TUSCOLA COUNTY HISTORY
The forest fires of the years 1871 and 1881 constituted memorable epochs in the history of Tuscola County. IN both instances it was truly a baptism by fire. The first visitation was fiercest and most terrific owing to the fact that the land was more generally covered with timber, much of the which was down and very dry. No language can describe the fury of the tempest as the billows of flame were hurled hither and thither along the track of destruction. The destruction of timber was enormous, and in this respect the fires of this period surpassed those of 1881.
THE FIRE OF 1871
The damage done by the fires of 1871 was mainly confined
to the destruction of timber
Enos Goodrich, of Watertown, gives some personal recollections of a night of fire in which are vividly portrayed scenes and experiences that were common during the fiery ordeal of that period. Mr. Goodrich says:
"On Sunday, the 8th of October, 1871, though the woods and fields were very dry, no special alarm or apprehension existed among the inhabitants. Settlers on new farms had continued to fire their fallow in the customary manner, until there was scarce a farm or clearing in the county where fire did not exist; in most cases it did not run in the woods to any alarming extent, but remained quietly slumbering and smoldering in the alluvial soil, in old stumps or the trunks of decayed trees. It is almost incredible what a sudden and electric effect a change of atmosphere can exert upon these hidden fires. On Sunday afternoon the wind blew fresh from the southwest, and with a husky dryness I have scarce ever experienced in my life. Under its magic inspiratons these smoldering fires sprung into life in all directions. Fires that had been supposed to be extinct for weeks sent forth first their smoke and then their flames; and whatever object they touched became ignited with the rapidity of kiln dried flax.
"Between two o'clock P.M. and sunset, so rapid was the spread of fire in some localities that many persons were accused of setting fires, where such a thing had never been thought of. At just midnight I was alarmed by Henry S. Chaplain, a neighbor of mine, who came to inform me that the fire was raging in the fences of a field on my improvement near his residence. I aroused the household, and with a force of some half dozen men, hurried to the scene of action. On our arrival we found Mrs. Chaplain, a lady of near seventy years, combating the conflagration single-handed. Hurrying to her relief, we removed fences, tore up stumps and roots, and raked leaves until, aided by the dampening influences of approaching morning, we succeeded in subduing the fire.
"A scout around the fields to see where danger threatened most, and a hurried breakfast, ushered in the dawn of the eventful 9th of October, '71. Having been honored by my townsmen with a seat on the board of supervisors, and this being the day fixed by law for their annual meeting, I must prepare for a hasty departure.
Admonished by the threatening aspect of affairs, I placed a faithful guard of
men around my steam saw-mill and lumber yard, which was nearly surrounded by
woods, with a vast amount of fallen timber and combustible matter.
Fortunately, the location was flanked on the west by a pond I had raised for
floating and booing logs, a circumstance to which I was doubtless indebted for
the saving of the mill.
"After having given full instructions to the men to remove rubbish, to plow and drench with water, I proceeded on my way to Caro, our county seat. By this time the morning had so far wasted that one hour and fifty minutes, which brought me to Hurd's Corners, a distance of sixteen miles, found it past noon. Halting here at Wright's Tavern to partake of dinner and refresh my horse, I net proceeded onward toward Wahjamega. After crossing Sucker Creek I entered the low and level hemlock woods; and though I had been surrounded by fire all the distance, here for the first time it began to be particularly annoying. I feared obstructions in the way, but learned that a force had been detached to cut out fallen timber and clear the track. As I advanced, sometimes the dense smoke, black and sodden with pitch, would meet me in the face and produce temporary suffocation, from which cause I at times had fears that my horse would fall down in the harness. Sometimes the sheeted flames would rise on both sides of the track, and close and mingle above my head. Sometimes I would pause in a gap to catch a breath of free air, and watch the flames careering across the track before me-waiting for a momentary lull- when my faithful horse would again bound like a deer through flame and smoke. Meanwhile the crash of falling timbers in all directions, and the raining down of burning limbs and bark admonished me of the danger of the situation.
"Pushing on in this way until I came to the angle in the road, near Wahjamega, I began to congratulate myself that I was about out of the woods. Near this point I met Supervisors Hurd of Dayton and Wright of Wells. These gentlemen brought the intelligence that a quorum of the board had convened, and, bringing news that the devastations of the fire were widespread and universal throughout the county, they had adjourned for two weeks, and hurried away to protect their several homes from the fearfully impending danger.
