On October 8, 1871, there were a series of simultaneous forest fires in the Great Lakes region, collectively knows as the Great Fire of 1871. These fires burned the several cities, towns, and villages in Michigan. Holland, Manistee, and Port Huron suffered considerable damage.

The Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin was the deadliest forest fire in recorded history, also destroying several towns in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The fire crossed the Menominee River and burned in Menominee County.

Later that night the Great Chicago Fire erupted and burned for 2 days. It destroyed roughly 4 square miles killing approximately 300 people.

1871 Fire Map

In the map below the 37 individual fire areas can be grouped into five major fires that burned in the Great Lakes Region. The Great Chicago Fire, The Great Peshtigo Fire, the Port Huron Fire, Holland Fire, and the Manistee Fire. All the towns that burned in Michigan are called the Great Michigan Fire of 1871.

Great Michigan Fire

Logging was a major industry in Michigan in the 1800’s, as trees were harvested and sent to the mills, branches, bark, and unused wood was left behind. The summer of 1871 had not had rain for months, the land was dry, and the vegetation and logging debris became fuel for the fires.

The gale force winds created a wall of flames from hundreds of smaller land-clearing fires. 2.5 million acres in Michigan was devastated. The land was left barren across Michigan, thousands of buildings were destroyed with no lumber left to rebuild.

Families left homeless, animals lost, businesses destroyed, the monetary loss has never been determined. The office death toll number at least 10, but the actual number is unknown. Estimates were based on people being reported missing. In 1871 there were thousands of lumberjacks and salesman spread throughout the state as well as settlers in remote areas, the total death toll was impossible to determine. The Michigan fires occurred during daylight hours and the death toll was estimated to be less than the Great Chicago Fire which started at night in which 250-300 people perished.

Manistee Fire

At 9am that Sunday morning the fire alarms sounded, and the fire department rode the steamer to the Gifford and Ruddock’s Mills area. They found the twenty-acre tract of dead hemlock forest ablaze and threatening that part of the town. The fire department fought the fire all day and it was finally subdued, and the town was saved.

Or was it?

While the fire was raging an alarm whistle was blown on the east side of Manistee Lake about 2pm. The steam mill of Magill & Canfield on Blackbird Island was in flames. The mill, boarding house, stables, shops, docks, and lumber did not stand a chance, it was a total loss.

As the night grew a light was seen in the southwest on the shore of Lake Michigan. Around 9:30pm the fire alarm again sounded the pine woods along the Lake Michigan shoreline were on fire. As gale force winds hit the flames the western sky near the mouth of the river lit up red.

The mill and tug belonging to John Canfield, the boarding house and about 25-30 dwellings were at the mouth of the river. The beaches several acres were covered with highly flammable pine saw dust. Near the piers were several hundred cords of dry pine slabs to serve as fuel for the tugs. Instead, they served as fuel for the fire.

The 200-foot-wide fire swept across Manistee destroying everything in its path. The lighthouse on the north bank of the river was one of the casualties.

As the fire grew there was an effort to remove the fleet of vessels and barges opposite Canfield’s mill. Their efforts were in vain as the engine became disabled and the flames swept over them.

New scene of danger

From the south, directly in the back of the town a fierce wind was sending the fire toward the city. Many farms were on that side of town and were destroyed as the fire made it way and then divided into 2 columns. One staying on the lake shore and coming in at the mouth and the other heading northeasterly arriving directly south of town.

Many tried to fight the fire and protect their homes, staying at it past midnight. At 12:30 the gale became a tornado hurling hot cinders and burning bark through the air. This fiery storm leaped to the top of the 90-foot-tall hemlocks. Almost everything in its path was annihilated.

As the fire spread toward the river and Manistee Lake families fled for their lives on foot, wagons, or horseback. Many escaped the fire across the bridge as it burned behind them only to find smoke and fire on the north side.

