When the Midwest Burned - The Great Fires of 1871

The Burning Great Lakes


The Drought over the Midwest

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. Michigan 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.

The Mysterious and Sudden Start of Fires Across the Great Lakes

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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.


The Chicago Fire was Famous but the Peshtigo Fire was Horrific

People_escaping_the_Chicago_Fire_fleeing_into_Lincoln_park_1871

The fire in Chicago burns about three square miles of the city, consuming more than 17,000 buildings and taking 300 lives. In Wisconsin, the survivors jumped into rivers to escape the flames and witnessing firestorms, or “tornadoes of fire,” that devastated enormous areas. Some who went into the Peshtigo River during the fire boiled alive in the 2000 degree firestorm. Pleas for assistance from the area go unheeded as there was no telegraph service. The Peshtigo fire takes up to 800 lives and goes down in history as the worst fire disaster in the US of all time.


The Conflagration Begins 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. Within hours “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 Fire Moves into the Thumb Area

1871 Thumb 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. 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 Back the Fire

Port-Huron-Fire-1871

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.

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.


The Survivors Trek to the Tip of the Thumb

In the days after the fire, accounts trickle in that survivors makes 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. 


The State Responds 

Steamer SS Comet Great Lakes
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. Please for ships were sent across the Great Lakes. The Wisconsin steamer Comet cruising from Lexington to Pointe Aux Barques reported seeing continuous flames up the entire coast.

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

The Toll is Enormous

Chicago in Flames
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 being 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. Store goods that managed to be salvaged were purchased by Packs, Jenks and Co in Rock Falls. It was looking like Sand Beach was finished as a town.

A Wild Theory Emerges After the Fires

Shortly after the Great Midwest Fires of 1871, Minnesota Congressman, Ignatius Donnelly wrote a book called “Ragnarok” and 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 earth. Since it was not seen again it was proposed that it broke up on its approach toward earth in 1872. The suggestion that the near-simultaneous fires across the upper Midwest could have been an autumn meteor shower. This theory persists to this day.

Sources Consulted


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