"Turning my horse, I followed in the wake of these two gentlemen, and another suffocating and breathless chase found us on the borders of the improvements near Sucker Creek, with the burning woods behind us. Slowly now I wended my onward course; and as I would my way along that elevation of land west of Hurd's Corners, the shades of evening were closing around me. All around the improvements the woods were lighted up with fire. In some places it showed itself in brilliant and evanescent gleanings above the top of the dense forests-in others, the lurid flame would unroll its long, sweeping scrolls, and, rising and sinking with the passing wind, would ignite every object within its reach. Especially to the south and east of Hurd's Corners did the fire seem to glory in its fearful revelry. White on the one hand the flame was struggling to produce the brightness of noonday, on the other hand the dense clouds of pitchy smoke seemed determined to maintain the darkness of night. Never were light and darkness mingled together with more confusion than in these burning fields and woods.
"My horse, which had been in the harness since midnight of the night previous, showed no signs of faltering; but I knew he would require rest and refreshment before overcoming the sixteen miles that lay between me and my home in Watertown. I turned in at Wright's Tavern; but before going to bed I was told that several buildings in the neighborhood were burning, and many others so closely threatened that there was little hope of saving them. I went to bed, but could not rest. I was impressed with the conviction that my mill must burn. At last, hearing footsteps in the barroom, I dressed myself hastily and emerging from my room I bid the landlord "Good Morning." My surprise my be imagined when he told me it was only half past ten, and he was just fixing to go to bed. But I told him I could not let him off till I had my horse. He remonstrated, and thought I was crazy. "Why," said he, 'you can never get through. Timber is falling all the time, in all directions, and your road will be blocked up; and that is not all,' said he 'those big buildings of Ketchum's lumber camp, a mile south of here, are now burning, and it will be impossible to pass them.'
"I replied to him, it was impossible for me to stay longer where I was, and that whether I went through or not, I certainly should go as far as I could. So the horse and buggy were soon ready, and I once more started on my fiery journey. Passing very comfortably for some distance, I soon came to where the road was enclosed on the west side by a long range of pine long heaps, and this range of heaps was in a clear blaze from one end to the other; while on the east side large masses of timber and brush were also burning in the most furious manner. It was a fiery gauntlet to think of running; and as I approached the entrance my progress was arrested by a loud voice shouting through smoke and fire and light and darkness, on my right. I halted, and answered through the gloom, but on person could be seen.
"'Drive slow,' shouted a stentorian voice through the smoke. 'Can I get through?' I inquired of my invisible monitor. 'You can,' said he, 'if you can get the first forty rods.' This was interesting intelligence, but it would have been somewhat more pleasing had not that word if been interpolated. I thanked my invisible friend, and looking earnestly into the passage, into which I could see about as far as the end of my nose, I bade the horse advance. As I entered between the two walls of fire I could catch glimpses of logs in the track which had doubtless been thrown there in tearing down the burning heaps with a vain hope of arresting the fire. Had my course been arrested I could not have turned back without suffocating both myself and horse. Onward was the only way to daylight- the only road to a breath of air that could be inhaled without suffocation- and on we went until our egress was a sudden as our ingress. Here we paused for one more breath of pure air. But a short space in advance, and there were the Ketchum and Roberts lumber camps-first a capacious boarding-house and barn of vas proportions, and next a large blacksmith shop. A few hours before I had passed these buildings, overshadowing the road with their vast fire. Seeing that the way was clear and free from obstructions, I determined on a hasty passage, and putting my horse to his utmost speed-a few instants-a few powerful bounds, and the fiery mass was behind us.
"It was now not far from midnight, and fifteen miles of fire and smoke lay between me and home. Deeming that the worst was past, I now resolved to take things calmly. As I passed the farm-houses and the cabins of new settlers no signs of slumber were visible. Lamps and candles were burning, and shed their dim light out on the smoky air. Tables were set at midnight, and refreshments served for those whose day of labor knew no night of rest. Dim and ghost-like the forms of men, women and children were seen moving to and fro through the smoke,, as fences, piles of lumber or shocks of corn were being removed to some places that might afford a hope of security.
"As I passed onward through fire and smoke, amid the sound of falling timber, I reached a spot between Hurd's Corners and Mayville where for a distance of some half a mile the road was over hung by a continuous forest of dead hemlocks. These trees, from
the ground to the topmast pinnacle, were a perfect mass of fire. Fiery limbs
were falling in all directions, and now and then a sweeping blast would fill the
air with millions of star-like particles of fire. I thought of Byron's
Siege of Corinth:
When into countless meteors driven.
