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Sunday, October 5, 2014

1871: The Great Fire

Built in 1888, the Manistee fire station is the oldest continuously operated
fire station in the state of Michigan.  The station opens daily for visitors.
In honor of National Fire and Prevention week, I thought it would be neat to look into a few stories of what inspired the occasion.  It all began in a hot and dry October back in 1871.

If you look at the old, and still used, fire station in downtown Manistee, Michigan, you will see that it is equipped with a tower. While it barely sees any action today except for an array of sleeping bats, once upon a time a watch-man was hired to sit up there and watch for fires.  When he saw smoke, it was his job to ring the bell that notified the force of volunteer fire-fighters, or the full time force sleeping in their upstairs quarters, that their labor was needed.

The fire station must have been built with a clear understanding that a fire ravaged through the city in the summer of 1871, the same year that fires ravaged through other cities, including Holland and Chicago. It was a dry year, and once the first started, it burned fast, using the dry material of old homes as kindling.

The men slept upstairs in an array of beds set up against the white plastered walls. The men slept with their clothes on and their boots alongside their beds so they could easily slip into them and rush into action.  They would, one at a time, safely slide down a poll that put them in a room where the fire engine stood, waiting for its call to action.  Helmets were set in the areas of the vehicles where each man was trained to work, and they were quickly strapped on, along with other safety gear, as the garage door was being opened.  The horses were outside, and in only a few short minutes the horses, too, were ready for action.

So once the smoke was spotted, and the alarm sounded, and the men were set into action, every effort was made to put out the fire. Men who owned businesses and homes near the fire could be spotted on their roofs pouring bucket of water onto it in order to prevent the fire from destroying them. More often than not, such efforts were futile, for that was the day a large portion of the city burned to the ground, burdening the city with over $1 million in damages.

