The Great Michigan Fire of 1881 devastated one town above all others; Parisville. Parisville Michigan was Founded by Polish immigrants escaping the oppression of the Prussian Empire, this community claims to be the first Polish settlement in North America. They came from the Boronόw and Śliwice provinces in Poland temporarily working and traveling in Canada before settling in the rich farmland of Michigan’s Thumb.
The Secret of Michigan’s Thumb
The beauty of the rich farmland of Michigan’s Thumb holds a secret history of devastation. After the clear-cut lumbering era of the 1800’s thousands of slashings, tree tops and branches were left. For years, farmers cleared the debris by burning. In the middle of this tender box was Paris Township which contains the historic town of Parisville.
1881 Fire That Destroyed Michigan’s Thumb
The Paris township community was also in the path of one of the largest forest fires of the 1880’s. The Great Fire of 1881 scorched a mass of land 60 miles long north to south and 30 miles wide across the eastern half of Huron and Tuscola counties and most of Sanilac County.
According to records filed by the US Army after the Great Fire of 1881, Parisville township was listed as having the 446 buildings destroyed and 22 lives lost. This was the greatest amount of devastation within the three Michigan counties that experienced the great fire. (1)
Eyewitness Accounts of the 1881 Fire in Parisville
One of the most amazing stories was revealing in a letter from Deine Schwester to her family in Europe. Here is an excerpt.
“Tuesday morning the nuns were here collecting for the poor. The sky looked shadowy and opaque. Our chickens had vanished. The horses were skittish. Then we smelled smoke. August, it happened so fast! The forest to our west was burning! Wind carried sparks through the treetops, setting everything around us ablaze. Flames surrounded our hotel. There was no escape. We fixed an icon of Our Lady to the front porch and raced back inside. We prayed. Four hours the fire roared! Timbers creaked. Windows cracked. Heat blasted. An unsettling silence followed. We opened the door and crept out past Our Lady. There was not a blister or burn on her. Yet the fire had consumed everything. Charred bodies of man and beast littered the landscape. The air reeked of soot and singed hide.” (1)
The Four Miracles at Parisville
Local lore indicates that the fire sparing the hotel is one of the four miracles of the great fire. The other miracles include a cow coming into Parisville after the fire. Despite the area being totally engulfed in flames somehow, this animal survived and it offered survivors some nourishment with its milk. The other event was two loads of hay that survived the fire. The final miracle was the cross outside the town’s St. Mary’s Catholic Church wasn’t burned.
In a business, atlas published a few years later indicated that much of the community recovered and it was noted as one of the most productive townships in the Thumb
Related Links to 1881 Fire
- The fires of September 4th through the 6th 1881, commonly known as the Thumb Fire, took hundreds of lives and burned well over one million acres. The fire destroyed 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 1881 Fire Forever Changed the Thumb
- It was Sunday, October 8 that fires near Peshtigo Wisconsin and Chicago came to life. No one is certain how they started. Popular lore of the Chicago fire tells that a cow, owned by Mrs. O’Leary, purportedly knocked over a lantern in her barn that set off the blaze. While in Wisconsin, a sudden fire mysteriously starts outside of Peshtigo. A few hours later, across Lake Michigan, fires erupt in Holland and Manistee. By later in the day the fire rips across Michigan only to be stopped by the shores of Lake Huron north of Port Huron at the southern end of the lake. The 1871 Great Michigan Fire – The Burning Great Lakes
- Efforts started in 1852 by Michigan church, business, and community leaders to ban the sale of alcohol. It was thought that such temperance would reduce crime, improve family life, and increase employee productivity. Their efforts succeeded in 1916 when the citizens of Michigan approved a prohibition amendment to the state constitution. As soon as the law took effect on May 1917, bootlegging operations and smuggling networks from Canada formed. The Legend of Whiskey Harbor
Sources Consulted for 1881 Fire Parisville
- Report on the Michigan Forest Fires of 1881 By William O. Bailey