From a witness

Bryon M. Cutcheon, a reporter who lived in Manistee and witnessed the fire wrote “From Fifth Street, half of a mile south of the river, to Cushman & Calkins’ mill, half a mile north of the bridge, and from the foot of Oak Street eastward to Tyson & Robinson’s mill, at the outlet of Manistee Lake, three-fourths of a mile, was one surging sea of fire. The steam fire engine burned in the street where it stood, the men and horses barely escaping with their lives. About three o’clock the wind abated, but the work of ruin was complete. When Monday morning’s sun glared red and lurid through the heavy masses of smoke, where had stood Manistee, it beheld a scene of desolation scarcely to be described.”

He continued to report, “In the First Ward three buildings remained – the Catholic Church, the Ward Schoolhouse, and a small dwelling – and I should add some small fishing shanties near the mouth of the river. The Third Ward was swept clean except a few buildings near Manistee Lake. In the Second Ward the six platted blocks lying between Oak and Maple Streets, and about thirty buildings near the mouth, were swept away. The Fourth Ward escaped nearly untouched, the fine residences of J.L. Taylor, banker, formerly the residence of M. Engelmann, situated in the very corner of the ward, being the only one burned. His loss was great and almost total.”

Wooden Buildings

The city was built from the lumber they harvested, and building were burned to the ground. Over a thousand people were homeless, many penniless. They took refuge on vessels, tugs, boats, and barges.

As the sun rose on Monday and the destruction could be seen it was a staggering blow. But as was common with small communities everyone banded together to help each other. Homes that were not destroyed in the fire were open to those that lost their homes. By Tuesday men were hopeful and or began to organize for the reconstruction.

Wednesday night the news of the Chicago fire found its way to Manistee and the townspeople felt all hope was lost, but soon began to rally. “Manistee will rise from her ashes. The work of rebuilding is already commenced. We have hope, energy, faith in the future, and some capital.,” wrote Cutcheon.

With two-thirds of the city destroyed, miraculously there was no loss of life and no serious accidents. The outside world was generous with aid, nearly $5,000 was received as well as commodities of all kinds. The task of rebuilding and repairing was begun. Instead of wood, many chose brick and the sitting rose again from the ashes.

Great Fire of 1871Historical Marker – Manistee County

Great Fire of 1871

Civil War and After (1860 – 1875) – Registered in 1957 and erected in 1957 – ID # S14

Located at Orchard Beach State Park, Manistee Township – Lat: 44.28124900/Long: -86.31494500

On October 8, 1871, the day the famous Chicago fire began, equally terrible fires broke out on Lake Michigan’s east coast in forests parched by a hot, dry summer. The flames were fanned by high winds. In a few hours most of Holland and Manistee lay in smoldering ruins, a fate other coastal towns barely escaped. The fires swept on across the state, clear to Lake Huron, destroying some two million acres of trees. Relief for the thousands of victims came from all over Michigan and the nation.

Holland Fire

The fire started on the southern part of the town. As the winds increase there was no hope of saving the town as buildings on the towns western edge caught fire. One resident commented that “The entire territory covered by the fire was mowed as clean as with a reaper; there was not a fence post or a sidewalk plank, and hardly a stump of a shade tree left to designate the old lines.”

The fire destroyed 76 businesses, 243 homes, 5 churches, 3 hotels, 5 warehouses and 45 other building. The total loss was $900,000 (over $23M today)

Port Huron Fire

As the fires burned in Holland and Manistee it skipped over to the east side of the state only to be stopped by Lake Huron’s shore. The winds brought the embers and smoke from the west. In just over 30 hours the fires that started in Manistee found its way through Grayling and Big Rapids. It swept through Isabelle, Midland and Bay counties and was stopped in Gratiot Count where they were not any lumbering. These fires ignited small piles along the Cass River and ignited Caro and allowed to progress across the thumb.

Residents jumped into wells or flooded the lakeshore trying to save themselves by wading into the water. Like all the other towns the fire was fought all day they could no longer win against the winds feeding the fires.

The aftermath of the Great Fires of 1871

That fire that raged across 2.25 million acres of the upper Midwest destroying at least 4 billion feet of prime timber. At least 1,200 lives were lost, including approximately 800 in Peshtigo alone.

In Chicago, the loss of live was 300 and almost 20% of the residents were left homeless. Four square miles were completed leveled including the business district. When Chicago rebuilt it did so conforming to new fire regulations.

Learn more about the rich history of the Northwest Lower Peninsula.