Her earth stars melted into heaven,
Whose clouds that day grew doubly dun,
Impervious to the hidden sun
With volumed smoke that slowly grew
To one wide sky of sulphurous hue.'
"I passed on without obstruction until, within less than two miles of home, near Foster's camp, on the Crapo lands, my course was arrested by a huge pine that stretched its massive trunk square across the road. Here was no chance for an argument. Turning back to where I could leave my horse in trusty hands, I soon made the balance of my journey home on foot. It was three o'clock in the morning when I reached my steam mill. The ground had been cleared of rubbish, and a broad track had been plowed and harrowed around the mill and piles of lumber, which the boys had christened their race course. They had deluged this track, and the lumber piles, and the ground on which they stood, with hogsheads of water.
"Gray morning, struggling through the smoke, rose slowly over the eastern woods. I called in the aid of men from Foster's camp, whose services had been kindly offered for the occasion. All dead trees from which fire might be blown to the mill were speedily cut down. A line of men with water-barrels and buckets was formed around the mill. The wind blew a gentle breeze from the southwest: the time seemed opportune; and at a signal the torch was applied to the masses of dead timber and brushwood all along outside our line of defense. A few brief moments and the whole woods frontage, from the ground to a hundred feet above the tallest trees was a livid sheet of flame. It was literally astonishing to see with what rapidity the forest melted down before the destroying element. As quickly as the blaze began to subside, the men followed it with drenching masses of water; and in a few hours all was pronounced safe.
"Just at this juncture the heavens saluted the earth with a gentle shower. Never was rain more universally welcomed than now; and that night, for the first time in many days, our frontier settlers lay down to their much-needed rest, with tranquil minds and grateful hearts.
"But alas! it was not so with all. In many places, and even in our neighboring counties of Huron and Sanilac, the blackness of desolation marked the spot where, but a few hours before, stood flourishing villages and hamlets-the habitation of families than prosperous and happy, but now homeless and stricken and sorrowful- their numbers thinned by a death the most horrible that can be imagined. The sad work of gathering the corpses of their departing friends and consigning them to their last resting place, was the sequel to one of the most thrilling chapters in the history of our Peninsular State."
THE FIRES OF 1881
The early fall of 1881 had been preceded by a season of unusual dryness. The thirst of nature remained unquenched through many wearisome months. A large amount of clearing was one by farmers, and fires from burning log heaps spread over the dry underbrush and parched fields of stubble, until the country was overrun by fire. Monday, September 5th, was a day of general conflagration. The county was swept by a storm of fire. The signal service report of the great forest fires of this period contains a vivid description as follows:
"The course of all the fires, which together made the great conflagration, was mainly toward the northeast. How the fires ran racing over the four counties has been told, but the story gives no picture of the terrible fury of the storm of fire and wind that destroyed the property and lives of the farmers and settlers.
"The heat of the flames was so intense that the people felt it while the fires were miles away, and sailors at Forestville felt it uncomfortably at a distance of seven miles. It withered the leaves of trees two miles from its path. Whole fields of corn, potatoes, onions, and other growing vegetables that were not touched by the flames, were roasted by the heat. It even became the cause of an unnatural growth, and peach, apple and other fruit trees burst forth in blossoms. Fish in the streams were killed by the fierce heat, and after the fires were over their dead bodies were found floating on the surface of the water. Birds, escaping from these blinded, and finding no resting place, were drowned. Several witnesses gave an account of a curious phenomenon, illustrating the intensity of the heat. A peculiar blue white flame would sometimes burst forth from ignited tree stumps, flicker a few seconds, and then the strong wind would suddenly extinguish it. It resembled a lighted candle. Sergeant Baily says: 'Oxygen and carbon will ignite at a temperature of 400 degrees centigrade, and as the old tree stumps were badly charred by the fires of 1871, they were essentially a carbonaceous substance. The air was highly charged with gases, and the temperature raised 400 degrees or over; the causes of the phenomenon can, I think, be traced to these conditions.' The phenomenon attracted attention in several places. Even the earth in some places took fire.
"The speed with which the flames and wind traveled, and the tremendous powers they exerted, are almost incalculable. Some of the effects of the wind have already been given. Large bowlders were rolled along the ground as if they were pebbles. The conflagration is described as roaring like a tornado, and as giving forth loud, explosive sounds that were terrifying. As the storm advanced it uprooted great trees, blew down buildings, carried roofs through the air, lifted men and women from their feet, and threw them back violently to the ground, in some cases seriously injuring them. The flames literally raced through the country, licking up villages almost in an instant. An anonymous writer says: 'Dark and gloomy swamps, filled with pools of stagnant water, and the home for years of wild cats, bears and snakes, were stuck and shriveled and burned almost in a flash. Over the parched meadows the flames rushed faster than a horse could gallop.' Horses did gallop before them, but were overtaken and left roasting on the ground.
