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The Great Fire Of 1881 {Michigan}

Past2Future

In 1881 there was a terrible fire that swept throughout portions of the Thumb in Michigan. Noone is left to recall those that died in this fire or the intensity to which it burned everything in its path. Portions of the information contained here are from an account of The Great Fire written many years ago by Miner Chipman, an early Bad Axe resident. In 1981 the Tuscola County Advertiser printed a Collection of Stories of The Great Fire to mark the 100 year anniversary of Michigan's Thumb History. This is not all of thoe accounts of that fire, but only a small portion. From these accounts you can get the idea on just how devastating this fire was to those that lived and those that did not make it.

A gale swept in from the southwest on September 5, 1881. It fanned into an inferno, the fires raged for three days. A million acres were devastated in Sanilac and Huron counties alone. At least 125 persons died and thousands more were left destitute. The following are some accounts that were printed in local newspapers.

The Detroit Evening News Sept. 6, 1881: lapeer, MI.--Mrs. Richard ELLIOT of Five Lakes was burned to death in the woods last night, while fleeing from her house to that of a neighbor, she having been driven out by the forest fires which raged around her home.

Flint, MI., Sept. 6--In consequence of the extreme drought the vegetation is all drying up and forest fires are devastating the woods in various parts of this country, destroying fences ect. A barn belonging to Avery ABLES, of this city, was burned yesterday.

Millington, MI., Sept 6--William BATES' sawmill, lumber, logs and all the buildings adjacent burned today in spite of the efforts made to save it by the men who went out to fight the fire this morning. J.C. SMITH's lumber yard and all the buildings except his house, burned last night.

East Saginaw, Sept. 6--In Buena Vista Township is an Indian settlement, containing about forty families, mostly Indians with a few Germans, and a dense forest surrounds them. Two men coming out, narrowly escaped with their lives last night, and as the wind drove the fire in the direction, the entire settlement will be swept away. Christopher WARTENBERG, who lives on a farm on the town line road between Saginaw and Kochville, had his house and barn burned last night. His neighbor across lost a barn. Another man in the same vicinity had his house and barn burned, and Albert RINGER, who lives near the Mackinaw Road, lost a house and barn. F. RITTER, a farmer in Bloomfield Township, lost 600 bushels of oats, 250 bushels of wheat, 200 bushels of barley, a quantity of hay and all his farm implements. The village of Freelands is threatand, but to the excitement and terror of the people it is difficult to obtain definite information. Since 7 o'clock this evening telegraphic communication has been cut off between this city and Vassar and three miles of fires are reported along the road.

Special dispatch to the Detroit Free Press from Port Sanilac, Sept. 6--There are families in this part of the country burned entirely out, leaving the majority of them with only the clothes they had on. Many families had to go to the lake to escape the fire. We cannot get any communication further north. It is reported that Richmondville is entirely destroyed, and parties have here to investigate.

Second dispatch from Port Sanilac, Sept. 6--Richmondville, ten miles north of here, is completely destroyed, only one building remaining. Seven lives were lost and one other person badly burned. John LEE, wife and mother, and Abram THORNTON, wife and son, are lost: the two latter jumped into a well. Two girls named SHARKEY and WINTERS and an old man named WINTERS can't live, they are burned so badly. Men say the fire consumed buildings in ten minutes after it struck them. As I write a report comes from Forestville that the whole village is destroyed.

Third dispatch from Port Sanilac, Sept. 6--Mrs. DEEBERT and four children were burned southwest of Sandusky. The DENNISON family is reported missing. A family of nine in Forester, named WILSON, are all burned. Verona Mills is all gone but the church and store. Everybody is moving to the lakes. The fire west of us is coming, but we hope to keep it down and save the town, but God help us if it doesn't rain soon.

Carsonville, MI., Sept. 6--Twenty-five families have been rendered homeless, and have had everything they possessed in the world consumed. Two entire families have been burned alive, one that of a farmer named DEEBERT, consisting of wife and four children, was burned to death in Watertown Township and their charred bodies were left upon the bare and blackened ground. Another entire family, named DENNISON, is reported burned and still the whole horrible truth is not half told. The mail carrier from Marlette to Bad Axe is also reported to have perished.

Lexington, MI., Sept. 6--The intense heat has seared the leaves on the green beech and maple trees and they apparently burn as easily as dry pine. It is said that the roar of the fire may be heard at the distance of a mile.

