Museum/Wikimedia Commons

Longheld beliefs like the sound of fire being enough to wake occupants or fires spread mainly due to convection were all proved to be false. 

Whilst the village has since been wiped from the map, its sacrifice, and that of its former occupants was not in vain. Building codes in North America and around the world have all integrated the findings of the burning of Aultsville. 

Without this rare opportunity in history, many more families might have suffered the very real threat of fires in their homes and community buildings. It was a unique and life-changing scientific study of how fires start, spread and ultimately destroy buildings, families, and communities. 

Source: Interesting Engineering