When the Midwest Burned - The Great Fires of 1871

1871 Great Fire – Burning Great Lakes

The summer of 1871 was dreadfully hot and dry in Michigan’s Thumb. Farmers watched their crops wither in the dry heat. In the fall, relief from the drought was no better. Folks began to worry that there were to be some lean winter months ahead. The heat and the lack of rain did not only affect eastern Michigan. The conditions stretched west into Wisconsin and northern Illinois. The whole region was a tinderbox for the great fire of 1871. Michigan and the rest of the region was in the midst of a lumber era. Lumberjacks and woodsman from Maine used a slash and grab method of timber harvesting. The endless piles of branches, stumps and pine debris from the once numerous white and cork pine dried in the heat all summer long.

Mysterious Start of Fires Across the Great Lakes

1871 Great Fire
Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871 – Wisconsin Historical Society

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. Historians and meteorologists point to a cyclone like a system of winds parked over the eastern plains in early October that fanned and fueled the fires.

1871 Chicago Fire was Famous but the Peshtigo Fire was Horrific

1871 Great Fire
Escaping the Chicago Fire

The fire in Chicago burns about three square miles of the city, consuming more than 17,000 buildings and taking 300 lives.

In fire reached Peshtigo Wisconsin Sunday evening October 8th. Residents flee. Some survivors jumped into rivers to escape the flames and witnessing firestorms, or “tornadoes of fire,” which devastated enormous areas. Some who went into the Peshtigo River during the fire boiled alive in the 2000 degree firestorm.

Peshtigo September 1871
Peshtigo September 1871 – Library of Congress

By the time the fire ended, it had consumed 1.5 million acres, and an estimated 1,200-2,400 lives, including approximately 800 in Peshtigo. Only one building Peshtigo survived the fire. Pleas for assistance from the area go unheeded as there was no telegraph service. The Peshtigo fire goes down in history as the worst fire disaster in the US of all time.

Map of the Great Fires of 1871

Fires Appear in Michigan

That same Sunday across Lake Michigan, residents of the shore side town of Holland gather to fight small fires that suddenly were to flare up on the southern part of the town. By late afternoon, winds increased to hurricane strength. As night sets in there were no hope of saving the town as buildings on the western edge of the town caught fire. “The entire territory covered by the fire was mowed as clean as with a reaper; there was not a fence post or a sidewalk plank and hardly the stump of a shade tree left to designate the old lines,” said one resident. The landscape of several West Michigan towns was forever altered.  In the end,  the fire at Holland Michigan destroyed 76 businesses, 243 homes, 5 churches, 3 hotels, 5 warehouses, and 45 other buildings. A total loss of $900,000.

Fire Moves into the Michigan Thumb Area

Great Fire 1871

In Michigan’s Thumb, the situation could not be worse. The prevailing winds brought embers and dense smoke from the other Michigan fires burning in the west. In just over 30 hours the forest fires that started in Manistee, marched through Grayling and Big Rapids. Then following the slash loaded timbering trail, it swept through Isabelle, Midland and Bay counties and halted in Gratiot County where there had been no lumbering. The respite was to be short-lived. Burning embers, ignited small piles of slashings along the Cass river until it reaches Caro. Once there, piles of dry logging brush allowed it to blast across and up the Thumb.

Blinded by smoke and pushed the rushing 100-foot flames, residents jumped into wells or rushed to the lakeshore, where they saved themselves by wading into the water. One small boat held nine children from Rock Falls and drifted for three days across Lake Huron to Canada. All but one child survived the ordeal.

Towns Try to Fight the Fire

Great Fire 1871
Residents took to Lake Huron to Escape the Flames

Like in the other close communities of Michigan, the entire town of White Rock fought the fire all day Sunday, but when the hurricane winds fed the fire it went out of control. The town folk took to the lake and remained for the rest of the day in the cold battered by waves caused by the maelstrom. When the fire died down, they dried themselves from the embers of the fire until the steamer Comet rescued them.

The eastern Thumb town of Huron City, with engulfed by flames. The small-town residents tried to fight the flames but were soon forced to flee into Lake Huron to save themselves.

