Michigan Forest Fire of 1871
One of the most notable events of the period of which we write was the great destruction of life and property by the forest fires which swept across the state in the autumn of 1871.
The summer had been an unusually hot and dry one.
From June there had been in the state only scattered and insignificant showers, and in some localities, it is said, not a drop of rain had fallen for several months.
As a result all vegetation was parched, the earth was cracked from lack of moisture and everything was dry as tinder.
The swamps were dried out, grass dried and withered, wells and cisterns exhausted, and in some places no water for many miles from running streams.
It will be borne in mind that at that time Michigan was enjoying its most prosperous days of pine lumbering.
The forests were being felled, the severed branches of trees were piled upon the ground; the trunks, cut up into logs, were floated down the streams to near their mouths and there cut into lumber and piled, awaiting transportation to market.
The sap and moisture had been thoroughly evaporated from all this wood by the merciless sun and wind.
At this season of the year there were usually brush fires raging in the clearings.
On Sunday, October 8, 1871, fire broke out in a wooden stable in the south side of Chicago, which on that night and the two following days and nights, literally wiped out the entire city.
This was one of the great conflagrations of history.
Many lives were lost, millions of dollars’ worth of property were destroyed and thousands of persons were left homeless, without shelter or food.
While our people were reading the startling news of this calamity and were planning to send relief to the sufferers, there came drifting to their ears the story of the horrible experiences of dwellers within our own borders.
The wave of lurid flame swept across the entire state, wiping out, within a few hours, everything combustible in its path.
The fire in Chicago and those in Michigan could have been controlled under ordinary circumstances, but the circumstances were very extraordinary.
The atmospheric conditions were peculiar.
A hot wave came up from the southwest with a gale which reached the proportions of a tornado.
It was a gigantic blow-pipe which fed oxygen to the flames which withered and consumed every combustible thing in their path.
On this same night of October 8, and on the following day and night, the fires crossed the entire state from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron.
The city of Holland in Ottawa County was entirely destroyed, and the city of Manistee in the county of that name, was nearly wiped out.
From the latter city a zone of flame extended almost due eastward through the counties of Lake, Osceola, Isabella, Midland, Saginaw, Tuscola, Sanilac and Huron, where its further progress was stayed by the waters of the lake.
This entire region was one in which pine lumbering was then in active operation.
Holland and Manistee were lumber towns, where the logs brought down from the interior were cut for the market.
The numerous mills were surrounded by great quantities of highly inflammable material.
Edgings and bark had accumulated in bulk; large piles of sawed lumber were stored in the yards, the streets were paved with sawdust and slabs.
An eye-witness describing the destruction of Holland says that in the short space of two hours, between one and three o'clock on the morning of October 9th, the devastation was complete.
No one, unless he had witnessed such a scene, could have any conception of its terror.
The entire territory covered by the fire was swept clean; there was not a fence post or a sidewalk plank, and hardly the stump of a shade tree left to designate the old lines.
People fled to the nearest open ground; many took to the waters of Black Lake, escaping in small boats.
The fierceness of the wind and the rapidity with which the fire spread may be inferred from the fact that over two hundred and fifty dead horses, cattle and swine were found.
A partly burned bank check, which had been in one of the stores was afterward picked up on a farm twenty-five miles away.
Only one human life was lost, that of an aged widow, who had not been able to save herself.
Over three hundred families were left without shelter.
The number of buildings destroyed were, dwellings two hundred and ten; stores, shops and offices, seventy-five; manufactories, fifteen; churches, five; hotels, three; miscellaneous buildings, forty-five; docks and warehouses, five, beside a number of vessels.
The amount of property destroyed was estimated at nine hundred thousand dollars.
One of the losses most severely felt by the entire community was the total destruction of the buildings of Hope College.
While this destructive scene was in progress in Holland, its almost exact counterpart was witnessed at Manistee.
This also was a lumber town—a sawdust city.
All the buildings were of wood.
The lumber mills were scattered along the shore of Manistee Lake.
Their surroundings were of a most highly combustible character.
When once the flames had seized upon some portion of the town there was no staying them.
They swept unrestrained, licking up whatever was overtaken.
The inhabitants fled for safety to the open spaces outside the town or escaped in small boats upon the water.
Within an incredibly short time almost the entire city was destroyed, including dwellings, stores, schools, churches, mills and other manufacturing establishments, docks and warehouses.
The estimated money loss was upwards of one million two hundred thousand dollars, a very large proportion of which was mill property and manufactured lumber.
On account of the enormous destruction by fire at Chicago and elsewhere at that time, insurance policies had very little, if any, value.
Fires also caused much damage in the surrounding vicinity, and by the destruction of bridges and telegraph poles practically cut off all communication, for a time, with the outside world.
As the fires raged in the belt extending entirely across the state, they swept everything in their path.
The gathered crops of the season had been stored in the farm barns; the fall wheat had been sown, and the corn was ripening in the shock.
All were destroyed, together with dwellings and their contents farm buildings, in many instances, domestic animals, leaving nothing but ashes, blackened stumps and putrid carcasses.
Orchards which had been the work of years to rear were wiped out in an hour.
School houses, churches, bridges, disappeared, as if by magic.
While this zone of flame stretched across the state, it seemed to work its greatest havoc as it approached Lake Huron.
Huron and Sanilac counties, though largely devoted to lumbering, were nevertheless, quite well settled by an agricultural population and abounded in prosperous and well cultivated farms and orchards.
Throughout this whole region, a tract at least forty miles square, scarcely a vestige of life was left.
Blinded by smoke and stifled by the on-rushing flames, the inhabitants hid in wells and cisterns and ditches, or fled in terror to the lake shore, where they saved themselves by wading into the water up to their necks.
