Category Archives: Michigan History

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 was 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 the Fires Across the Great Lakes


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 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


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. Please 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 was 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 fencepost or a sidewalk plank and hardly the stump of a shade tree left to designate the old lines,” said one resident.

The Fire Moves in to 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 reach 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


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 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 there way to Port Austin. 

The State Responds 

Steamer SS Comet Great Lakes

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, 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 collision.

The Toll is Enormous

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 a 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 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



Port Crescent – A Ghost Town in the Thumb

Port Cresent State Park Beach South

Port Crescent State Park is one of the largest state parks in southern Michigan.  Located at the tip of Michigan’s “thumb” along three miles of sandy shoreline of Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay, the park offers excellent fishing, canoeing, hiking, cross-country skiing, birding, and hunting opportunities.  However a little known aspect of this park is that it sits on the location of a ghost town.

What’s In a Name – Pinnebog Confusion

Walter Hume established a trading post and hotel near the mouth of the Pinnebog River in 1844. From these humble beginnings the area took the name of Pinnebog, taking its name from the river of which it was located. However, a post office established some five miles upstream also took its name from the river. To avoid confusion the  town changed its name to Port Crescent for the crescent-shaped harbor along which it was built.


Port Crescent – Industrial Powerhouse

Port Crescent had two steam-powered sawmills, two salt plants, a cooperage which manufactured barrels for shipping fish and salt, a gristmill, a wagon factory, a boot and shoe factory, a pump factory,  two brewerys, several stores, two hotels, two blacksmith shops, a post office, a depot and telegraph office, and a roller rink. Pinnebog employed hundreds of area residents.

By 1870 a 1,300 foot well struck brine.  This started a salt blockhouse operation where they extracted brine by evaporating the water to produce 65,000 barrels of salt annually. Port Crescent used the “slash” or leftover limbs, bark ans sawdust for fuel to boil the salt water. At one time a this 17 block village boasted of a population of more than 500

Port Crescent prospered as a lumber town from about 1864 to 1881. One sawmill became so busy salvaging thousands of trees felled in one of the infamous fires experienced by the Midwest in 1871 that it added a 120-foot brick chimney to help power the plant. In 1881, another fire swept through the Thumb region, destroying the area’s timber resources.

Port Crescent Grist Mill
Port Crescent Grist Mill

The Town of Port Crescent Declines

When the timber in the Pinnebog River basin was gone, the town began to decline.  The lumber mills closed, as did the firewood-fueled salt plants. Workers dismantled some of the buildings and an 800-foot dock, moving them north to Oscoda, Michigan. Some Port Crescent residents moved their houses to nearby towns. By 1894, all of the buildings in Port Crescent were gone, leaving few traces of the town behind. Nathaniel Bennett Haskell, who owned the sawmill and salt plant on the west side of the river, began to export white sand which was used in the manufacture of glass. This continued until 1936.

Port Crescent State Park

Port Cresent State Park River Bank

After  World War II, the  demand for public use areas along shoreline property stimulated interest for an additional state park in the Thumb. Twenty years later, the Michigan Department of Conservation acquired possession of 124 acres of fine woodland at this place for a new state park. Port Crescent State Park was officially established on September 6, 1959.

Today little remains of the former town. Foundations can be seen, in the Organization Area, where a structure stood. The lower 10 feet the old sawmill chimney is a prominent part of the park entrance.

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Interview with Author Jacki Howard


The reaction to our review of Thumb Pointed Fingers last month was overwhelming. There still is intense interest about this true Michigan murder mystery. I was surprised on the number of people who mentioned that their grandfather or uncle was involved as a juror or in law enforcement. The tragic murders of four family members of the Sparling family near Tyre in the early 1900’s still resonates in the thumb today.

I reached out to the author Jacki Howard to see what she has done since the book was published 10 years ago. She is still involved with the book but life has moved on. Like so many in the Thumb region, we are distant cousins. While we have never personally met, we found common ground with our interest in the “Dying Sparlings” Here is our exchange.

The Sparling murders happened over 100 years ago, what got you interested in this topic to write the book?

Jacki:  “I never intended to write a book – just wanted to get answers which led to myriads of papers and the best way to compile seemed to put them into book form. I do not consider myself an author – I just told a story with what information I could gather.  I am happy to say that many people now know what the Thumb of Michigan is all about.”


How much has the book sold since publishing in 2008?

Jacki: “So far I’ve sold a bit over 3,000 copies (into the 5th printing) and have been amazed that it still draws interest.  It has been a wild and wonderful ride – one I never dreamed of.”