The following is was published in 1882 by H.R. Page and Company, in Chicago.
The city of Manistee was one of the victims of the great fire period of the month of October, 1871. Its partial destruction was simultaneous with that of Chicago, Holland, Peshtigo, and several other towns. The total loss of property burned in Manistee was about $1,000,000.
Immediately after the fire, Gen. B. M. Cutcheon visited Grand Rapids for the purpose of securing relief for the homeless and destitute, and prepared a very accurate and most graphic description of the fire for the columns of the Grand Rapids Eagle, which was widely copied at the time. We copy so much of that article as was purely descriptive of the fire, as follows:
Origin, Progress and Extent of the Conflagration.
First, to describe the locus in quo. Manistee Lake is a body of water nearly five miles long, and from one-fourth to three-fourths of a mile wide, lying nearly parallel with, and about a mile or two miles from Lake Michigan. Near the northern extremity it is connected with the latter lake by the Manistee River, a large navigable stream, from 75 to 125 yards in width. On the north side of this river, between the two lakes, lay the First Ward of the city, and on the south side of the river, and adjacent to it, divided nearly equally by Maple Street, on which was the swing bridge, lay the Third Ward, next the Manistee Lake, and the Second Ward to the west, next to the 'big lake.' To the southeast, bordering on the 'little' lake, was the Fourth Ward. The Third Ward was the most populous and embraced the greater part of the foreign and poor population. The Second Ward was the best built part of the town, especially that part between Oak and Maple Streets.
Within the city limits, and directly south of the space embraced between the latter-named streets, was a tract of about twenty acres of dead hemlock forest; the trees partly standing and partly lying upon the ground, but the whole as dry as tinder and as combustible as gun-powder.
On the fatal Sunday, October 8, the fire alarm sounded at about 9 a.m., and the fire department hastened with the steamer to the vicinity of Gifford and Ruddock's mills in the Fourth Ward, where an old chopping was burning furiously, and threatening destruction to that part of the town. By the most unwearied efforts, continued all day, the fire was subdued and that part of the town was saved.
About dark the engine returned to its quarters. It was scarcely housed when the wind, which had been blowing highly all day, rose to a perfect gale.
At about 2 o'clock p.m., while the fire in the Fourth Ward was raging, an alarm whistle was heard from the east side of Manistee Lake, and through the thick smoke it was discovered that the large steam mill of Magill & Canfield, on Blackbird Island, was in flames. In an incredibly short space of time, mill, boarding house, stables, shops, docks and lumber were consumed.
As soon as darkness began to close in, a lurid light appeared in the southwest on the shore of Lake Michigan, showing that the pine woods, that line the shore, were on fire. About 9:30 p.m., just as people were returning from evening services, the fire alarm again sounded, and every one now was on the alert, for the wind was blowing a fierce gale. Instantly a red, angry glare lighted up the western sky near the mouth of the river. The fire department rushed to the rescue. At the mouth were located the large mill and tug interests of John Canfield, with boarding house and about twenty-five or thirty dwellings. On the beach several acres were covered with pine saw dust, highly inflammable. Along the river, near the piers, were piled several hundred cords of dry pine slabs - fuel for tugs.
Down from the circling hills on the lake shore pounced the devouring monster. The burning sawdust, whirled by the gale in fiery clouds, filled the air. Hundreds of dry, pitchy slabs sent up great columns of red flame, that swayed in the air like mighty banners of fire, swept across Manistee, two hundred feet wide, and almost instantly, like great fiery tongues, licked up the government lighthouse, built at a cost of nearly $10,000, and situated a hundred and fifty feet from the north bank of the river.
A large fleet of vessels, wind-bound, lay opposite Canfield's mill, with four tugs, including the tree large barges of tyson & Robinson and the great steam tug 'Bismarck.' Now commenced a furious effort to remove the vessels and barges. The wild puffing and screaming of tugs, the hoarse hallooing of the sailors, the loud roaring and crackling of the flames, the awe-stricken faces of the gathered multitude, luridly lighted, made up a scene never to be forgotten or adequately described. The efforts of the firemen were in vain - the engine became disabled - and the flames came sweeping all before them. But now 
A New Source of Terror arose. A bright light came up out of the south, directly in rear of the town, and the fierce gale bearing it on directly toward the doomed city. Those who resided in that part of town, including the writer, rushed to the new scene of danger, the full extent of which few comprehended. The fire had originated two miles south of the city, on the lake shore. It first came upon the farm of L.G. Smith, Esq., which it devoured. Eighty rods north the extensive farm and dairy of E.W. Secor shared the same fate, with all his barns and forage. Another quarter of a mile, and the large farm buildings of Mayor R.G. Peters were quickly annihilated. Here the column of fire divided, the left hand branch keeping to the lake shore hills, and coming in at the mouth; the other taking a northeasterly course and coming in directly south of the town, as before described. Here a small band of determined men, fighting with the energy of despair to protect their homes, kept it at bay till past midnight. But all was vain - at 12:30 o'clock the gale became a tornado, hurling great clouds of sparks cinders, burning bark and rotten wood through the air in
A Terrific, Fiery Storm. "Every man now fled to his own house. The fire now came roaring through the dead hemlocks south of the blocks included between Maple and Oak Streets, in the Second Ward. The flames leaped to the summits of the great hemlocks, seventy, eighty or ninety feet high, and threw out great flags of fire against the lurid heavens. The scene was grand and terrible beyond description. To us, whose homes and dear ones and all were in the track of the fire, it was heart-rending. Then came
A Deluge of Fire like that rained on the cities of the plains. The wooden town, the saw-dust streets, the stumpy vacant lots, the pine clad hills north of the river, all burst into a sea of flame, made furious by the most fearful gale of wind I have ever experienced.
On toward the river and the Manistee Lake, spread the tempest of fire. Men, women, and children, in night clothes, half clothed, or fully clothed - some bareheaded, on foot, in wagons, on horseback, fled for their lives. It was
Pandemonium On Earth. Families were separated - husbands and wives, parents and children. The writer, when he gave over to the unequal contest south of the town, rushed to his residence to find it deserted, and for nine hours he could get no word whether his family were dead or alive. They had fled before the tempest of fire across the bridge, which burned behind them, only to be surrounded and almost perished in the smoke and fire on the north side.
Everything Went Down before the storm - dwellings with their home-treasurers, mills with their machinery, stores and their stocks, warehouses and their contents, the fine swing-bridge at the foot of Maple Street, vessels and their cargoes.
All Mingled In Common Ruin. From Fifth Street, half of a mile south of the river, to Cushman & Calkins' mill, half a mile north of the bridge, and from the foot of Oak Street eastward to Tyson & Robinson's mill, at the outlet of Manistee Lake, three-fourths of a mile, was one surging sea of fire. The steam fire engine burned in the street where it stood, the men and horses barely escaping with their lives. About three o'clock the wind abated, but the work of ruin was complete. When Monday morning's sun glared red and lurid through the heavy masses of smoke, where had stood Manistee, it beheld
A Scene of Desolation scarcely to be described. In the First Ward three buildings remained - the Catholic Church, the Ward Schoolhouse, and a small dwelling - and I should add some small fishing shanties near the mouth of the river. The Third Ward was swept clean except a few buildings near Manistee Lake. In the Second Ward the six platted blocks lying between Oak and Maple Streets, and about thirty buildings near the mouth, were swept away. The Fourth Ward escaped nearly untouched, the fine residences of J.L. Taylor, banker, formerly the residence of M. Engelmann, situated in the very corner of the ward, being the only one burned. His loss was great and almost total.
The Fire Made Thorough Work. The buildings were built mostly on wooden foundations, and their very site was scarcely distinguishable. Buildings, foundations, fences, sidewalks, trees, shrubbery - everything - were mowed close to the surface of the earth, and grass burned out by the roots.
A Thousand People Homeless.  A thousand men, women and children, houseless, homeless, and many of them penniless, wandered sad and blinded in the black and smoking streets, or had taken refuge on vessels, tugs, boats and barges, to escape the devouring element.
Nothing but the cleared fields of Messrs. Canfield and Peters, south of the western part of the Second Ward, saved that part of the town from utter annihilation, and hundreds from perishing in the tempest of fire.
The After Scenes. The writer of this, at 10 o'clock the next morning, found his family three miles northeast of the desolated city, having barely escaped with their lives, with scanty clothing snatched in the moment of flight. The night before surrounded with the comforts of a beautiful and happy home, at dawn we found ourselves, blinded with heat and smoke, without home, or so much as a change of raiment - but thankful for life, strength and unconquerable hope and courage.
Then was seen a spectacle to gladden the heart! Every house that remained was opened to receive the sufferers. Hearts and hands were as open as the homes. We almost felt it worth while to suffer for the sake of witnessing how much of generosity was latent in human nature.
"Monday everyone staggered with the blow. Tuesday men were strong, cheerful and hopeful, and set their faces to the future with brave hearts. Wednesday night came the terrible tidings from Chicago, almost crushing out all hope, for we felt that our insurance was gone. But from this our people are rallying.
On Tuesday we organized for the serious work before us. Good men are in charge to alleviate the necessities of the sufferers; at receive aid from abroad and distribute to the needy.
What Of The Future? Manistee will rise from her ashes. The work of rebuilding is already commenced. We have hope, energy, faith in the future, and some capital.
We have a splendid natural situation, at the mouth of a beautiful navigable stream penetrating the interior through pine forests 300 miles, on whose banks stand 4,500,000,000 feet of good pine, most of which must be manufactured at, and shipped from Manistee.
Help us through this Winter, and the future, though dimmed, is safe. In the name of the suffering and destitute of Manistee, I thank the noble and generous-hearted men and women of Grand Rapids for their prompt and noble response to our call. May God bless them, and keep them from like calamity.
I have written this in great haste, and I fear incoherently. It is the first time that I have had the heart to take the pen in hand since the disaster, and I only hope it may avail to help the needy and suffering.
- Byron M. Cutcheon.
The calamity was very great and the needs of the people very pressing. Manistee was remote, in a northern wilderness, eighty miles from any railroad, without telegraphic communication, reached only by way of the lake, and a five months Winter of deep snow and cold just ahead, and the weather upon this bleak shore already inclement.
It is such trials that test the recuperative power of a people, but it is usually true that they are equal to the emergency, and the citizens of Manistee were not an exception. Amid the ruin and disaster there were some consoling features. There had been no loss of life, and no very serious accidents. Friends were left, and a generous world outside was ready to furnish aid.
The appeals for relief were met with ready response. Nearly $5,000 were received and distributed, besides commodities of all kinds in great abundance. With true Western energy, the sufferers applied themselves to the task of rebuilding and repairing their losses. Brick took the place of wood to a large extent in the work of rebuilding, and a substantial and beautiful city gradually rose from the ashes of the conflagration.
Another neat thing to note is that, while Manistee is now a small town of about 8,000 residents, at the time of the fire Manistee had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the state of Michigan.  This was a result of the logging era, of which there were many great pines in Manistee to cut down.  Of course nothing was replanted, so when all the trees were gone by the turn of the 21st century, so too went the lumbering industry.

According to the National Fire and Prevention Association:
Fire Prevention Week was established to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire, the tragic 1871 conflagration that killed more than 250 people, left 100,000 homeless, destroyed more than 17,400 structures and burned more than 2,000 acres. The fire began on October 8, but continued into and did most of its damage on October 9, 1871.
According to popular legend, the fire broke out after a cow - belonging to Mrs. Catherine O'Leary - kicked over a lamp, setting first the barn, then the whole city on fire. Chances are you've heard some version of this story yourself; people have been blaming the Great Chicago Fire on the cow and Mrs. O'Leary, for more than 130 years. But recent research by Chicago historian Robert Cromie has helped to debunk this version of events.
Now we know that there was more than one city that burned during that hot and dry October back in 1971.  A lesson was learned from these fires, however, and now we many efforts to prevent such fires, thus making life safer for all of us.  National Fire and Safety Week is October 5-11, 2014.

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