The Great Michigan Fires, 1871-1910s
Over the past 250 years, Michigan has had numerous devastating forest fires, partly due to our state's extensive logging trade and abundance of timber.
“The Great Michigan Fire of 1871” was an intensely bigger catastrophe than the so-so adjective 'great' can give it. This was a tremendously destructive series of blazes that not only ripped through Michigan, but also Illinois and Wisconsin.
The thirty-seven individual fires that flared up in October 8, 1871 have been lumped into five different categories: The Great Chicago Fire, The Great Peshtigo Fire, The Holland Fire, The Manistee Fire, and The Port Huron Fire.
The Chicago Fire went down in history when a cow owned by a certain Mrs. O'Leary kicked over a lantern (even though that's been disputed), setting the barn on fire. It was the only fire site in Illinois.
The Peshtigo Fire had ten blazes along Green Bay, with two more reaching into Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
What caused all these fires, many miles away from each other, to ignite all on the same day? Many forest fires of the 1800s were caused by fires that were intentionally set to clear the land. These fires were carefully watched, but when strong winds flared up, it would fan the flames to great proportion, getting out of control and spreading too fast to contain.
But what could have caused them to start in three separate states? A theory has been suggested that the blazes were started by the breakage of a comet, whose fiery fragments fell to earth, hitting these widespread areas.
Regarding “The Great Michigan Fire of 1871”, (as reported on Thumbwind), the previous summer had been unusually hot, turning Michigan's land very dry, especially in the Thumb. Holland and Manistee were busy battling their fires when more ignited across the state, finally stopping north of Port Huron. Speculation says heavy winds kept picking up burning timber and dropping them across the state. Whole towns were eliminated, thousands of people perished, many tried to escape the fires by jumping into wells or Lake Huron, or even wrapping themselves in wet towels. Farm animals, pets, homes...nothing escaped and nothing could stop it.
If that wasn't enough, ten years later, the Thumb experienced more devastating fires in what is referred to as “The Great Thumb Fire of 1881”. These fires were blamed on the piles of debris left by lumber companies: sawdust, discarded dry timber, fallen trees, and dried pulp. From September 4-6, these fires tore through the counties of Huron, Sanilac, St. Clair, and Tuscola. The fact that a major drought was occurring didn't help.
It was in 1881 that Clara Barton founded the Red Cross...and that organization's first major disaster relief was for the casualties of Michigan's Thumb Fire of 1881.
Then there was the blaze of 1908 that is believed to have started in Millersburg, 15 miles a tad northwest of Metz, in Presque Isle County. It was in Mid-October when high winds carried the flames 35 miles across the state to Lake Huron, killing 37 people and leaving hundreds homeless. Read more about the Metz fire here.
The photo gallery below shows many Michigan towns and cities ablaze in the early 1900s, many being from the fires of 1908, which included a separate one in Kalkaska on July 5, 1908.
We can be grateful that firefighters are better equipped in the 2000s than they were over 100 years ago.
MICHIGAN'S GREAT FIRES
MORE: A Close Look At the Firemen's Memorial in Roscommon