There were along the Huron shore or near it the following villages of two hundred to six hundred inhabitants:
Glen Haven, White Rock, Forestville, Sand Beach, Port Hope, Elm Creek, Huron City, Forest Bay, Center Harbor, Rock Falls, Verona Mills.
These villages were almost wholly obliterated and the people who lived in them were left entirely destitute, without food and with only the clothing which they wore.
Many of them were obliged to leave the country to find homes and sustenance for the coming winter in other localities.
When this great calamity became known prompt and energetic measures for relief were instituted at once.
Governor Baldwin took hold of the matter and appointed relief committees composed of well-known citizens of Detroit, Grand Rapids, Saginaw and other localities, and the gifts of money, supplies, clothing and materials for rebuilding homes were speedily offered.
At the extra session of the legislature in March, 1872, the governor submitted the following facts:
Early in October last several of the northwestern states were visited by fires unparalleled in the annals of history.
A large portion of the beautiful and wonderfully prosperous city of Chicago was reduced to ashes.
In Wisconsin the wide-spread conflagration was attended with a most fearful loss of life.
While the people of Michigan were engaged in the noble work of furnishing relief to the sufferers in Chicago, the same devouring element was making sad havoc in our own state.
Thriving towns, farms and school houses, churches, stock, crops, and thousands of acres of valuable timber were consumed.
Nearly three thousand families, upwards of eighteen thousand persons, were rendered houseless and deprived of the necessaries of life.
Immediately after the fires two state relief committees were appointed—one at Detroit for the eastern, and the other at Grand Rapids for the western part of the state.
Committees or agents were also designated in each of the counties and many of the towns of the burned district, to procure information, as well as to receive and distribute supplies.
A considerable number of bridges having been destroyed, the state board of control took prompt measures to have them rebuilt and made appropriations of swamp lands for that purpose.
The Detroit committee reported the distribution of funds in its hands to persons in different localities in the east side of the state.
The committee rebuilt one thousand two hundred and five dwellings; distributed clothing of the estimated value of fifty thousand dollars, and provisions of the estimated value of thirty-five thousand dollars.
All this was outside the relief work done by the committees at Saginaw and Port Huron, by the mayor of Detroit and by numerous individuals operating independently.
No comprehensive statistics were ever gathered of the losses of life and property in these fires, nor of the money collected and disbursed for the relief of sufferers.
On the 5th of September, 1881, almost exactly ten years later a second visitation of fire swept through four counties, covering a considerable part of the region which suffered so severely before.
The atmospheric conditions were strikingly similar.
The summer of 1881 was excessively dry; all vegetation was parched and withered, streams and swamps were dried up, and in the pine lumbering districts the brush piles, wind-falls and slashings were dry as tinder.
No rain whatever had fallen for two months.
In the early days of the hot, dry, August, forest fires were burning in almost every township of the four counties of Tuscola, Lapeer, Huron and Sanilac.
This was usual.
Farmers had been accustomed to burn brush and rubbish in this way, and under ordinary conditions it was safe enough.
On Monday, September 5, a fierce gale from the southwest sprang up and the thousand fires burning in as many separate localities were fanned into uncontrollable flames, which spread into an irresistible tornado of fire which licked up everything in its path.
For three consecutive days the conflagration raged with the violence of that of ten years before, and with even more disastrous results, because at this latter date there was a greatly increased population and more valuable improvements in the way of buildings, orchards, fences, bridges, than formerly.
The wind blew with such violence as to uproot large forest trees and lift the roofs from buildings.
At the same time, the temperature outside the fire swept district was one hundred and upward in the shade.
Under these conditions, it may well be conceived that the sufferings of those exposed to the disastrous fires were something appalling.
Men, women and children, old and young were burned while they were flying along the public highway.
The air was so thick with blinding smoke that the darkness became almost total.
Through the cimmerian air flaming balls of punkfell into the villages and fields, and then the fires would burst forth on every side.
The flames came rushing on, sometimes in huge revolving columns, then in detached fragments that were torn by the winds from the mass, and sent flying over the tops of trees for a half mile to be pushed down to the earth again.
Flames were seen to leap many feet higher than the tallest pines, and in every direction sheets of fire were flying across the country.
Some of the fugitives were lifted from the ground by the strong wind and were seized by the flames as they fell.
Some saved their lives by scooping holes in the ground and burying their faces to escape inhaling the stifling air; others found refuge in wells where they clung to the walls with their fingers and toes.
Some hid themselves in cisterns while the clothing was burned from their backs and the flesh was blistered.
The flying sand and smoke blinded people who walked in the dense darkness into fire traps.
Many of those who escaped with their lives were permanently crippled or blinded or disfigured.
Half naked creatures made their way into village streets, often bearing the charred remains of their dead with them.
Some took refuge in the waters of the lake, wading out until only their heads were above water, but even here they were suffocated by the intense heat, the smoke and the flying cinders.
Animals, wild and tame, were destroyed in vast numbers or herded together by the instinct of self-preservation.
One man who plunged into the lake for safety found in the morning a bear for a companion, but the bear made no objection and no trouble ensued.
Following is a list of the villages wholly or partially destroyed:
Name. Population. Bldgs. Destroyed. Losses.
Port Hope 400 7 $51,000
Huron City. . 75 21 60,000
Bad Axe 400 70 71,000
Verona 150 32 70,000
Charleston 50 26 30,000
Total 1,075 156 $282,000
The losses by counties is thus indicated:
County. Lives Lost. Bldgs. Destroyed. Losses.
Huron 70 1,613 $i»i<>7,538
Sanilac 55 1,557 760,078
Tuscola.. 255 106,317
Lapeer.. 12 9,457
Railway Co.. .... 20,000
Total 125 3,437 $2,003,390