By the evening of Tuesday, October 10, all the fires across the Midwest begin to end. Rain moved into the area and damped down the fires into a smoking monster that lasted for days. Michigan’s Thumb area was devastated. Most of Huron, Tuscola and Sanilac Counties went up in flames and residents took to the shore looking for rescue.

Fire Survivors Trek to the Tip of the Thumb

In the days after the fire, accounts trickle in that survivors make their way to Port Austin. Houses are filled with residents from Port Hope and Grindstone City. Victims walk into town with singed or missing hair, blistered faces, and clothes practically burned off their back.  There is an announcement made in Detroit that any donations made on the Griswold dock in Detroit will find their way to Port Austin.

Michigan Responds to the Great Fire

Great Fire of 1871
Rescue Steamer SS Comet

The Thumb communities of Glen Haven, White Rock, Forestville, Sand Beach, Port Hope, Grindstone City, Elm Creek, Huron City, Forest Bay, Center Harbor, Rock Falls, Verona Mills were almost totally obliterated and the residents were left destitute, without food, shelter and with only the clothes on their backs. Winter was only weeks away.

In the days that followed a relief and recovery, the effort was headquartered at Port Huron. A plea for ships was sent across the Great Lakes. The Wisconsin steamer Comet cruising from Lexington to Pointe Aux Barques reported seeing continuous flames up the entire coast. The smoke from shore was so intense that it drove passengers back into their cabins. Burning embers were hitting the steamship so much that the decks had to be washed down frequently.

Ships bringing refugees back from the upper thumb reported that the smoke was so thick out on Lake Huron they had to light their lamps to avoid a collision.

The Toll Great Fire of 1871 is Enormous

Great Fire of 1871
Chicago in Flames

While Michigan’s official death toll numbered at least 10 there was likely many more. In 1871 there were hundreds to thousands of lumberjacks, labor and peddling salesmen spread out across the state, along with thinly populated settlements in the remote area across Michigan, making it impossible to ensure an accurate number of lives taken. In the end, the fire raged across the upper Midwest over an estimated 2 1/4 million acres of land and destroyed at least 4 billion feet of prime timber. It took almost 2,500 lives, including approximately 800 in Peshtigo alone.

For weeks after the fires newspapers tracked accounts of relief committees set up at Port Huron, Manistee and Holland. In some cases, residents were returning to the area to start the rebuilding process. Small homes were built for shelter during the winter months. Lumber companies offered men pay rates up to $35 per month during the winter to go into the burned-out areas and harvest the available timber. Sand Beach was totally burned out.  Merchants in nearby towns such as Packs, Jenks and Co in Rock Falls purchased any store goods that managed to be salvaged.  It was feared that Sand Beach would be abandoned.

Comet Theory Emerges After the Fires

1871 Great Fire
Meteor – Pixabay – AlexAntropove – CC0

Shortly after the 1871 Great Fire, Minnesota Congressman, Ignatius Donnelly wrote a book called “Ragnarok”. The book suggested that the fires were started by Biela’s Comet. The comet was first discovered in 1821 and had a six-year orbit cycle with the earth.  Biela’s comet likely broke upon its approach toward earth in 1872, as it was never seen again. There is another theory that the near-simultaneous fires across the upper Midwest could have been the result of an autumn meteor shower. This theory persists to this day.

Future Impact of the 1871 Great Fires.

Smokey the Bear Poster
Smokey the Bear Poster – Wikimedia

The massive fires of October 1871 called into question about how to practice good land-use practices. The clear-cut slash methods that contributed greatly to fuel the fire would take years to change. In 1944 a new figure appeared in popular culture that forever changed the public perception of wildfire prevention. The introduction of Smokey the Bear.

Related Stories

Sources Consulted


Detroit Free Press October 17th, 18th 1871




Milford Times, 18 November 1871 


http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-title13 – The The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. 11 Dec 1871)

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1871 Great Fire | In Michigan’s Thumb, the situation could not be worse. The prevailing winds brought embers and dense smoke from the other Michigan fires burning in the west. Within hours over 2,000 lives were lost and millions of acres burned.

3 thoughts on “1871 Great Fire – Burning Great Lakes”

  1. ” Please for assistance from the area go unheeded as there was no telegraph service.” I think you mean pleas.

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