The summer of 1911 in Michigan was hot and dry. However, temperatures in Iosco County during the first week of July 1911 were between 90 and 100 degrees in the shade. The devastation of the 1911 Oscoda and AuSable fire that wiped out these two eastern Michigan towns would be compared to the Great Peshtigo Fire in 1871 due to its destruction of both of the shoreline lumbering towns.
What We Will Cover
The Town of AuSable in 1911
Au Sable had six sawmills, a sash and blind factory, three stores, three hotels, three churches, and a bank before the 1911 fire. Furthermore, the Au Sable River Boom Company sorted and corralled logs floating down the river by several timber businesses. The H.M. Loud & Sons Lumber Co. was one of the town’s primary businesses. This was the town’s principal sawmill, and it was a massive, expansive complex.
Just Another Day in Oscoda and AuSable
Tuesday was simply another day for the residents of these twin towns that straddled the AuSable River. The Mill was up and running, businesses were open, and ladies were going about their daily lives. Children escaped the heat by playing on the beach. Everyone was oblivious to the smokey odor of flames raging outside the settlements.
Cause of the 1911 Oscoda and AuSable Fire
Brush fires raged over the plains that surrounded the twin villages of Oscoda and Au Sable. The common method of clearing land in the late 1800s was slash and burn. Local lore states that one source of the fire was set intentionally to remove bush and encourage the growth of the tiny but tasty huckleberry for harvest the following year. Another source said sparks from a passing train caused yet another fire. This second fire was blamed for burning out the H. M. Loud Sons’ Lumberyard and sawmill.
By 2:00 p.m., gusting gusts of at least 50 mph had whipped the simmering fires into furious flames. The fire started slowly at first, and the soldiers battled it off. Then, however, the fire quickly spread to the first wooden structures and sawdust streets. The guys hurried back to their houses, gathering what they could and fleeing to safety with their families. Most of Oscoda and Au Sable had been destroyed in a few hours. Hundreds of individuals lost their houses and goods as they fled at the drop of a hat. Five men were killed.
One Recalls the Oscoda and AuSable Fire Up Close and Personal
One recollection of the event from Jennie Kulberg, “We reached the safety of the lake and found a crowd of people already there. Not only people but dogs, chickens, and all sorts of animals – even cats were in the water.”
“Shortly after we entered the lake, we were joined by other family members. They all had left home as quickly as possible, leaving everything behind. The fire followed so closely that a handkerchief in Father’s back pocket was ignited. Day took Henry into his arms, and Mother took Ruth, for we needed to go further into the lake. So intense was the heat that we repeatedly had to splash water onto our heads. Though I was standing on a sandbar, I remember that the water was up to my neck. Closer to shore, the heat was unbearable.”
The steamer lumber barge Niko took 280 residents to Harbor Beach, where the townspeople took them in. It was said that the captain of the Niko loaded as many people as possible from the doomed dock. Some of the ship was on fire as it finally pulled away from the dock.
After the fires, most of the town residents were homeless. Most ended up at East Tawas and Bay City.
News of the Fires Swept the Nation
The Washington Times,” Hundreds Killed by Forest Fires in Michigan Towns. Ausable and Oscoda Completely Wiped Off The Map” Page one July 12, 1911
“The towns of Ausable and Oscola, Mich., lying directly across from each other on the Ausable River in northeastern Michigan were wiped off the map, and probably hundreds were killed last night by one of the worst forest fires that have ever visited Michigan.
Not a business place is standing in Oscoda today. A fierce gale fanned the fire and, within a few hours, had destroyed the little town. Sparks and burning brands swept AuSable, where the fire raged all night.
Hundreds of persons driven from their “homes by the fire took refuge on board the freighter Kongo lying oft Ausable. Others boarded the regular southbound passenger train on the Detroit and Mackinac, making its way to the stricken towns through numerous spur tracks.
The fire swept over the doomed cities with such rapidity that all the Inhabitants could do was flee for their lives, leaving behind all their belongings. The fierce rush of flames drove hundreds Into Lake Huron, and while it Is Impossible to ascertain whether any lives were lost, it Is feared that many have perished.
According to the stories of the refugees who arrived here this morning, when the train left Oscoda, the flames were leaping 100 feet high and roaring like a furnace. The heat was so Intense that those in the coaches had to close the doors and windows. Bodies are lying in Ausable’s streets, and the churches and halls are packed with those who were overtaken by the flames. Many who sought refuge from the fire were suffocated with the dense smoke. Babies carried to the water in trunks were either drowned or smothered to death.
From Alpana. and Boyne City, reports of fierce fires were received today. At Boyne City, the fires are reported to have surrounded Several logging camps and hemmed in the loggers
with a solid wall of flame. At both Alpena and Boyne City, heavy clouds of smoke could be seen on all sides.”
The Washington Times, Three Thousand Left Homeless by Fires in Michigan Woods – Scores of Persons Missing, and It Is Feared They Have Perished. July 18, 1911.
GRAYLING, Mich. July 12. Several hundred more people are homeless today due to the complete wiping out of the village of Waters, eighteen miles from here, last night. This brings the total homeless in the burning of three towns—Oscoda, Ausable, and Waters, up to 3,000.
The whole northeastern section of Michigan today Is a desolate blackened mess with only here and there a house left to mark what was only a few days ago a prosperous village or farm. Of the pile of rough pine boxes sent to Ausable and Oscoda last night for those supposed to have perished, only three have been used, but scores of Inhabitants are still missing, and no accurate estimate of fatalities can be made for some time. Only two houses In Oscoda and none In Ausable remain.
It was stated today from numerous points where fires were raging fiercely yesterday that the fire situation was distinctly Improved in northern Michigan.
According to State Fire Warden Oates, fires are reported In twenty-one counties today, and while a number of these are not dangerous at present. However, it will only take a high wind to fan them into one of the worst conflagrations the State has ever known.
The Aftermath and Impact of the 1911 Oscoda and AuSable Fires
The burned-out twin settlements quickly became a tourist attraction for people traveling by rail to the destruction at the Au Sable River’s mouth. Hundreds of tourists were alleged to have gathered to dig through the ruins of burned-out homes, searching for blobs of glass and other souvenirs.
Postcards picturing the massive mountains of scrap iron leftover from burned-out mills were quickly published. Au Sable was virtually deserted for years, and the city administration was eventually forced to revert to township status.
The 1911 fire took place two years after another large fire hit northeastern Michigan near the town of Metz. The disaster piqued public interest in controlling forest fires.
Today little evidence remains of the great fire. Instead, Oscoda and AuSable are prosperous charming lakeside towns popular with retirees and summer tourists. It is home to one of the most popular scenic drives in Michigan – Au Sable River Road Scenic Byway
Sources For the 1911 Oscoda and AuSable Fire
AuSable-Oscoda Historical Society Iosco County Michigan via usgwarchives.net
Major Post-Logging Fires in Michigan: the 1900’s – Michigan State University
Huron-Manistee National Forests Lumberman’s Monument Visitor Center