Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Wild Fires in 1871 in Lower Michigan

October 8, 1871 was a horrific day for the mid-western states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois. After an extremely dry summer in 1871, a wildfire driven by high winds erupted in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, killing 1300 people in one evening and burning over 1,100,000 acres in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan before it burned itself out. The same night the famous Great Chicago Fire erupted which burned the City of Chicago. And in the evening in the lower peninsula of Michigan, another wildfire raced across the state from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron.

The lower peninsula fire was not a single fire but a combination of hundreds of fires, small and large, that were burning some unattended across the center of the state. During the early settling of Michigan, the lower peninsula was heavily wooded which made the land rich for logging operations. The companies would first harvest the white pines followed by cutting the hardwoods. The logging operations left a lot of waste and debris behind in the form of brush, waste timber, and stumps all of which created rich fuel to feed this towering inferno of flames. After the loggers cleared an area, farmers would settle the area and finish clearing the land for farming. 

Holland and Manistee were lumber towns where the logs, were brought down from the interior of the state, were cut for the market. Both cities had harbors which enable the lumber to be ship to locations around the country to use to build homes, businesses and factories. The numerous mills were surrounded by great quantities of highly inflammable material. Edgings and bark had accumulated in bulk; large piles of sawed lumber were stored in the yards, the streets were paved with sawdust and slabs.

The city of Holland in Ottawa County was entirely destroyed, and the city of Manistee in the county of Manistee, was nearly wiped out. From the latter city a zone of flame extended almost due eastward through the counties of Lake, Osceola, Isabella, Midland, Saginaw, Tuscola, Sanilac and Huron, where its further progress was stayed by the waters of the lake.

As the fires raged across the state, they swept everything in their path.The gathered crops of the season had been stored in the farm barns; the fall wheat had been sown, and the corn was ripening in the shock. All were destroyed, together with dwellings and their contents farm buildings, in many instances, domestic animals, leaving nothing but ashes, blackened stumps and putrid carcasses. Orchards which had been the work of years to rear were wiped out in an hour.

School houses, churches, bridges, disappeared, as if by magic. While this zone of flame stretched across the state, it seemed to work its greatest havoc as it approached Lake Huron. Huron and Sanilac counties, though largely devoted to lumbering, were nevertheless, quite well settled by an agricultural population and abounded in prosperous and well cultivated farms and orchards. Blinded by smoke and stifled by the on-rushing flames, the inhabitants hid in wells and cisterns and ditches, or fled in terror to the lake shore, where they saved themselves by wading into the water up to their necks. There were along the Huron shore or near it the following villages of two hundred to six hundred inhabitants: Glen Haven, White Rock, Forestville, Sand Beach, Port Hope, Elm Creek, Huron City, Forest Bay, Center Harbor, Rock Falls, Verona Mills. These villages were almost wholly obliterated and the people who lived in them were left entirely destitute, without food and with only the clothing which they wore. Many of them were obliged to leave the country to find homes and sustenance for the coming winter in other localities.

Three genrations of Hayner woman
After writing about my about Robert Wesley and Dorothy Hayner, my GGGrandparents in my Tombstone Tuesday blog yesterday, I could not help but write about a Michigan event which must have figured prominently in their own personal history. Robert Wesley, Dorothy and Addie Jane were recorded in the 1870 Federal Census as living in Port Hope, Huron County, Michigan. The town that one short year later would burn to the ground. My Great Grandmother, Mary Morgan Hayner was born in what was left of Port Hope on October 21, 1871. The fires which decimate the area burn until October 19, 1871. It is hard for me to imagine what a pregnant Dorothy, toddler Addie Jane and Robert Wesley must have gone thru in the days before Mary Morgan was born. I can't help but wonder what they did to survive this horrific event. Where did they go after it was all done. Surely they could not stay in Port Hope. Robert Wesley had brothers in Port Huron and in Romeo so I can only assume that they must have fled to live with family in areas not effected by this tragic fire.

The Hayner woman photo shown above is of Mary Morgan (Hayner) Densmore (left), Dorothy Ann (Morgan) Hayner (center) and Addie (Densmore) Anderson(right).  Mary Morgan was the child that Dorothy was pregnant with at the time of the 1871 wildfire.  Addie is the daughter of Mary Morgan and Charles Densmore who is named after Mary Morgan's sister, Addie Jane..  Addie is my Grandmother, Mary Morgan is my Great Grandmother and Dorothy Ann is my Great, Great Grandmother.

Addie Jane (Hayner) Stranahan

Once again, I have another family story that I wish had been recorded and communicated. I wish I could have an hour to talk to Robert Wesley to ask him how he protected his family. Or to have a cup of tea with Dorothy to talk to her about how she felt and what she did to protect Addie and her unborn child, Mary. It is amazing to look back 100 years or more and see the dangers that each of these families faced. Different dangers then we face today and 100 years from now life will be different and our ancestors will face other dangers that today we can not fathom.

Happy Hunting,


1 comment:

  1. Loved your post! After hearing all the stories about the GREAT FIRE in the thumb, little did I know that our family was personally involved. Thank you for all you do to keep our family history alive and growing. Pam Semp-Harbor Beach, Michigan


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