THE GREAT FIRE OF 1871
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
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.
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.
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.
Transcribed November 11, 1999
for Manistee County MIGenWeb at Rootsweb.