Now that the snow finally melted and warm weather set in, the fire danger has edged into the danger category on a few days. Out to our west, a large fire near Duluth led to the worst destruction in decades for northern Wisconsin. Back at the turn of the 20th century, fires regularly raged through the â??wastelandsâ?? of the U.P. and the rest of the Upper Great Lakes. The waste was the slash left from intense logging operations before the days of forest and fire management. One of the worst fire seasons occurred in mid-May 1906.
An intense blast of heat flooded Upper Michigan on May 17th that year (Image 1 above). The temperature rose to 91 degrees in Marquette. Dry, hot wind southwest wind gusts of 30 to 40 miles-per-hour fanned fires across the length of the Peninsula.
The blazes swept over the land; farmers and homesteaders south of Marquette narrowly escaped with their lives. The Chocolay Valley, which contained some of the finest farms in Marquette County, was virtually swept clean, as if â??visited by a tornado.â?? At least 50 farmers lost their homes and their outbuildings along with cattle and other livestock. At the height of the wildfire, the woods in the vicinity â??were like a roaring furnace.â?? The highways became filled with livestock and even wild animals, all seeking to escape the flames. Flocks of birds â??flew about as though dazed.â??
One hundred families in the area south and southeast of Marquette were rendered homeless, but miraculously, no one was killed. A Green Garden farmer lost all his personal effects in an ironic twist. As the blaze reached his clearing, he had his furniture removed from the house, which he thought would be impossible to save. The furniture was taken to a nearby pasture and then the farmer and some friends returned to battle the flames encroaching on the house. They succeeded in fighting off the fire and saving the house, but when they went after the furniture, they found it a pile of smoldering ruins.
In the city of Marquette, fires broke out as high winds carried sparks from the inferno south and west of town. The dormitory of the Normal School (now Northern Michigan University) was threatened when a spark ignited a window casing on the fourth floor and began spreading into the building. Firemen put out the flames with water and chemicals and only a small amount of damage occurred.
North of the city on the way to Big Bay, the town of Birch was saved by fighting fire with fire. A force of men set fire to slashings about three quarters of a mile from the main sawmill. The wide area burned around the town kept the fire at bay and saved the lumbering community. Farther west, the Houghton County towns of Kenton and Sidnaw were threatened but saved as the wind swung around and directed the flames away from the towns.
Near Negaunee, a couple lost their house and narrowly escaped with their lives. Their home was located southeast of Negaunee in the vicinity of the Iron Kilns settlement. At about noon the 18th they observed a pall of smoke to the west. A strong wind had been blowing from the west all morning (Image 2). The husband and wife took every precaution to protect their buildings, and thinking the fire was a long way off, stepped inside their house to rest a bit. No sooner had they sat down when it became almost as dark as night. They heard a roar â??like the approach of a tornadoâ?? and immediately ran out of the house. Outside they watched as a â??sheet of flames passing with race horse speedâ?? spread over their homestead. The wall of fire set everything combustible ablaze. As each building caught fire there was a loud explosion and for a few moments â??the heat was something awful.â?? Each had their clothing scorched and the wifeâ??s hair was badly singed, but neither was seriously hurt.
In the southern U.P., the May 1906 fire was a â??catastrophe.â?? Near Quinnesec, just east of Iron Mountain, a blaze swept out of control in a field where men were pulling stumps and burning debris. The dry wind spread the fire quickly; it moved into timber and eventually joined the inferno spreading east toward Escanaba. The fires raged 64 miles along the Escanaba and Lake Superior Railroad and then for 30 miles beyond Channing in northern Dickinson County.
Stories of heroic battles against the flames were numerous. In Northland, a southern Marquette County town of 600, the flames were beat back three times. Each time the fire was stopped within 10 yards of homes on the outside rim of the town.
Quinnesec suffered the most over southern sections. Sixteen families lost their homes, and a majority of the business district was destroyed. The victims were â??provided for abundantly by the generous people from Iron Mountain and vicinity.â??
To the north near Foster, Felch and Sagola, numerous farmers in outlying areas lost their homes and farms due to the wildfire. Sagola was saved by a last-minute shift in the wind from south to north. A number of settlers in the area had close calls, but through all-out effort and luck, they were able to save their homes.
The Iron Mountain paper criticized the â??wonderful liarsâ?? reporting for the Chicago and Milwaukee papers. These â??damphoolâ?? correspondents â??armedâ?|with railway maps and with cruel thoughtlessness proceeded to wipe out of existence some dozens or more towns.â?? These reports actually showed up in the Marquette paper, but were refuted by the â??diligent and careful inquiryâ?? of the Iron Mountain paperâ??s correspondents.The heat wave that spawned the fires was quickly thwarted by a cold air mass from the north. On May 19, snow flurries developed in Marquette (Image 3). By the next morning, â??a white pall of frost enveloped the entire region.â?? Finally, on Monday, rain extinguished the last of the wildfires. These fires stand out as among the most widespread and destructive to ever burn across the Upper Peninsula.