Note: While facts about the Great Michigan Fires contained in this post are accurate and the importance of that disaster is undeniable, its significance re the birth of Allan Truax has shifted because of new information which has come to my attention since I published this post. The content below has not been changed, but the reader is urged to review the new data about the birthplace of Allan Truax at Canada Stakes Claim To Allan Truax.
A goal of the ongoing Heck of a Guy series, The Life and Times of Allan Truax,1 is to provide a sense of the social and geographical environments in which he lived. For example, the most recent of those posts, Allan Truax: The Early Years – Part I, points out that his birthplace, Mayville, Michigan, and the surrounding region had been wilderness less than 40 years before he was born on October 24, 1871. In similar fashion, previous entries note that his birth and childhood took place in an era dominated politically by the aftermath of of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination.
Because, however, of the quirks governing which contemporary and historical events win the competition for the public’s attention, one of the most acutely significant influences on those residing in that area of Michigan in 1871 and for some time afterward might well have been absent from these posts had not Edwina Morgan of the Library of Michigan Reference Desk included in her response to my query about a tangentially related issue a reference to the fires which ravished Michigan two weeks prior to Allan’s birth.
Today’s post focuses exclusively on these conflagrations and the destruction, chaos, and terror they caused throughout much of the Great Lakes region, including the area where Allan was born and raised.
The Great Michigan Fires
To avoid the risk of numbing rather than enlightening the reader with listings of numbers of acres burned and lives lost in these fires, this section opens with a description of these events set in comparative terms.
caused greater destruction of property and loss of life than any other fire,
regardless of the cause, in the history of the United States.
October 8th was not the date of the first fires that season. In 1871, a summer drought throughout the Great Lakes region extended through September, transforming the detritus from harvesting forests for the logging industry and from preparing land for farming into tinder. Fields, wells, and streams dried up. Fires, then commonly used to clear land, frequently went out of control. Numerous wildfires took place in the area, especially during the last weeks of summer and the first weeks of fall.2
On October 8, however, multiple fires of much larger proportions began almost simultaneously in Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois,3 eradicating millions of acres of forest and killing over 1700 people.4
The Four Major Great Lakes Fires of October 8, 1871
In the Great Lakes area alone, at least four separate fires occurred on October 8.
The notoriety of The Great Chicago Fire, the least extensive of the four, overwhelmed most contemporary awareness of the other catastrophes outside the affected areas and has almost eliminated historical awareness as well. The Great Chicago Fire killed 250 persons, burned 17,450 structures; and caused $196 million in property loss, destroying much of the city’s business district5
October 8th was also the date of the Peshtigo Fire which leveled the Wisconsin town and killed 1300 of its inhabitants within a few hours. The firestorm burned through the forests around Peshtigo and then jumped across Green Bay to the Door Peninsula. Eventually, the fire that began in Peshtigo extended over parts of several counties – including Marinette, Oconto, Kewaunee, and Door in Wisconsin and Menominee in Michigan where it burned over 1,250,000 acres and killed over 1,100 people.6 The disaster could have been even worse had not a rainstorm extinguished the flames.7
That same day, flames swept across lower Michigan, causing two hundred deaths and the loss of 1,200,000 acres of woods.8
While less spectacular than the Chicago and Peshtigo Fires and covering less area than the lower Michigan Fire, the flames that raged through the thumb of Michigan, the area between Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron on October 8th, was the most thoroughly destructive. Mayville, the town where Allan Truax was born and where his family lived throughout his childhood, is located in this area.
Key to above graphic: On the reader’s left is a county map of the lower peninsula of Michigan with the thumb circled. The middle map is a blowup of the area around the thumb with Mayville marked by a star. The graphic on the right is a further blowup of the thumb, with Mayville again marked by the star and the regions that suffered the most devastating effects of the fires marked by dark red cross-hatching.
The lakeshore settlements of Grindstone City, Huron City, Port Hope, and White Rock were almost completely destroyed as were most of Huron and Sanilac. In that same list of “burned out” counties is the home of the Truax family, Tuscola.
One contemporary report describes the results of the firestorm in this region, “An area 40 miles square [within the Michigan thumb] was completely devastated, and over 50 people were found burned to death.”
