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The Great Fire of 1881
 
Many years of ruthless lumbering left a countryside of stumps, tops, and
slashings scattered over broad miles of the Thumb of Michigan, and the fire of 1871 piled up additional layers of windfalls and other debris.
 

Then a drought in July and August, 1881 created what turned out to be the
largest and most volatile tinderbox in the history of Michigan. There were spotty fires in many parts of the thumb during august, but never enough to concern anyone except the few settlers and farmers who lost a barn
or a cabin.

 

That all changed in early September, as hot, dry winds continued to blow, and came to a whirling climax during the early morning hours of Monday, September 5th. Suddenly, the entire thumb seemed to erupt into one
gigantic catastrophe that proved to be one of most disastrous and widespread fires that the Midwest had ever seen.

The conflagration roared up from the southwest, cutting a central swath that engulfed more than two-thirds of the Thumb, leaving only the western section of Tuscola and Huron Counties, and a few enclaves along the east shore of Huron and Sanilac Counties unburned.

While huge area were consumed as completely as the inside of a furnace, there were exceptions in many places, as homes, farms and individuals were saved as surely as the hand of god had been placed over them as a protective shield. There were freak tragedies and there were freak escapes.

 

Some people were saved by rushing into fields of green corn, and burying their bodies in the soil; one man crawled into the carcass of an elk he had just shot and gutted; some families were saved by lowering themselves into dug wells. The largest number - 400 people - saved themselves by taking refuge in the new brick county courthouse in bad axe. Men took turns pumping water and drenching the building through the day and night as the temperature in the building soared to 110 degree. While the building and its occupants escaped destruction, more houses and other buildings burned in bad axe than in any other town, although a few smaller villages were destroyed completely. in forested areas, the fire often appeared as a giant, swirling ball of spitting flames that moved high in the treetops, igniting one clump and passing another.

 

When the fire finally burned itself out, there were 282 known dead, more than 3,400 buildings destroyed, and almost 15,000 residents homeless. Many were blinded – some temporarily and some permanently – by smoke, gusting dust and flying ashes that traveled faster than a whirlwind and blotted out the sun for days. Dollar losses, as recorded a century ago, pale when compared to today’s prices, but the destruction in buildings and timber, crops and animals was enormous.

The response of the American people from all parts of the county was most generous, with greatest help coming, of course, from Michiganians themselves. Chicago, it is said, donated liberally, perhaps in remembrance
of that city’s own fire tragedy 10 years earlier. The disaster relief sent to Huron County marked the founding of Disaster Services for the American Red Cross, and the county is recorded as the first place in the U.S. where
The American Red Cross flew to denote active service to the suffering.

While this brief account does not pretend to describe the Great Fire, it is meant only to call attention to the fact that this is an event that had an effect on every human being in the Thumb, and has been the subject of dozens of books and hundreds upon hundreds of news articles and essays.

BY: Walter J. Rummel

 
 
   
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