Chart of the Burnt District - From the Report on the Michigan Forest Fires of 1881 - William O. Bailey

Local Accounts of the Great Michigan Fire of 1881

We have made an arrangement with the Minden City Herald to exchange stories from time to time. Nathan and Amber Mark’s weekly paper has covered the lower Thumb since 1889. Nathen reached out and offered this great story for Thumbwind to publish. The following article about local accounts of the Great Michigan Fire of 1881. It offers a unique perspective and this account has never appeared online before.

Egyptian Darkness Prevailed

September 5th marked the 139th anniversary of the 1881 fire that ravaged Michigan’s Thumb region. This was the second of two disastrous fires that his area, the first having occurred in March 1871. The 1881 fire destroyed 51 schools, over 3,000 barns, and dwellings and led to over 300 deaths. Over 14,000 Thumb residents would require public aid while on their path to recovery from the devastation.

The fires have been written about extensively in the ensuing decades. Multiple books on the subject have been published, and an internet search will yield numerous articles. Mentions of the fires in the Minden City Herald archives are infrequent, mainly because the paper was not founded until 1889, eight years after the second event.

Before the Minden City Herald, there was the Minden Post or the Minden City Post. Its exact founding date is unknown, and it does not appear any issues of the paper have survived. It was undoubtedly active by 1881 and continued to be a presence in the newspapers’ circle in the Thumb until 1889 when it merged with two other papers to form the Sanilac Republican in Sandusky.

Minden Reporter Accounts Survive

Fortunately, some articles from the Minden Post have survived because neighboring newspapers reprinted them. Among those surviving articles was an account of the Great Michigan fire of 1881 and its aftermath reprinted by the Detroit Free Press. The original article was dated September 10th and appeared to have been authored by the Post’s published at the time, one J. H. Schultz.

The article gives a first-hand account of the fire from the perspective of a person in Minden City at the time of the fire. The Port Huron Times Herald published a second exciting account. A young boy from Ubly was interviewed about his harrowing experience with the fire.

Neither of these accounts has been widely re-published in writings about the fire, so even seasoned researchers may be unfamiliar with them. We will reprint them here to memorialize them for future generations further. These fires shaped the fortunate of the Thumb region residents for ages. It is essential to be reminded of the trials that this area’s pioneers endured in building the communities we know and love today.

Disclaimer: There are graphic and disturbing details shared in these accounts, and persons who are uncomfortable reading such content are recommended not to read any further.


Great Michigan Fire – Minden’s Providential Escape

The Minden Post of September 10 deserves immense credit for coming out on time in the face of almost overwhelming disadvantages, and not only that, but publishing a complete and graphic account of Minden’s dire peril and providential preservation; giving lists of losses in six townships, and supplementing this with reports of the fires in other sections, gleaned from outside sources. The following is the narrative of the fire as given by the Post.

Great Michigan Fire 1881 - Huts Built By Survivors
Huts Built By Survivors

In undertaking a description of Monday afternoon and night’s horrors, we feel our utter inability to convey anything like an adequate idea. No pen can describe the terrible affair, and we will not attempt to do so in anything like detail.

Great Michigan Fire 1881- Graves of 22 Victims
Graves of 22 Victims

Monday morning dawned smoky and dismal, and by 11:30, lamps were lighted in all the houses. At noon Egyptian darkness prevailed. It was darker than the darkest night we ever saw. Objects could not be distinguished a foot distant. As the fire neared the village, the atmosphere became lurid, seeming to be filled with flames. A strong wind had been blowing from the southwest and increased by 3 o’clock to almost a hurricane. The air became so hot that leaves on the trees were cooked while the first was yet a mile distant. Buildings equally distant became so hot as to burn the hand when touched. All communication with the country west and north was cut off, and many who were in Minden on business vainly attempted to return to protect their property from the fiery monster.

Fleeing, Some Were Trapped By the Flames

Strong-hearted men were in despair; women were frantic, many fainting, and others imploring their protectors to take them to the shore as the only safe place. A number started for Forestville, but when they reached Charleston, that village was in a mass of flames, and they were compelled to return and proceed to White Rock.

Great Michigan Fire 1881 - At Bad Axe Courthouse
At Bad Axe Courthouse

However, most of the people remained in Minden and fought the flames with the determination of those who struggle for life. Sheets of flame were flying in every direction, and incipient fires were extinguished in all the village parts. At last, when the fire had reached the western outskirts of Minden, there came a lull in the hurricane, and the wind commenced blowing to the northward. In ten minutes, Charles E. Snyder’s house, north of the village, was in flames, and George Grummett’s house and barn immediately followed.

The fire south of the village was driven northward to C. A. Ward’s elevator, which was quickly consumed, and but for the heroic efforts of R. D. O’Keefe, the depot would have burned also. Many devoted a portion of their time to pack up such articles as they could, hoping to save something from the general conflagration. Fortunately, not only for Minden but also for the surrounding country, our beautiful village was spared without other loss than that mentioned above.

