On October 15, 1908, a series of fires swept through the pine forests of Presque Isle County, Michigan. The fires were fueled by strong winds and dry conditions, and quickly spread to the village of Metz. The fire continued to spread, threatening the county seat at Rogers City, and burning to the outskirts of the City of Alpena. The fire even jumped across Grand Lake before finally burning itself out at the Lake Huron shore. The extent of the losses at Metz led to the fire being referred to as “The Metz Fire,” but it devastated an area well beyond the boundaries of the village.
One of the worst tragedies of the fire happened a few blocks southeast of Metz. The Detroit & Mackinac Railroad sent a train to help evacuate the residents as the fire began. Residents boarded the train, many taking refuge in an open gondola car. They brought their beds, dressers, and trunks to load into the rail cars. The trains departure was delayed while a saloon owner loaded his stock of liquor.
At the point the train was pulling out of Metz, the village was engulfed in flames. Southeast of Metz stood Nowicki’s Siding with huge stacks of cedar posts, railroad ties and hemlock bark ablaze on both sides of the track. With such intense head the steel rails warped and caused the train to derail in the middle of the fire.
There were approximately 40 residents on the train, and some were able to escape the fire. A few were able to escape by crawling back along the tracks. Many lost their life, and many were burned in the escape. 12 people in the gondola were piles of ashes and bones. These included 9 children who died with their mothers in the fire.
Two children, Theresa, and Louise Hardies (ages 6 & 5) were rescued from the burning Gondola car that their mother perished in. They clung to the coat of a man who jumped from the car. Louise was stunned by the fall and was lying on the ground as Theresa found her way to a clearing and was eventually found by her cousin. Edward Hardies was trying to save his wife and children from the fire in the Gondola and felt something soft beneath his feet. He found Louise and thot her to a place of safety before trying to return and save his wife and other children. Unfortunately, his return was cut off by the fire.
Refusing to Evacuate
“When everybody was getting ready to go on the train, we all gathered around father and teased him to let us go, too. It was so hot and smoky, we thought we could not stand it much longer, and it seemed hard to see everyone going away in the cars and we stayed behind.
“But father said, ‘No children, if we are going to burn, we will burn right here on our own place. We are safer here, anyway, than we would be out in the woods on the cars.’
Trying to Save Their House
“So, we pumped up tubs of water and got quilts out of the house and soaked them with water to put them on the roof, for we thought that we would keep the house from catching fire from the sparks. But, at last, father saw that it was of no use. The wind blew so hard we could scarcely hold on to the things that we carried out of the house. The air was full of hot sparks and ashes and burning shingles.
“Then we carried bread and butter in cans out into the field, and buried them, for we knew if we escaped, we should have something to eat.”
Opening the Barn
“It was about half past 6 when it got so hot that father saw there was no use trying to save the house with the wet quilts, so he wrapped them around the children and took us over to the field. The last thing, my brother Adolph went to the barn and drove out the cows and horses. Father stayed around the house, trying to keep it from catching fire. But, at last, it began to burn, and then we saw father start to come to us. He got part way across and fell. He had worked so hard, and the smoke was so thick that it got the best of him.
“Sister Mamie and I ran to him and dragged him to the place in the lot where we had our things. We put water on him and in a little while he was alright again. Then father and Adolph got back to the barn and dragged out a load of lumber that we had stored for our new house. With the lumber and a hay rake, they fixed up a kind of shed where we spent the night.
“The next morning, the men took the lumber and built the first house that was rebuilt in Metz. Before night, we had 15 people staying there, though it is not as big as a good-sized room.
The Zimmerman family along with Louise and Theresa Hardies arrived at John’s brother’s house in Detroit on Monday afternoon after the fire. The children remained until their home was rebuilt.
Tale of One Family’s Survival
The Lapczinsky family was staying near Grand Lake when the fire raged eastward towards them. The fire jumped the lake and burned eastward to the Lake Huron shore. The family of 4 had been missing since the fire and were thought to have either drowned in Grand Lake or were consumed by the fire.
They were found alive along with 6 others at the cottage of Bliss Stebbins. “Six of us were in a lumber camp near the lake Thursday night,” said Mr. Stebbins today. “We did not think the fire was serious and turned in at the usual hour. About 11 o’clock we were awakened by Lapczinsky, who rushed into our camp and gave the alarm. We just had time to get to the lake when the flames burst through the forest. We pushed our boat out and waded a long distance along the shore to a part of the forest where the fire had not yet come. There we rested awhile, until the flames approached, then launched our boat again and pulled for Grand Island. There was a tremendous wind, and it was all we could do to keep afloat with ten in the boat.
“In the morning we tried to reach the mainland, but the fire was still burning. Finally, we succeeded in reaching the clubhouse and cottages, where we have stayed ever since. We did not know that people were searching for Lapczinsky.”
The camps of the Emery Martin Lumber Co. and Joseph Ritilitz, both near Presque Isle, were destroyed as reported by Mr. Stebbins. “There were no fatalities in this region,” he added. “We have slept only one night in the past five, however, and have been constantly on guard. There is no fire near here now.”
The aftermath of the fire.
News of the fire reached folk throughout Michigan. 200,000 acres were destroyed and 42 people perished in the fire. One newspaper reported “The Metz refugees are sadly in need of warm underclothing, shoes and stockings, bedding, and stoves. The food supply is sufficient for a few days, but no longer. Lumber has been sent, but more is needed. Tools are scarce. Cooking tinsels are few. Hay and grain for the remaining horses and cattle must be procured. In the immediate vicinity of Metz there are 84 families without homes, nearly all penniless and in want.”
The railroads began to bring supplies into the area and relief shacks were being built to house those that had survived. The 16’X20’ buildings were rough board covered with tar paper and equipped with a small wood stove for both heating and cooking.
Winter was not far off and as the first ice formed on the lake on October 31 relief supplies continued to arrive by rail, mainly from the wealthy Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe.
The community came together and supported one another with the help of people from near and far. Today Metz is a much smaller community than it was in 1908 and many of the residents are descendants of those that survived and rebuilt after the fire.
The 1908 Metz Fire: By the Numbers
Presque Isle County Residents Impacted:
150 Families Totally Burned Out/80 Families Partially Burned Out
700 Families with Small Losses (timber, fences but no buildings)
930 Families who Received Relief
4,615 Total number of individuals receiving relief from the commission.
Farm Implements Destroyed in the Fire:
75 Sets of Small Tools
69 Horse Rakes
7 Pea Pullers
29 Seed Drills
12 Disc Harrows
51 Fanning Mills
63 Food Cutters
1 Corn Sheller
Industry & Invention (1875-1915) – Registered in 1970 and erected in 1970 – ID # S299
Located at Metz Township Hall, Metz – Lat: 45.28498700/Long: -83.80122100
On October 15, 1908, raging fires swept the pine forests of Presque Isle County. When the flames approached the village of Metz, a train jammed with women and children left for Posen, five miles away. At Nowicki’s siding, two miles out of town, huge piles of blazing wood lined the track. As the engine raced past the siding, where the intense heat had warped the rails, the train left the track, leaving an open car full of refugees in the center of the flames. Sixteen were killed and dozens of others badly burned. Throughout this part of the state hundreds were left homeless, as many homes and farms were devastated. Supplies soon poured in so that shelters could be erected before the onset of the northern winter.