When fire ravaged Michigan’s Thumb region: ‘A demon in the gale’

The Port Huron fire of 1871 took place on October 8th, 1871. (MSU/Michigan History) (WDIV)

Two massive fires in the late 1800s caused significant damage in the Thumb -- and around Michigan.

In the fall of 1871, fire swept through parts of Michigan, changing the landscape of the area for a lifetime.

The fires, which were also present in Holland, Lansing, the Upper Peninsula and Chicago during this time, hit the hardest in Southeast Michigan in Sanilac, Huron and Tuscola counties. (There were so many fires in the Midwest, some blamed outer space).

The fires started after a dry summer. Most areas were dealing with dangerous droughts. Rainfall during the preceding months totaled just one-fourth of normal precipitation; early October was unseasonably warm; and winds were strong.

Small fires that broke out gradually ran together drawing dry air from inland rather than moist air from over the lakes. Wind carried chips and fragments, starting new fires. Big brush piles left by logging practices of the time added to the ferocity of the fires.

“A sky of flame, of smoke a heavenful, the earth a mass of burning coals, the mighty trees, all works of man between and living things trembling as a child before a demon in the gale,” is how the Michigan fire of 1871 was described in a history of Sanilac County. “To those who have seen, the picture needs no painting.”

The University of Michigan’s History Series has great background on the disaster:

On Sunday, Oct. 8, 1871, the fire started blowing, burning, killing and devouring everything in its path. (That same night, the Great Chicago Fire erupted in nearby Illinois).

In some communities people went to bed at night, only to be aroused at midnight by the fearful cry of “Fire!” They watched their homes, farms, livestock and belongings vanish into smoke and ashes. Some were able to save themselves. “Others, choked with flame and smoke, left only their charred bones to tell their friends where and how they died,” said one report. Thousands of acres of valuable pine were gone in a matter of hours.

The firestorm forced people of Forestville (in Sanilac County) onto the beach or into the water. Some took refuge in boats, covering themselves with wet blankets. In Huron County, families tried to outrace the fire. One family climbed into a wagon, covered themselves with wet blankets and headed for a mill race a half-mile away, arriving just before the wagon caught fire. The family jumped into the race, covering themselves with more wet blankets.

In just a half-hour, Forestville was in ruins. At White Rock people plunged into the lake, but the lake was so rough that women and children were thrown back on the beach. They risked death by drowning in order be saved from death by fire. Some dug holes in the ground or a bank and managed to survive by crawling into the shelter. Losses included crops, houses, businesses, livestock, grain, hay, bridges and crossings in swamps.

“It is estimated that the dwellings, household goods, clothing, winter’s provisions and supplies for stock of from 4,000 to 5,000 people were destroyed and with the mills the means to supply food for these,” one account reported.

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Yet, with all its magnitude and intensity, the fire of 1871 did not consume all the timber, but in most places only deadened the green timber and prepared the way for a more terrible calamity 10 years later.

The fires started to end by the evening of Oct. 10 as rain moved into the area -- but smoke lasted for days. The area was devastated. Many survivors made it all the way up to Port Austin and Grindstone City.

1881 fire

The population was denser on Sept. 5, 1881, when a firestorm traveled across Sanilac County in four hours, leaving 150 people dead and hundreds injured. To save themselves, some residents jumped into wells, remaining there for up to five hours before crawling out. Others never made it out.

After the fire of 1881 more than 14,000 people were made dependent on public aid, and 1,480 barns, 1,521 dwellings and 51 schools were destroyed. The fire was directly responsible for at least 300 deaths. Damage in 1881 was estimated to be in excess of dollar value of that time.

Thanks to U-M for the history.

If you’re traveling in some of these wooded areas, there are hiking and bike trails that cross the land. You may run into a historical marker like this one (Hat tip to Local 4′s Dave Klein, who brought this back from a hike last year):

The Great Thumb Fires (WDIV)

Related: The complicated history of Michigan’s Harsens Island

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About the Author:

Ken Haddad is the digital content and audience manager for WDIV / ClickOnDetroit.com. He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters. He's been with WDIV since 2013. He enjoys suffering through Lions games on Sundays in the fall.