"Sometimes the flames were carried beyond buildings, and would then circle back and burn what they had at first spared. Sometimes everything for a mile would be burned, and then patches from ten feet to ten rods wide would be untouched.
"Here and there lanes hardly twenty feet wide would be burned, and a half mile of fuel would be left on either side. The fire would run within three feet of a wheat stack and then glide away and burn a house. Its freaks were numerous and startling.
"Before the fire came the air was thick with blinding smoke, and the darkness became almost total. Lamps were lighted at midday, and the lights threw shadows as electric lights do. Through the darkness flaming balls of punk fell into the villages and fields, and then the fires would burst forth on every side. The flames came rushing on, sometimes in huge revolving columns, then in detached fragments that were torn by the winds from the mass, and sent flying over the tops of trees for a quarter of a mile, to be pushed down to the earth again. Flames were seen to leap many feet higher than tall pines, and everywhere over the burning country, sheets of flame were flying n every direction.
"The people of the four counties suffered as men and women
have rarely suffered. Men, women and children, old and young, were
burned while they were flying along the public highway. The fires burned
so intensely, and with such devouring force, tat household articles were
snatched by the flames as their owners carried them into the air. Some of
the fugitives were lifted from the ground by the strong wind and were seized by
the flames as they fell. Some saved their lives by scooping holes in the
earth and burying their faces to escape suffocation, the fire meanwhile, burning
up their clothes and blistering their flesh. Others found refuge in wells,
where they clung to the walls with fingers and toes for twenty-four hours.
"The flying sand blinded people, who walked, in the gathering darkness, into fire-traps. Those who escaped were blind for weeks. During the burning of the fire, half-naked creatures made their way into village streets, often bearing the charred remains of the dead with them. Many found refuge from the fires in the lake, and even there they were suffocated by the smoke blown from the shores. The cinders falling into the water made a lye, so that it was necessary to go down several feet under the surface for drinking water. The remains of many of those who were burned were unrecognizable, so thoroughly did the fire do its work. Not only were the domestic animals killed, but wild beasts perished in the forests. they were tamed by fright and herded with cattle and horses. On man, who jumped for safety into the lake, found himself in the morning behind a bear, who was as submissive as a dog. Much sickness thus resulted from the disaster. Ordinary malarial fevers assumed a typhoid character, and serious lung and bronchial complaints were numerous for many weeks after the outbreak."
The townships in Tuscola County that suffered most were Elkland, Novesta, Ellington, Vassar, Millington, Indian Fields, Juniata, Elmwood, Arbela, Almer, Wells, Gilford, Fremont, Tuscola, Koylton, Denmark, and Kingston, and of these, the first three names sustained the greatest amount of damage. One account, written September 15, 1881, says: "Mr. J. C. Laing, of Cass City, estimates that 200 families have been burned out in the country tributary to that village. In Elkland Township, thirty families are left destitute. H. Depew, living south of Cass City, started a brick kiln last spring, and when the fire came the family fled to the pit from which the clay was obtained, and, taking a pail of water, sought shelter therein. Here they remained four hours, almost suffocated and scorched from the the smoke and flames. The families of H. C. Doning, C. T. Bennett and John Schriber, were compelled to seek shelter in the river, where they remained in the water several hours. The intense heat killed the fish in Cass River in that locality, and they rose to the surface by the hundreds."
In Elkland Township upward of thirty families were burned out and left homeless, and many others suffered losses. About the same number suffered in Novesta. In Ellington about twenty families sustained serious losses. Nest in order came Vassar, Millington and Juniata.
An incident is related by a gentleman who rode out into the burnt district beyond Cass City. By the roadside he met an old man, who looked as if he might be one of the sufferers. Stopping his horse, the traveler inquired of the aged settler if he had been burned out. "No," he replied, "but my son has." "Did he lose much?" "Yes, but he was well fixed," was the complacent reply. "He made a good deal out of the fires of 1871 and has done well since." The traveler expressed his astonishment at the singular announcement, and asked the old man to explain. "Well, you see, he was on the relief committee and looked out for himself." Is he on the committee this year?" anxiously inquired the traveler. "No, but he can be if he wants to." The traveler proceeded on his journey and he pondered as he went.