The Evening News, Sept. 7--The best efforts of the Western Union telegraph employees to "get a hole through" to Port Austin, ect., have failed today, and up to 3:30 p.m. nothing has been heard from there, the wires being destroyed by fire.

East Saginaw, MI., Sept. 7--A man just in from Watrousville Road says everything is burning up between this city and Reese along that road. Trees, fences, stacks of grain and buildings are going, and the wind is blowing a gale from the north which makes it worse than before.

Millington, MI., Sept. 7--The fire is now in the village limits and running fast in the open fields, but plenty of men are fighting it. The wind is in the north. The buildings on both the MURPHY farms are burned and settlers at Hemlock are all burned out. Lexington, MI., Sept. 7--The wind on Monday spread the fires in the easterly direction, burning houses, barns, stock and crops. Many lives have been lost in this county. The village of Cato, consisting of 20 or 30 houses, a sawmill and a grist-mill, store and several shops, was entirely burned. In Huron County some confirmatory reports of the burning of Bad Axe, except the courthouse and one hotel, also the destruction of Verona Mills. Ten bodies were brought into Sand Beach, and others are hourly reported, while the dead men, women and children, horses, cattle, sheep and hogs are found in some sections too numerous, in the general horror, to occasion remarks and probably not less than 100 lives have been lost in all.

Rev. GRENELL: The scenes of horror in the woods were too frightful for any pen to portray. The dead were found everywhere, very rarely recognizable, and in most cases undistinguishable human remains.

Six Were Found Dead In A Well: In Marion Township six were found in one well and seven in another. There are many reports of death in the northern part of Forester Township-but the names of the dead had not, as yet, been ascertained. An older man named COLE, living northwest of Port Sanilac, was burned to death. Dr. A. E. HOYT of Port sanilac, braved the flames and with medicines and bandages made his way in to the country north and west of the village. He reported many burned fatally. He found seven dead bodies at the Ridge schoolhouse. In Marion Township the family of one RICHMOND, six in number, were found dead in a well. And another family name unknown. Rev. W. E. ALLINGTON of Port Sanilac, found 16 dead bodies near Deckerville. In Paris Township the wife of John FLYTEWAGER, and his seven children were burned alive. Fifteen others burned to death near Parisville. The DAY family and Morris CLIFFORD and his wife and child. Mr. PAINE, of Sibley, was burned to death. {The RICHMOND family above referred to were near neighbors of the present publisher of the Tribune. The whole family dove in to a new 12 foot deep well with about two feet of water in the bottom. The top of the well was covered with boards and planks. These caught fire and while burning ropped down on the father, mother and five children. The baby, less than a year old, was drowned in the water. The father's head was partly burned off. All were dead when found the next day. The RICHMOND's, however, lived in Delaware Township instead of Marion. The family consisted of the father, mother and six children. The oldest boy, 12, was away at a neighbors and was the only member of the family left alive.--Editor}

The Welcome Rain Comes: The Bay City Tribune, Sept. 9--The propeller Mary Martini which left Robert's wharf at 9:00 o'clock is advisable not to go further. The Martini returned to Bay City last evening and a Tribune reporter at once sought an interview with him regarding the fires along the shore as far as he knew. Captain HUTCHINGS said: I laid at Caseville all Wednesday night. A light rain storm visited that section about midnight and lasted two or three hours. It served to check the fire, as I noticed from my windows that the illumination in the direction of Bad Axe, Port Austin, Sebewaing and in fact along the shore had greatly decreased.

From the Sanilac Jeffersonian: Minden--The elevator at Minden and one report says the station is gone.

Charleston--Asahel MOORE informs us that no danger had been apprehended at Charleston until the cloud of smoke and fire was seen approaching. The people rushed for the lake, and in almost the twinkling of an eye every house in the place was in flames, including the mill, store and shops. Before they arrived in Forestville it was so hot that the hogs were dying by the roadside. We hear the loss of several lives, but have not learned the names of any except Henry COLE, whose dead body was found the next day. One woman named SWICK was sick, having been recently confined, and in one hurry she was forgotten, but she managed to get out, and with her four children, made her way to Minden and escaped. One woman south of the village buried her three children, all but their faces, and their heads were badly burned. She also buried herself, but her foot and ankle were burned.

Note: Portions of this article was written from the account that the Tuscola County Advertiser in Caro, MI. wrote in 1981. You should consult this original article that was an insert in the newspaper to view the entire written account which is an interesting and educational account of The Great Fire.