Great Michigan Thumb Fire of 1881


Thumb Fire BuggyThis post is one of our most viewed this time of year. 136 years ago over a series of several days a devastating fire overtook the Thumb. Here is a synopsis of the event and the aftermath.   

The fires of September 4th though the 6th 1881, commonly known as the Thumb Fire, took hundreds of lives and burned well over one million acres.  The fire destroyed a major parts of Tuscola, Huron, Sanilac, and St. Clair counties. It forever altered the landscape of the Upper Thumb and its effect is seen in the area today.

The Army was summoned to the area and asked to assess the disaster and seek its cause. The report was issued the Spring of 1882.

“The summer of 1881 was excessively dry, and the drought had done its work nowhere more effectively than in the wide, blunt, tongue of land which lies between Saginaw bay and Lake Huron. At the northern end of this tongue is Huron County.  South of Huron is the counties of Tuscola and Sanilac, the latter bordering on the lake. Lapeer County lies south partly of Tuscola and partly of Sanilac. These are the counties that suffered from the great fires.Fire of 1881

In September no penetrating rain had fallen for almost two months. Almost every stream was dry. Many wells had become empty. The swamps had been burned to hard clay by the sun, fiercer in its heat than it had been for years before.  The vegetation of the fields and woods had become tinder. The earth was baked and cracked, the heat having penetrated to an unusual depth. Ten years before, a great fire had burned over the country, and had left standing acres of dead timber, and the sapless trunks and dry branches made splendid food for the flames. Some of the old trees had blown down, and the forests were full of ” wind-falls ” and of great piles of dead timber which are called ” slashings ” by the people of the settlements. Everything was ready to feed the fires when they finally came. Old roots, pine tops, branches, brush heaps, timber, and the parched earth made the fuel for the burning.”

The area news covered the event with more interest. Newspapers of the day files reports like the following:

Thumb Fire News“The fire appeared at Bad Axe, 20 miles northeast of Cass City, a little after 1:30 p.m. Monday September 4th. The winds had begun at noon and, according to observers, trees were broken off at the stump, boulders rolled along like pebbles, and people lifted off their feet into the air. Above the wind, a strange roar was heard, the sound of the approaching flames. Shortly after 1 pm there was darkness, as though a curtain had fallen.

Four hundred people fled to the new brick courthouse. As they watched, building after building burned around them. Thirty men pumped water from the adjoining well and kept the walls and tile roof wet. After a few minutes they had to return inside because of the heat, and another 30 would take over. Across the street, barrels of kerosene and gunpowder ignited when the hardware store burned. The store turned dark, and then blew into a bright, red glare.”

When the fire finally burned itself out, there were 282 known dead, more than 3,400 buildings destroyed, and almost 15,000 residents homeless. Many were blinded – some temporarily and some permanently – by smoke, gusting dust and flying ashes that traveled faster than a whirlwind and blotted out the sun for days.

In Boston and along the eastern seaboard a mysterious “yellow sky” appeared. The skies darkened shortly after dawn on Tuesday, September 6, 1881 – throughout all six New England states.  In the “forenoon,” as they called their mornings then, witnesses watched a “London fog” envelop their homes and roads.  This London fog soon took on a yellowish hue. More than a few whispered that the “Saffron CurtainFire Red Cross was the sign of a divine judgement. The causes behind the odd skies of that September day were eventually traced to smoke that had traveled eastward from Michigan’s massive “Thumb Fire” that had burnt over a million acres of woodlands in Michigan’s Thumb Area all on one day, the day before.

In 1881 Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross. The organization’s first meeting had taken place in Washington DC at the home of Sen. Omar D. Conger of Michigan. Their first official disaster relief operation was the response to the Thumb Fire, and the Red Cross provided money, clothes and household items to victims of the fire.

Source: From Various public and private web pages
New England’s Yellow Day of 1881: A Saffron Curtain Descends


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12 thoughts on “Great Michigan Thumb Fire of 1881”

      1. Here is another version from another source to make it clear.The Great Forest Fire of 1881 was largely confined to the Thumb area. Logging in this area reached its peak in 1872. By 1881 the splendid stands of pine and hardwoods had been cut down, however, the loggers left a wilderness of slashings, consisting of pine tops, branches, stumps, and trees rejected by loggers after they had been cut down. In many places the slashings were 12 to 15 feet high and covered large areas of land. The Fire of 1871 had also left large masses of dead and fallen timber. Finally, after most of the tall pines had been cut, the underbrush had become thicker and thicker.
        The summer of 1881 was excessively hot and dry. By September most of the streams had dried up. Even the swamps had been burned to a hard clay by the sun.

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  1. The woods I lived in most of my life was untouched. The fire stopped just a 1/4 mile south near M-25 between M-142 & Weale Rd, Bay Port.

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  2. My grandfather who was born May 24, 1881 couldn’t remember the fire of course, but his parents had stories. Some people went down in their well to escape the flames but suffocated instead.Others fled to Lake Huron. My grandfather, on my fathers side, with his father and brother made a living for a number of years selling fire wood. They also used logs for the base for some of the roads. Part of the payment for the work on the roads was to be given 12 lots in Downing Cemetery. This all took place in the Deckerville area.

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