Fire of 1881 in Huron County

1881 Fire Greatest Tragedy In County
Extracted from the Huron County Centennial History

Story of the Great Forest Fire of 1881
(Chapman Bros., 1884)
Extracted from the Huron County Centennial History




1881 Fire Greatest Tragedy In County

The fire of 1881 - Sept. 5, 1881
(as experienced at the county seat, Bad Axe)

Lumbering of the heavier merchantable timber was nearly completed in 1881, leaving forest lands covered with the debris of a very wasteful operation.

The summer of 1881 was dry and hot.  There seemed more wind than usual.  There were many fires; some from clearing operations by farmers and some that seemed to spring up of their own accord.  A few were fearful, but the dogged courage of most kept them at their daily tasks.

Monday, September 5 was a bit drier, a bit hotter, the southwest wind blew a bit harder, there was more smoke.  The women were more fearful and many of the men were fighting to protect fences, crops and out-lying buildings.  There was, however, no general feeling of alarm.  No one foresaw the disaster that was so imminent.

About 1 P.M. the wind became a gale.  Smoke, sparks and even burning brands seemed to fill the air.  Probably the first building to catch on fire was the Edmund Cole barn, situated just back of where the Hubbard Bank building is now. 

Fear and panic came to every heart.  Most persons rushed to the court house, recognizing it as the one possible source of safety.  It was the only brick building in the town.  It was soon crowded with men, women and children, about 450 persons.

All but a handful were there and that small group had gone east over the causeway of burning logs, to the gravelly hill, then the McDonald farm.  There, a large trench was dug, covered with rails, over which blankets and quilts were spread.  The women and children were put in the trench and the men carried water and fought for their lives.  Allison L. Wright and W. B. Irwin were leaders in this battle.  Their shoes were burned from their feet. 

In the court house, filled to over-flowing, wee weeping women, crying children, and grim-faced men.  The well fortunately was on the east side of the court house, which protected it from smoke and wind.  Providently it did not go dry.  continuous relays of men pumped, many blinded by the smoke, others carried the water to protect the building, which housed their families.

Peter Richardson remembers  H. g. Snover, J. M. Cary, and L. H. Durfy pumped until worn out and that he and others carrying pails of water around the south end of the court house had to have other men go behind and push them against that terrible wind.

Soon the smoke was so dense that one could not see any distance, breathing was difficult.  exhausted men had to be helped into the building.  Bandaged eyes were common.

"Was this the end of the world?  Could weak humanity fight this terrible scourge?" were thoughts uppermost in the minds of everyone there.

But again the dogged courage of the pioneer persisted and when the lull came, before sundown, with all the building of the little town burned, but an occasional scattering home and the court house, which had been the refuge, each had lost his all.  Many had hardly clothing enough to cover them.  There was no food, no animals, seemingly no future, but there had been no casualties here.  All had survived.

That night, it was a sad group in a sorry plight.  The oak floors were not comfortable beds, but were all that could be had.

The next morning, stock-taking began.  Wagon loads of food came from Caseville and Port Austin.  the county-side was filled with dead animals, which had to be buried.  Plans had to be made for immediate care of the women and children. (The thermometer in the court house registered 110 degrees at 7 A.M. 

A cry for help was made, to which the kindly people of the nation responded liberally.  A relief organization, under the direction of Governor David H. Jerome, was organized.  John Ballentine was appointed relief agent at Verona, which had been equally hard hit.  Charles E. Thompson, then county treasure, was made relief agent at Bad Axe.

The basement of the court house became a distributing point for the bounty of the nation.  Everything was needed; lumber and materials for the building; tools to do the work; food; clothing and household equipment; feed for surviving animals; medicines; candles for lighting.  John M. Cary was in charge of foods and clothing.  Everyone did what he could.  all were on an equal footing for all were destitute.

Soon "shanties" with tar roofs and protruding stove-pipes sprang up.  Soon men were at work building a future.

Robert Philp established a store.



Story of the Great Forest Fire of 1881
(Chapman Bros., 1884)

The destruction to  property was great, the suffering beyond description.  Whole families perished in their houses.  The bodies of dead men were found by the roads, where they fell in their vain attempt to escape death.  Thousands of people barely saved their lives, leaving homes, building, all in flames, and were exposed and left in a perishing condition, without food, shelter or clothing.  The charred remains of all kinds of animals, wild and tame, were found over the desolate country together, and sometimes with those of human beings.

Flying sheets of flame and balls of fire were seen in every direction.  these would often overtake or light upon people fleeing for life, and burned them to death.  Some saved their lives by rushing into green corn-fields and burying their heads in the earth.  Many found refuge in wells.  One man clung to the stones in a well with his fingers and toes for twenty-four hours.  When the fire and smoke went away, he discovered that he was only two feet from the bottom, and the well was dry.  One man who sought the lake for safety, found behind him in the morning a big bear, which was submissive as a kitten.

Mr. Wade, in Rubicon Township, during the fire took his wife and three children into the corn field for safety.  The husband went back to try and save some of his property, but could not so sudden did the fire come upon him.  He did not get back to his family until daylight, when he found them burned to a crisp.  By them was the carcass of a bear, which, it is presumed, came to them for protection.

News came to Sand Beach village early Tuesday morning that some people out in the country had been burned.  A wagon was sent out and soon afterward it returned bearing the crisp and charred remains of Mrs. Maul and son.  This sad cortege was soon followed by the Wade family, burned beyond recognition.  Then came the Calkins family, the mother clasping the remains of her babe to her lifeless bosom.

Some days after the fire the charred remains of a mother and her five little children were found in the forest.  She, poor heart, was in a kneeling posture, with the hands of her five children in her lap, all burned to a crisp.

We could go on for days detailing incidents of this fire, and then not be half through.  Space will not permit.  It may already be too lengthy.  The historian has aimed to give the facts in as few words as possible.  It is not a pleasant subject to write about.  We believe this conflagration has no parallel in the world's history.  The Chicago fire of 1871 is the nearest approach to it.  The destruction of property there was greater, but the fire was not so extensive.  The loss of life, the amount of property consumed, and the extent of the territory burned over the terrific speed with which the country was laid waste; the wail of human suffering and anguish and woe that broke over these fair shores, it would seem never could be surpassed.

The number of lives lost during this conflagration on Huron county is estimated a 70; the amount of property destroyed, at $1,107,538.

Most of the people recovered from this great conflagration, but it will be generations before the country will recover from its devastating effects.  The land has been denuded of its most attractive ornaments.  Its grand forest are gone; the trees, with their beautiful foliage, are no more.  The charred remains of trees and stumps meet the eye from every direction.  They rise up before you like ghost, a sad reminder of burned kindred, of buried hopes and blasted lives.


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