Tuesday, October 5, 2021

A Fall of Fires: The 150th Anniversary of the Peshtigo and Great Michigan Fires

by Gillian Macdonald

Headline from East Shore News,
October 13, 1871
October 8 marks the 150th Anniversary of world’s deadliest forest fire. In our evermore climate-conscious community, a look back at this devastating event shows the sheer power of the environment.

On Sunday, October 8, 1871, the Peshtigo Fire leveled a broad swath of Wisconsin and Michigan. Cast in the shadow of the Great Fire of Chicago at that same time, the fires at Peshtigo, Holland, Manistee, Port Huron, and beyond swept through the Midwest devastating and eliminating towns in Wisconsin and in the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. The Peshtigo Fire has largely been forgotten as a result of the notoriety of the Chicago Fire, despite being more deadly. The unnaturally dry conditions in the fall of 1871 created conditions ripe for fires. Historians and meteorologists have pointed to the wind cyclones that formed over the eastern plains as the culprits for spreading the fires.

The fires in Michigan devastated 2.5 million acres of forest (an area the size of the state of Connecticut). Between Peshtigo, Michigan, and Chicago, the wildfires of October 1871 killed between 1500 and 2500 people--the deadliest wildfire in recorded human history. Uninterrupted drought had plagued the Midwest in October of 1871 and the logging town of Peshtigo in northeast Wisconsin became a tinderbox waiting to blow. Residents fled into rivers and Lake Michigan to escape the firestorms that engulfed the town and spread into Menominee County in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Coined as the Great Michigan Fire, that same Sunday, residents in Holland, Michigan, were served the same fate by hurricane-force winds and fires on the coast of Lake Michigan. The winds spread embers across the state and, in just 30 hours, forest fires marched through Grayling, Manistee, Big Rapids, Midland, Bay City, and finally reached Caro where dry conditions were even worse. Faced with 100-foot flames, residents in the Saginaw Bay-area, like those in Peshtigo, rushed into the waters of Lake Huron to escape the blaze.

Painting by Dennis Matheis, from cover of The Holland Fire of October 8, 1871
by Donald van Reken (ca. 1982)

East Shore News (Oceana County), the Escanaba Tribune, and the Sanilac Jeffersonian are among the newspapers that reported on the devastation. The article in the Escanaba Tribune detailed that the “streets were lined with men, women and children fleeing for their lives.” In the same article, Mr. Place (the gentleman sent to the scene) confirmed the decimation of Peshtigo: the “fire came upon them so suddenly that it was not in the reach of mortal power to stay its fury.” The Sanilac Jeffersonian reported on the damages in Port Huron, specifically in Rock Falls, Sand Beach, Elm Creek, Port Hope, and Huron City where residents suffered estimated losses of $10,000 to $100,000. East Shore News described scenes of devastation from Muskegon and Peshtigo, told of how the city of Holland burned, detailed Big Rapids as “entirely destroyed,” reported every house in Birch Creek burned, and lamented “most horrible scenes took place at Peshtigo.”

Destruction in Chicago,
October 1871
The fires of October 1871 served as a warning about land-use practices of the time. The subsequent 150 years have seen a transformation in the mitigation of wildfires. The National Weather Service now has incident meteorologists who support firefighters battling wildfires across the US. But that doesn’t mean that wildfires are no longer a problem we must contend. As the climate changes and weather patterns shift, long periods of dry weather are creating new threats across North America and the globe. Our awareness of the issue has dramatically increased thanks to climate change activists such as Greta Thunberg. As we witnessed 150 years ago, we should never underestimate the destructive power of forest fires, even in the water-rich Great Lakes region.

Friday, October 1, 2021

A Stroll Down Newspaper Lane

by C.J. Eno

For anyone that hasn’t had the pleasure of checking out Clarke’s Digital Michigan Newspaper Portal, it contains digitized collections of newspapers throughout the state, many of which were digitized right here at the Clarke. This year, assisted by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and administered by the Library of Michigan, we sought to expand this valuable resource to its fullest extent. Libraries and universities across the state were scoured for digitized newspaper collections. Genealogical societies, historical institutions, commercial newspaper archives, contemporary newspaper sites, governmental entities, and everything in between were also thoroughly searched for accessible collections of Michigan newspapers. Once found, each was vetted, and the data recorded for incorporation into our portal. The stated goal of this endeavor was “to create the single most comprehensive, publicly accessible, online tool available to researchers that identifies online Michigan newspaper resources.” We can proudly proclaim that this has been accomplished in a big way.

 


The number of newspaper titles on the Portal has nearly tripled to an impressive 1067 and now cover every county in the state (where previously, only 64 of 83 counties were represented). If you don’t have the wherewithal to scroll through all these newspaper titles to find an 1879 copy of the Wexford County Pioneer, we’ve included a helpful drop-down box to select which county you’d like to search. While not all of these titles’ collections are free to view, the majority are, and we’ve included a designation for each title to help users know what to expect in this regard. Digital newspapers from today or 200 years ago can be found within the Portal, with helpful date-ranges for each title’s collection posted next to its entry.

 

While working with these digital newspaper collections, I’ve come to appreciate how much information can be found within. I don’t mean the obvious kind of information that would pique the interest of any historian, like myself, but rather information that can transcend multiple disciplines and interests. For example, the Portal essentially holds the entire evolution of print advertising in Michigan, which could be analyzed in countless ways, and offer palpable inspiration for any student of business or marketing. Have you ever wondered if print advertising was better in the 1920s or the 1960s? Nothing stands in your way now; pit them against one another for your amusement. Are you a fan of literature? Many newspapers ran serials of fiction from issue to issue that, taken together, form into lengthy novellas. Also, unlike readers of the past, you won’t need to wait another week to find out what happens to the daring captain, wealthy heiress, or intrepid explorer. Stitch together your favorite, make a trip to your local copyright lawyer, and then get a quick production deal with Netflix. I won’t stop you. Have you ever wanted to read foreign-language newspapers in Finnish, Arabic, Spanish, German, Italian or Hungarian? Now they’re just a click away. Will you be utterly baffled by the jokes made in comics from 100 years ago? More than likely but find out for yourself. How big of a deal was Harry Houdini in the public sphere? Were crossword puzzles easier or harder decades ago? How garish were hats in 1923? Just a little browsing through the Portal and you’ll find your answers.

 


During this project, I saw a national news piece in The L’Anse Sentinel, showing Amelia Earhart making final checks on her Lockheed L10 Electra, for an anticipated trip around the globe. Unbeknownst to the writer, photographer, and eventual readers of Baraga County, it would be one of her last photo-ops before that very plane disappeared over the Pacific. I stumbled upon a story in the True Northerner [Paw Paw] about a family of serial killers in Kansas, the Benders, that preyed upon random travelers in the early 1870s. I had never heard of it, but it seemed to be quite the sensation at the time. For lighter fare, I found a story in the Alma Record about an enlisted cat in the U.S. Navy, and how poor Tom the Terror faced a court-martial for assaulting an officer. Then there’s a story in The Evening Record [Traverse City] that reports the sighting of a sea serpent near the shore of Traverse City that terrified the handful of witnesses that saw it. I also followed a story in the pages of The Calumet News of an expedition to the North Pole to locate the elusive Crocker Land. The explorers (and readers) weren’t yet aware that previous explorer Robert Peary fabricated the entire tale, but it was written in 1913 when there still existed unexplored corners of this world; it was like reading the buildup of an H.P. Lovecraft tale. These are but a mere sampling of what can be discovered in the Portal, whether the search is intentional or not.   

It’s easy to forget in this world of hyper-information that one can still find an unexplored corner; something new (or perhaps simply forgotten) that can spark inspiration or excitement. If that’s what you’re looking for, the Portal is a great place to begin your search. Maybe you’ll find what you were looking for, and maybe with a little luck and patience, you’ll find something better. It’s because within the pages of these newspapers we can see the very zeitgeist of Michigan, in all its parts, as it evolves through the decades. With the luxury of hindsight, we can see it all; the good, the bad, and the upsettingly ugly. A million theses, dissertations, and comparative analyses live within these newspapers, as do a million novels, at least a thousand true-crime dramas, and easily a couple hundred Netflix deals.                 

 

So, please take some time to enjoy this hefty expanse of new titles on the Portal. From myself, and Ashish Puskar, the virtuoso that worked so hard to get all these new links online (as well as implementing all the new user interface features on the Portal), we hope that it provides you that spark.

 

Until next time, see you in the funny papers.