Great Michigan Fire 1881 - A Stricken Family
A Stricken Family

By 6 o’clock, people began coming into Minden from the west, having barely escaped with their lives, and when morning arrived hundreds had found their way here in a half-nude condition, burned and blinded by the smoke. We then began to have a faint realization of the extent of the fire. Then we first understood that not property alone, but human lives had been swallowed up. The roads were lined with the carcasses of horses, cattle, sheep, swine and poultry, etc. cooked and charred almost to a crisp to the west and north. Then human beings, similar to burned and charred, were found. Some were still alive, with their feet, hands, and faces baked. Some had their ears and noses burned off, and their eyes almost burned out of their sockets. It is too horrible to contemplate for a moment!

The Aftermath – Residents Seek Help and Shelter

Meanwhile, the sufferers kept pouring into Minden. Our village was turned into a general hospital and boarding house, with all of our generous citizens acting as unpaid keepers and attendants’ capacity.

Great Michigan Fire 1881 Waiting For Supplies
Waiting For Supplies

Very few who escaped with their lives saved anything except the scanty clothing they had not thrown off while fighting the flames. Many moved out of their household goods, etc., only to see them burn there. Livestock perished, wagons, plows, harrows, reapers, and all agricultural implements were consumed. Crops of all kinds, hay, grain, and peas yet unharvested, and even the unripe corn and pastures were scorched or destroyed, and the stock left in this section is starving to death in mid-summer. There is no seed wheat for the fall sowing, and no hardness or implements are available for use in putting in the crop, which must be sown during the next few days or not at all this season.
The amount of human suffering, and to a large extent the number who perished, must ever remain a half-told story.

Source: The Detroit Free Press – 11 Sep 1881 – Page 3

Great Michigan Fire – A Little Hero

Friday afternoon, a TIMES reporter paid a visit to the residence of Mr. O. H. Ewer, on Seventh street, to chat with a little boy who was in the midst of the fire in Ubley [sic] township. The pale-faced sufferer was found in bed, but he was willing to relate some of the particulars of the terrible fire of September 5th that were still fresh in his memory.

Great Michigan Fire 1881- Supplies in Cass City
Supplies in Cass City

His name is John White, a son of James White, who lived in Ubley [sic] township and owned a cheese factory. Although only 11 years of age, he is knowledgeable and talked in a manner that indicated a good training and careful teaching. When Mr. and Mrs. Ewer saw him, on Wednesday last, he was at his uncle’s house in Minden, where there were 21 other children, six of them being his brothers and sisters, and the rest cousins. He was dangerously ill from the effects of the fire and smoke and was so weak that he had to be held in their arms while on the way to Port Huron. He is now recovering and will be able to be out in a few days. Thursday night, he dreamed he was fighting the fire and saving his little brothers and sisters. While relating his account o the fire and what the family suffered, his eyes would fill with tears. Several people have visited him and were charmed by his brightness.

A Boys Story of the Great Michigan Fire of 1881

We lived in Ubley [sic], about 11 miles from Minden. I have one sister older than myself and two brothers and three sisters younger. The first alarm that was felt was about nine o’clock on Monday morning, but no real danger occurred until 11 o’clock when the heavy clouds of smoke made the day dark, and the forest began to burn. My father left home before nine o’clock in the morning, but after driving some miles, he returned, feeling that the fire might destroy his home and perhaps his family. We carried water and fought the fire until one o’clock when the trees near the house took fire. We then went to a wheat stubble field, about 15 rods from the house, where mother and we (the children) gathered together, and father covered us with a quilt and sprinkled water over us until the fire had passed.

Burning shingles and showers of sparks fell on us, and several times our clothes caught fire. We managed to get to Mr. Jas. Redmond’s summer house, some distance off, where his family was staying. The heat and smoke blinded mother and father, and we had to lead them. All we had to eat was a few potatoes. Monday night, we stopped there and slept on the bare ground. Tuesday morning, we walked about half a mile to Rev. A. Annis’ house. One of his sons got an old pail and went off and found a cow, which he milked. We had nothing to eat but the milk, and it saved us from starving.

Great Michigan Fire 1881 - Farmers Supply Depot
Farmers At Supply Depot

The potatoes and milk was all the food we had for 18 hours. We stopped with Mr. Annis until Wednesday when we went to the schoolhouse between Tyre and Minden. There we found an uncle, Z. Desjardins, and his family, who lived four miles from us. Wednesday afternoon, another uncle came to the schoolhouse and took us to his home in Minden. My father and mother lived in Austin township when the fire occurred in 1871, but they did not suffer any loss. We did not expect to escape with our lives when the fire reached our place.

The little fellow appeared to be growing weary, and the reporter withdrew. Mr. Ewer has bought him new clothes and intends to keep him as long as he will stay. His father and mother have almost recovered from the effects of the fire.

Source: The Times Herald (Port Huron, MI) – 17 Sep 1881 – Page 4

All Images: 1 Oct 1881 edition of Harper’s Weekly


Reprinted by permission by Nathan Marks; editor Minden City Herald. To subscribe, visit the publication’s website at MindenCityHerald.com

Related Reading for the Great Michigan Fire

Shocking firsthand accounts of the Great Michigan Fire of 1881 from residents of Minden and Ubly. They were first published by the Minden Post soon after the fire and reprinted by many newspapers  nationally. These accounts have never been published online before. Courtesy of the Minden City Herald.
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