THE GREAT FIRE OF 1871

Excerpts from
The Salt City of the Inland Seas
Anniversary Number of the Manistee Daily News
Published May, 1899

Sunday, October 8th, 1871, was a memorable day in the history of Manistee. On that day the  little town of thirty-five hundred inhabitants was almost literally wiped off the face of the earth by fire. Property valued at $1,000,000 was destroyed, a large portion of the population left homeless, and many of the lumber mills in which the men were employed totally obliterated.

It was a time never to be forgotten by those who witnessed the terrible scenes incident to the great conflagration, and the events of that memorable Sunday and the days which followed are among the most vivid recollections of our pioneer citizens.

Any account of the Manistee fire of 1871 which did not bear reference to the strikingly similar contemporaneous events transpiring in this vicinity would not be complete.

Viewed by the side of the great Chicago fire, which occurred on the same day, the Manistee Conflagration was insignificant in size and importance, but this was small consolation to the desolated little city which barely escaped total annihilation.

The Manistee Fire

The situation in Manistee in October, 1871, was similar to that at other points in the state. The little town was surrounded on every side by standing timber and choppings. Within the limits of the city and directly south of the space between maple and Oak Streets was a tract of about twenty acres of dead hemlock forest, seasoned to the point of combustion, and ready to burst into fire at the touch of the smallest spark. On the north and east the standing timber was in close proximity to the town, and in equally dangerous condition.

The First Alarm

About nine o'clock on the morning of the "Fatal Sunday," the quiet little city, all mindful of the fearful scenes which it was about to witness, was startled by the warning sound of the fire bell. The alarm had been turned in from GIFFORD & RUDDOCK's mill, which stood near the little lake in the Fourth Ward, and in the vicinity of which an old chopping was burning furiously, threatening that part of the city. The fire department responded with the one steamer owned by the city, and was soon combating the flames with all the energy which could be summoned.

About two o'clock in the afternoon while the firemen were still struggling manfully against the flames at the GIFFORD mill, another alarm was sounded by the whistle at MAGILL & CANFIELD's mill on the opposite side of the little lake, at a point known as Blackbird's Island. Through the dense smoke which hung over the city and the lake, the mill and adjoining property was seen to be in flames, and, in an incredibly short space of time, the extensive plant including the docks, lumber and dwelling houses was totally destroyed.

All day long the firemen heroically fought the threatened attack on the southeast, and about dark returned with their apparatus to the engine house, fully satisfied that that the danger had been averted. But the worst was yet to come. Slowly, but steadily, up from the southwest along the shore of Lake Michigan crept like a serpent the unruly element, but the immense volume of smoke from the two previous fires veiled its oncoming. In fancied security the inhabitants went about their usual Sabbath avocations, little dreaming that the warning light in the southwest that appeared to them as they were on their way to church was the dread augur of approaching demise. Such, however proved to be the case. By nine o'clock the flames had crept to within striking distance of the city, and, shrouded by the dense smoke and the large sand hills on the west, had approached without warning. At 9:30 the inhabitants were again startled by the dread sound of the fire bell. The flames had taken advantage of the thin stretch of standing pine which skirted the sand hills near the mouth of the river, and had attacked the immense piles of sawdust in the vicinity of the CANFIELED mill. Unfortunately, just at this time, a strong wind was blowing from the west, which soon developed into a gale of unusual fierceness. Almost in an instant the burning sawdust was flying hither and thither, and simultaneously the immense plant and the piles of lumber became a mass of living, lurid fire. Along the river near the big piers were piled hundreds of cords of dry slabs used for fuel, and this too was added to the conflagration. In the twinkling of an eye the monster flames fanned by the wind, leapt across the river and licked up the government lighthouse, which stood an hundred and fifty feet from the bank. The panting fire engine was brought quickly to the scene and hundreds of willing hands assisted in the work of fighting the flames, but "as well have whistled to stay a storm." Above the noise of the blast, and adding to the terror and excitement was heard the loud and shrill screeching of the whistles, and the wild puffing of the tugs struggling to remove the large fleet of wind-bound vessels from the scene of danger. At this critical moment the firemen were forced to abandon their efforts; the one small engine had broken down and the entire city was at the mercy of the flames. The scene which ensued is one that cannot be adequately portrayed. High in the air rose the vast tongues of flames, fanned into increasing fury by the steadily rising gale, and fed by the acres of pine sawdust and other inflammable material. Almost in an instant the whole city was enshrouded in a whirling canopy of smoke and flame. Millions of burning particles filled the air, and, breaking over the town, carried destruction wherever they fell. In ten minutes the city was on fire in an hundred places, and while some of the terror stricken inhabitants sought safety in flight, others remained to fight the impending disaster to the best of their ability.

Fire From The South

At this juncture a new source of terror appeared. It was now discovered that the tract of dry hemlock on the south was ablaze, and that the flames were steadily eating their way toward the doomed city. The scenes which followed were frightful in the extreme. By twelve o'clock the gale had assumed the proportions of a tornado, great masses of burning bark and rotten wood were flying through the air in every direction, while the city seemed to be literally hemmed in on every side by walls of living fire. On the south the tall hemlocks sent up their flames to a height of eighty or a hundred feet and seemed to light up the very heavens with their fire. It was a terrifying and heart-sickening sight to the already panic-stricken people. All hope of saving the town was abandoned and the inhabitants now sought safety in flight.

The passenger steamer Messenger, in command of Captain David COCHRAN was lying at her dock in the river and all the people that she could carry were crowded upon her. Before the captain was able to get the steamer under way to steam up into the little lake with his precious freight, it was discovered that the draw bridge across the river was on fire, efectually barring passage in that direction. The gale outside was too terrific to risk safety in that direction, and there was nothing to do but to wait developments. Finally the burning bridge broke in two, blocking the channel with its burning timbers. Captain COCHRAN decided to wait no longer. Crowding on a full head of steam the Messenger dashed into the burning mass of timbers and, scattering them right and left, passed on in safety to the little lake.

Manistee was now practically surrendered to the tempest of fire. From Fifth street on the south to Cushman and CALKIN's mill, half a mile north of the bridge, and from Oak street east to the outlet of the little lake, three-fourths of a mile, the city was one surging mass of flame and smoke. Houses, stores, mills, vessels and warehouses, with all their valuable contents- everything, even to the sidewalks and foundations, was swept away. When on Monday morning the sun leared through the dense mass of smoke which overhung the city, it looked upon a sense of desolation and ruin seldom paralleled. Like a spectre stood the Catholic church on the north side of the river, where all but two other small buildings had been swept away. The Second and Third wards were almost completely wiped out of existence. At Oak street the citizens had made the most determined resistance. Hundreds of hands had labored long and manfully passing the buckets of water along the line stretching from the river up Oak street, and, as a result, the buildings east of Oak street were saved from the general ruin.

The sight which greeted the returning inhabitants that morning was one that would appall the stoutest heart. Then it was that the little city witnessed the outpouring of a generous spirit of helpfulness which served to mitigate the pangs of suffering and fearful loss incident to so great a calamity. Every house left standing was immediately thrown open to the homeless. On Tuesday a relief committee was organized and appeals for aid sent out. The response was prompt, and over five thousand dollars was received and distributed. The Chicago fire had forced the insurance companies to the wall, and all hopes of receiving insurance money was now gone, but even this added misfortune  did not daunt the hopeful community. Out of the ashes rose a new city with buildings and homes of far better construction, and within a few years the last vestige of the fire had disappeared to give place to the prosperous Salt City of the present day.

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Transcribed November 11, 1999
for Manistee County MIGenWeb at Rootsweb.