Tag 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

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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 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

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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

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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


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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.


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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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Great Lakes Cruising of Yesterday


I’ll admit that I’ve taken a liking to cruising. It must be the influence of having a sailboat that we have taken from port to port on Lake Huron. Recently several cruise ships have announced routes and stops throughout the Great Lakes region. Currently there are three curse lines that cover the Great Lakes. Victory Cruise Lines, Great Lakes Cruise Company and Blount Small Ship Adventures. The Great Lakes Cruise Company has four ships that cover a wide range of ports and destinations. One ship, the Pearl Mist is small enough to tackle the famous cruising grounds of Georgian Bay and the beautiful North Channel.


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In the days before the highway and autos the only way to travel the vast distances for the Great Lakes was by sail and steamer. In the mid 1800’s until well into the 1950’s one could travel most of the lakes in style and comfort. One of the most famous and beloved ships was the SS South American. The SS South American was a Great Lakes overnight passage steamboat built by the Great Lakes Engineering Works at Ecorse, Michigan. It was built in 1913 for the Chicago, Duluth & Georgian Bay Transit Company. The vessel was launched on February 21, 1914 and was the newer of two sister ships, the older one being the SS North American.


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Along with its sister ship, SS North American carried passengers between Chicago, Mackinac Island, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, Duluth, Georgian Bay, Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo. These were they heydays of the industry. A business man could board a ship in Chicago for an overnight trip to northern Michigan. Spend the weekend with the family in the cool northern cabin in the woods and take the ship back to the city on Sunday night for work on Monday. It was noted that Hemingway’s father did just that early in the 1900’s.


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Only the South American visited Lake Superior, and made a short weekly stop in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula town of Houghton/Hancock. She carried over 450 passengers. The rare picture below hangs in the Rock Harbor lodge on Isle Royal. It shows tourists being dropped off at the American Dock which still stands today. 


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The South American was well known for its High School trips in the 1950’s. Southeast Michigan high school seniors would take a small cruise from Detroit to Chicago. The last season for the South American was in 1967. Her final route was to offer trips to the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal.


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Sadly, both ships are now part of history. The SS North American sunk on the Atlantic coast while being towed and the SS South American rotted away and was finally scraped in 1992. However, with the rapid popularity of cruising now taking place I expect to see more of these small cruising ships ply their way among the Great Lakes.


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Port Austin’s Cartwheel Inn


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The Fireside Inn near Port Austin is our go-to place for large groups of people. With it’s fantastic pizza and large open space its perfect for a family party. A couple of years ago I came across these two black and white shots for the Cartwheel Inn outside of Port Austin. It’s obviously the same building. While the establishment has expanded, I find it amazing that much of the interior has remained the same.


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In the 1950’s and 60’s the Cartwheel played host to graduation, social and wedding parties. There is a post card from 1962 that shows the Cartwheel Inn almost has it looks today. In the 1970’s local lore tells that the Cartwheel was a gathering spot during the biker days of the Upper Thumb. Top bands from Detroit area would play the venue. While none of the stories are as rough as the infamous Farmers Daughter at Oak Beach they still spoke of a wild time.

If you have a memory or story of the Cartwheel Inn please let us know the story.


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