One element in the book was the doctor’s assertion that the victims had syphilis. At the time, this disease was untreatable. What outstanding questions do you have that are still unanswered?

Jacki: “My great-grandpa (Big Pete) said, “None of them had syphilis”.  I read that symptoms for this disease also mimicked other diseases so perhaps it was true that none had ‘bad blood’.  It was your great grandfather (George) who told me in a dream, “don’t go there” and that was before I really got started!  So, I never knew what he meant. I just wish I had the final proof of who, how, and especially why.  I’ve had people contact me that were kin to some of the attorneys, jurors, neighbors etc.”

Has it changed your life? Are you looking a writing a sequel to Thumb Pointed Fingers?

Jacki: “I would follow through with a smaller version if I ever found proof positive.  Since the book first came out, I have done several presentations and have been honored to conduct book studies. Otherwise, life has returned to normal.” 


You painted a picture of what life was like in the few years before the auto took off. The constant chores, dealing with horses, time of travel, the garden, putting up canned goods, etc. What inspired you with those vivid descriptions? Where did you get your insight to life in the early 1900’s?

Jacki: “As far as trying to relay information regarding those days, I used articles from the Bad Axe paper from the early 1900s and my Uncle Carl gave me priceless info on farming as well.  I have a few memories of being at my grandma Sparling’s farm so those were ingrained in me.  Who knows?  My grandma Sparling’s diary from 1915 gave me huge insight into farm life at that time. She never knew that her day-to-day ‘blogs’ would be used in 2008.

Things I used from these newspapers were not only world events, but state and local as well.  Newspapers also carried what might now be called gossip columns although they really weren’t gossip – just news from the different small communities – mostly in Huron County. There were also ads that helped me get in (and stay in) the period.  Every time I went to the basement (where I worked) I re-read several pages from the previous writing to get me back to the past.”

What is one amazing thing that you did not reveal in the book?

Jackie: “I was told by your great-aunt that your paternal grandmother was a nurse and was told by a doctor that they had Peter’s brain for study.  When I tried to follow up, it went cold – fast.”


Your book is not sold online but is still in print. Where can I get another copy?

Jackie: “I am the sole distributor, although Ace Hardware in Bad Axe and the Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse Gift Shop carry copies.  At one time Main Street Mercantile in Bad Axe also had them, maybe they still do. The books website; has the ability to order direct from me. “

I do have one follow up question. Do you have any plans to visit the Upper Thumb in 2018?

Jackie: “As of now, I have no plans to come ‘home’ in 2018 but that could always change.  We just celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary and our way to celebrate will be a trip to Alaska in August.  We have not been big travelers so this is huge.  But I never say never, so a trip to the Upper Thumb could happen and I’ll let you know if it comes to be. Thank you again for the support.  It means more than you might know.

About Jacki Howard, Author of Thumb Pointed Fingers


I was born in Detroit, Michigan to Verl and Aimee Sparling.  Throughout my youth, I lived in Detroit, Ferndale, and Owosso.  As a child, summer vacations were always spent in the “Thumb” and to this day I feel emotionally drawn to the area.  I still have family in Michigan and it will always be home to me.

For as long as I can remember, my relatives told stories about the “Dying Sparlings.”  This unsolved mystery has puzzled me since childhood and I’ve always wanted answers.  I never even considered writing a book, but the opportunity to combine my love of family history and historical research appealed to me.

This is my first book.  I also enjoy reading, volunteer work, playing the piano, and especially being a proud wife, mother and grandmother.  I currently reside in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with my husband, Bob.


Mysterious Murder in The Thumb

Michigan Murder Mystery

The Thumb Pointed Fingers is a genealogical fiction murder mystery based on actual events that occurred in Sanilac and Huron County Michigan in the early 1900’s. The story is focused on Carrie Sparling’s life on the farm near Tyre. It was a storybook setting for Carrie’s growing and prosperous family until the untimely demise of her husband J.W., and three of her six young adult children. The Sparling’s family doctor, the handsome Dr. Robert MacGregor became ensnared in the mysterious and unexplainable deaths and would live to regret taking on Carrie as a patient.


This is author Jackie Howard’s first book. She, like myself and thousands of others in the Thumb are related to the Sparling family and have heard the tale of the “Dying Sparlings”. The book does a wonderful job of portraying what life was like in the years before the automobile. Living in a small rural area. The need for a large family garden, the constant chores and activity associated with the farm. It notes the crucial role women played in the economic success of rural families. It also points out the lasting effects on those families who survived the 1881 Great Fire and the physiological toll it took on many. It’s a wonderful glimpse of life in an era long past coupled with an murder mystery that to many is still unsolved to this day.