Great Thumb Forest Fire

by mobrian on September 1, 2008

Did you know in September of 1881 Michigan experienced a massive forest fire which devastated almost a million acres and several hundred people died. The fire engulfed Huron, Sanilac, Saint Clair, Tuscola and Lapeer Counties.  This was the second fire in a ten year span which affected the area.  The first fire in 1871 was highly unpublicized due to major fires in Chicago and Wisconsin.    This fire was one of the major catalyst for the creation of Michigan’s first forest fire act (PA 249) in 1903.

Michigan DNR reports that

In the summer of 1871, a drought occurred over much of the Great Lakes region. Slash and debris from logging and land clearing became tinder-dry during the months without rain. From early August no rain fell, pastures and gardens dried up, wells went dry, streams shrank to a mere trickle, and crops failed. Set carelessly or by settlers in clearing land, fires burned everywhere, and ran uncontrolled into the woods and swamps where they continued to smolder. September was equally dry. On October 8, a great wildfire struck the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, killing 1300 people in a single night (the same night as the Great Chicago Fire, which received the greater attention). This fire burned over 1,100,000 acres in Wisconsin and Michigan before late fall rains put it out. The Peshtigo wildfire is considered the most devastating fire in U.S. history in terms of both lives and property lost.

Overshadowed by the Peshtigo fire and the Chicago fire, a major wildfire swept across lower Michigan at the same time. This fire received little publicity, although two hundred people lost their lives in this fire, and 1,200,000 acres were burned. Like other great conflagrations, it was not a single fire but a combination of hundreds of fires, small and large, that had been burning unattended for weeks, only to flare up and unite when conditions became acute.

The disaster was most complete between Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron. Here “an area 40 miles square was completely devastated, and over 50 people were found burned to death.” While the worst was over by October 19, the fire wasn’t completely out for over a month. No accurate record of the area burned or the loss sustained was ever made, but it has been estimated that more than 2 million acres burned over, several hundred families were left homeless, and that at least 200 lives were lost.

Ten years later, the Thumb area of Michigan was again hit by a major catastrophe. While not as extensive as the 1871 fire, the fire of September 1881, commonly known as the Thumb fire, was more severe and did more damage since settlers had begun pouring into the region and logging had gotten underway. As a result, more people were rendered homeless and the loss was greater. It is estimated that this fire burned well over one million acres, cost 282 lives, and did more than $2,250,000 worth of damage.

Like the 1871 fire, the fire of 1881 came at the end of an extremely severe drought and was the result of hundreds of land-clearing fires whipped into a seething cauldron of flame by high winds. It was worse in the Saginaw Valley and Thumb region where it burned over much of the same territory that had burned ten years before.

On September 4, 1881 was the the first response by the American Red Cross as a relief effort to help those affected by the fire.  Clara Barton took the devastation to prove to government and the public that an active  American Red Cross was needed.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Dan September 2, 2008 at 5:31 am

I grew up in Sanilac County. I heard stories from my grandparents and great-grandmother. They lowered people into wells (women and children) the men tried to fight the fire. Stories were told where the fire had driven man and animal into Lake Huron near Port Sanilac. Bear, deer, cattle and man stood in the water together watching the fury of the fire. As a child I would listen wide eyed. Now I am Firefighter and have seen just a glimpse of what that fire most have been.

Adam September 2, 2008 at 6:53 am

That was an interesting read, I didn’t know any of that! Keep up the good work guys!!!

Howard October 7, 2008 at 6:12 am

Great story I did not know about this fire.

Thank you

Thompson June 6, 2009 at 10:24 am

I find it very interesting that Dan became a firefighter when he grew up. The Stories told to him by his great grandmother and his grandparents must have really influenced him. I can’t imagine bears, deer and other animals standing in water along with humans, but survival is an instinct. That must have been an amazing site. I camp in Port Hope twice a year and the plaque on the chimney there tells some of the story.

Hissong January 12, 2011 at 3:16 pm

My Grandfather, Alex Miller, lived through the Great Thumb fire. He was 4 yrs old living on a farm outside the town of Port Sanilac when the fire swept through the area. His father, mother and two brothers were able to make there way to the lake. They lost everything. They moved to town and lived there after the fire. They had nothing. No money and only their father’s labor to pay their farm debts. He eventually had to leave school at age 11 and go to work to help support the family. And we think we have it rough. They didn’t file for bankruptcy back then, nor did they have unemployment, welfare or any kind of Medicare, yet they survived.

Todd October 21, 2011 at 7:37 am

I learned of the thumb fires while doing barn demolition in Hadley (Lapeer Co.) several years ago. We were speculating how old the barn was and the owner said it couldn’t be older than 1881 due to the fires. He told us the story, as he knew it, of how everything was lost for as far as the eye could see. I did my own research later and learned of this piece of Michigan history that was long forgotten by most people. I’m moving to the area next year and will do my best to learn and pass along the history of the area.

Brian April 23, 2012 at 2:13 pm

I remember when I was younger reading a book about the fire and finding it very interesting. I grew up just over a mile down the road from the Goff Farm in the picture above.

Christopher Millay May 26, 2012 at 6:10 pm

My 3rd great-grandmother, Maryia Anna (Kroetsch) Weitzel died in the Great Thumb fire along with 5 of her children: Margaret, Maryia, Theresa, Julia, and Ambrose. There were only two survivors of the family: Maryia’s husband, Paul Weitzel (a Civil war veteran with the 1st Michigan Cavalry, H Company, commanded by George Armstrong Custer. He was captured at the Battle of Trevilian Station and sent to Andersonville Prison, released 14 Nov. 1864.), and their 2nd oldest child, Martin Cunrad Weitzel (my great-great-grandfather) who was 10 years old at the time of the fire. The fire obviously had a huge impact on Martin, and he later joined the Detroit Fire Department in 1896 and retired as a Captain in 1923. He lost most of his family in the Great Thumb Fire, and then he fought fires and saved lives for 27 years.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: