Weâ??ve mentioned before that the U.P. will sometimes experience a â??secondâ?? wildfire season after the primary season in spring. This happens when the lack of rain dries out the forest and swamps in late summer. The most recent example of this was the â??Sleeper Lake Fireâ?? in Luce County in 2007. The largest modern Michigan wildfire in 1976 burned 74,000 acres of the Seney Swamp during a dry late summer and fall. Upper Michiganâ??s most destructive fire on record consumed the village of Ontonagon 116 years ago today.
Tinder-dry conditions in late summer 1896 led to forest fires in scattered areas of the western Upper Peninsula. Fires burned in the forests around Ironwood and Hurley, Wisconsin. As August wore on, even the swamps around Ontonagon dried out and began to burn.
Ontonagon, a boom town of the early copper mining era, found new life as a lumber center in the late 1800s. With an abundant supply of pine trees nearby, the Diamond Match Company established its headquarters in the town. Logs were driven down the Ontonagon River and then processed into matchsticks, shingles and boxes at the companyâ??s huge sawmills near the riverâ??s mouth.
In the summer of 1896, Diamondâ??s two mills were operating at full capacity. Wood was everywhere; stacks of lumber were said to be piled as high as three-story buildings. Sawdust, the waste of the log milling process, grew into huge mounds. Ontonagon was an enormous pile of kindling waiting to go up.
Del Woodbury was 17 years old at the time of the Great Fire. He was employed loading logs at one of the mills. Woodbury said August 25, began just like any other: â??When we went to work the morning of the fire it was about 70 to 75 degrees, I would say, and we had been bothered by smoke for, oh, a number of days. The sun was just a red ball up there and since we had no covered roads thenâ??just dirt roadsâ??why, when a ripple of wind came which was strong enough, everything was dust and dirt.â??
That day the wind was much more than a mere ripple; the keeper of the Ontonagon light wrote that at around 1:00 in the afternoon it was â??hot and blowing a living gale.â?? The swamp southeast of the light caught fire and soon the gale-force winds fanned the flames toward the mill. A number of workers were called off their stations to beat back the encroaching blaze, but to no avail. The towering piles of lumber caught fire and the devastation began.
The first of the company buildings burst into flames and a chain reaction occurredâ??in a short time a dozen buildings were consumed. The workers-turned-firemen saw the futility in their efforts and immediately began urging women and children close to the mill to move uptown away from the conflagration. Suddenly the fire jumped the river and the mountains of sawdust ignited; now the town was doomed.
The Bigelow House, the grandest of the townâ??s local hotels, was the villageâ??s first structure to go. When this four-story frame building went up like a roll of birch bark on a campfire, the townspeople realized their lives were at stake. Every person at the lower end of town either headed southeastward in the direction of Rockland or Greenland or sought refuge on the beach or in boats on Lake Superior.
The wind never eased but continued increasing, reaching gusts estimated at 75 miles an hour. Huge sticks of lumber, not yet consumed, became airborne fire-breathing missiles that struck buildings, exploding them into flames. Just after 4:00 the wind shifted from southwest to northwest with the passage of a front. Some noticed a brief burst of cool air while the light keeper recorded â??a few drops of mocking rain.â?? Now any hope of saving the rest of the town was dashed as the flames spread up the Greenland and Rockland roads.
Panic took hold as huge banks of smoke hid the sun from view; Ontonagon became a living hell as the darkened sky filled with brands. The townspeople began a race for their lives. A scene of chaos ensued; horses were lashed into a mad gallop and men, women and children ran like wild. Terror stricken, many of the escapees saw houses catch on fire in front of them, but could do nothing to help as they knew they had no alternative but to stay ahead of the advancing wall of flames. People standing a half-mile from the fire could not face itâ??the very air seemed charged with flame. The intense heat roasted apples and other fruit on the trees. The population kept pushing out to the southeast away from the blaze, some moving as far as five miles out of town before feeling safe.
Ontonagon was laid to waste in matter of a few hours. During the height of the holocaust, the town was ablaze in 100 places at once and nothing could save it. Three hundred and forty-four buildings burnt to the ground. Among them were four churches, a bank, three hotels, a dozen stores, thirteen saloons, two newspapers, the entire Diamond Match Company plant along with 40 million feet of lumber, as well as the barge City of Straits and two iron bridges. The villageâ??s court house and jail were reduced to ashes along with nearly 300 residences.
Only one person died in the fire. The victim was Mrs. Pirk, â??an aged German lady.â?? She apparently refused to leave her home, and her daughter sustained severe face burns trying to drag her to safety. A number of animals perished in the firestorm. The bodies of charred cows, pigs, poultry, dogs and cats were strewn about the burn area, which encompassed a full square mile.
In one afternoon, some 2,000 people became homeless. The St. Paul railroad gave free passes to any fire victim to any town the train served. Immediately, 400 residents took advantage of the offer and left the area. A number of victims spent the first night in the open air with their only possessionsâ??the set of clothes they escaped in. Hundreds of others found temporary shelter in farmhouses or any structure still standing.
The state militia soon arrived and put up 150 tents at the fair grounds. The refugee camp became known as White City and housed up to several hundred people well into the fall. Aid in the form of food, blankets and clothing poured in from every corner of the peninsula as well as from cities as far away as Milwaukee and Green Bay. The residents that stayed were provided with lumber. Most built tarpaper shacks to house their families over the following winter.
Diamond Match Company did not stay. In February 1897, the company announced it would not rebuild. The company said it would, however, take the remaining pine which escaped the fire and still floated in the Ontonagon River. Bitter town officials devised an â??ad valoremâ?? tax which they levied on the logs passing through the river in their city. Diamond Match contested the tax and after nine years of judicial wrangling, the company was ordered to pay the tax on some 40 million board feet of lumber. It was the only â??aidâ?? the village received from the corporation that once dominated the town.
The village of Ontonagon gradually rose out of the ashes of that terrible August day. In the years that followed, all residents, even newcomers, acquired a common maladyâ??an intense fear of fire. The sound of the fire alarm would set off a ritualâ??everyone ran outdoors to see in which direction the crowd was running. Once it was realized there was no immediate danger in the vicinity, town folk would follow the rest of the crowd â??to the scene of the action.â?? The â??fire demonâ?? held a fear and fascination over this copper and lumber boom town well into the 20th century.