The situation in the lumbering town of Manistee illustrates the special problems faced in a region in which logging was pervasive. Flammable material was everywhere. Stacks of cordwood lined the docks and huge lumberyards, each containing mountains of sawdust, were located throughout the village. The sidewalks were made of white pine and even the roads had been paved with sawdust., Gale force winds propelled a firestorm from the south that engulfed the city in flames, leaving over 1,000 wandered homeless.9
Moreover, the fire persisted beyond the 8th, was not under control until October 19, and was not completely extinguished until more than a month after it began. It proved impossible to compile an accurate account of the area burned or the loss of life sustained. The estimates are that more than 2 million acres burned, several hundred families were left homeless, and at least 200 lives were lost.10
While more subjective than accounts of deaths caused by the fires and acres lost, this description of how one farmer survived the October 8th thumb fires, excerpted from “Voyages into Michigan’s Past” by Larry B. Massie is striking:
This excerpt from University of Michigan Michigan History Series: Fires ravaged Michigan’s thumb in 1871, 1881 not only describes the firestorm which swept through the thumb of Michigan in 1871 but also covers the second devastating fire that struck the same area in 1881, when Allan Truax would have been 10 years old:
Small fires that broke out gradually ran together drawing dry air from inland rather than moist air from over the lakes. Wind carried chips and fragments, starting new fires. Big brush piles left by logging practices of the time added to the ferocity of the fires. “The tree crowns left on the ground by logging operations created an enormous fuel for the fires,” said Burton Barnes of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. “The pine needles and stems accumulated on the ground contained heavy amounts of resin and, combined with leaves and other organic matter, burned very hot. These were not like the fires we see today, that burn hottest in the air. These fires burned hottest on the ground.”
On Sunday, Oct. 8, 1871, the fire started blowing, burning, killing and devouring everything in its path. In some communities people went to bed at night, only to be aroused at midnight by the fearful cry of “Fire!” They watched their homes, farms, livestock and belongings vanish into smoke and ashes. Some were able to save themselves. “Others, choked with flame and smoke, left only their charred bones to tell their friends where and how they died,” said one report. Thousands of acres of valuable pine were gone in a matter of hours.
The firestorm forced people of Forestville onto the beach or into the water. Some took refuge in boats, covering themselves with wet blankets. In Huron County, families tried to outrace the fire. One family climbed into a wagon, covered themselves with wet blankets and headed for a mill race a half-mile away, arriving just before the wagon caught fire. The family jumped into the race, covering themselves with more wet blankets. In just a half-hour, Forestville was in ruins. At White Rock people plunged into the lake, but the lake was so rough that women and children were thrown back on the beach. They risked death by drowning in order be saved from death by fire. Some dug holes in the ground or a bank and managed to survive by crawling into the shelter. Losses included crops, houses, businesses, livestock, grain, hay, bridges and crossings in swamps.
“It is estimated that the dwellings, household goods, clothing, winter’s provisions and supplies for stock of from 4,000 to 5,000 people were destroyed and with the mills the means to supply food for these,” one account reported.
Yet, with all its magnitude and intensity, the fire of 1871 did not consume all the timber, but in most places only deadened the green timber and prepared the way for a more terrible calamity 10 years later. The population was denser on Sept. 5, 1881, when a firestorm traveled across Sanilac County in four hours, leaving 150 people dead and hundreds injured. To save themselves, some residents jumped into wells, remaining there for up to five hours before crawling out. Others never made it out.
After the fire of 1881 more than 14,000 people were made dependent on public aid, and 1,480 barns, 1,521 dwellings and 51 schools were destroyed. The fire was directly responsible for at least 300 deaths. Damage in 1881 was estimated to be in excess of dollar value of that time.
The Impact of the Great Michigan Fires
Comparing catastrophes is a foolish and futile game. Nonetheless, it may be helpful to consider the effects of the 9/11 and Katrina disasters had on the social, economic, and cultural spheres, especially in New York and New Orleans, respectively, as well as the damage to buildings, structures, communications, educational systems, … . To consider the childhood of Allan Truax without at least an awareness of the 1871 Fires would be as deficient as ignoring the impact of these contemporary cataclysms on the children now growing up in those cities.
Allan Truax At Heck Of A Guy
An explanation of who Allan Truax is and why he is a feature of the Heck Of A Guy Blog can be found at Who’s Allan Truax?
Identification: Allan Truax, Allen Truax, and A.L. Truax
“Allan Truax” and “Allen Truax” appear with approximately equal frequency in the written material I’ve reviewed, with “A.L. Truax” occurring somewhat less often. The name Mr. Truax inscribed in his books was “Allan” so I use it preferentially
Other Heck Of A Guy Posts About Allan Truax
- The first Allan Truax Post was Allan Truax, A.E. Housman, The Ex, and Me
- The most recent Allan Truax Post before this entry was Allan Truax: The Early Years – Part I
- All Allan Truax posts can be found by clicking on the Allan Truax category
- Those readers now asking themselves Who the heck is Allan Truax? may wish to read Who’s Allan Truax? before proceeding with this post [↩]
- Michigan Fires [↩]
- While the October 8, 1971 fires in the Great Lakes states were the most devastating, other fires that same day also blackened the prairies of Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, and Indiana and ignited forests on the flanks of the Alleghenies, the Sierras and the Rocky Mountains.(See The Great Fires Of October 1871) [↩]
- The Great Fires Of October 1871 [↩]
- Ibid [↩]
- Ibid [↩]
- Michigan Fires [↩]
- Ibid [↩]
- “Voyages into Michigan’s Past” by Larry B. Massie [↩]
- Michigan Fires [↩]
- The Truax family resided in Mayville, located in Tuscola County [↩]