"The Necessities of the Case": The Response to the Great Thumb Fire of 1881

By Terrie, Philip G. | Michigan Historical Review, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

"The Necessities of the Case": The Response to the Great Thumb Fire of 1881


Terrie, Philip G., Michigan Historical Review


When Michigan became a state (1837), the area known as the Thumb was virtually unsettled, with only isolated outposts along Lake Huron and Saginaw Bay and a few interior clearings. Though Native Americans had lived, traveled, traded, trapped, and hunted throughout the Thumb region, they did not live there in significant numbers by the 1830s. Their villages had largely disappeared, wiped out by disease, the terms of fraudulent treaties, and the threat of removal. Known only to trappers and a few others, the interior of the Thumb was a mostly flat expanse of forests interspersed with extensive wetlands. (1)

Logging activity began in the mid-1830s and gradually grew into a significant industry. Among the commercially useful species of trees, the primary target for loggers was the eastern white pine, which often grew to more than 150 feet tall, with diameters exceeding five feet. The first sawmill in what became Sanilac County was built on the Black River in 1836, near the present-day village of Amadore, and a small settlement followed. (2) More sawmills appeared along the Thumb coastline: in 1851, for example, only seven years after the arrival of the first white settler, a sawmill was built at the mouth of the Pinnepog River, which in turn attracted more settlers. (3) By 1854, sixteen relatively small mills in the three northern Thumb counties (Huron, Sanilac, and Tuscola) were producing just over thirteen million board feet of lumber; many of the logs harvested in this area, moreover, were moved down the Black River to mills in Port Huron. (4)

After midcentury, by which time the easily accessible coastal timber was largely exhausted, logging pushed into the interior. Loggers moved into Huron County and up the Cass River into Tuscola County, for example, cutting extensive stands of white pine. (5) Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, scattered settlements grew up around sawmills and ports, and farmers cleared small plots, but the chief economic activity continued to be logging, as millions of board feet of hitherto untouched white pine were sent to the mills. In 1871, a total of one hundred million board feet of lumber was milled along the Black River. (6)

As was the case throughout the Great Lakes states, logging in Michigan's Thumb area was conducted with little concern for consequences. Loggers felled the monumental pines, selected the straightest, most valuable logs for market, and left behind branches, bark and massive quantities of unused wood--this debris was known as "slash." It should be emphasized that this was not an age of clearcutting: pines were scattered throughout forests of mixed conifers and hardwoods, and even after the loggers had cut the marketable white pine, much of the original forest remained. Where the toppling of a huge white pine opened up the forest floor to sunlight, the new clearing was quickly colonized by shade-intolerant species like aspen and birch.

The abundance of nature made the Great Lakes region the nation's primary source of lumber for half a century, but according to fire historian Stephen Pyne, the way it was exploited created "an unrivaled tinderbox of abandoned slash." Farmers quickly followed the loggers and used fire to clear off the trees, brush, and slash left by logging operations. In dry years, fires started by farmers for clearing or by sparks thrown by locomotives (which were used to move the logs) routinely got out of control. Pyne labels the years from 1870 through World War I "the great era of holocausts." In years of low precipitation, throughout the once magnificent forests of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, a horribly familiar story repeated itself: loggers left huge piles of slash in their wake, farmers started fires to clear new fields, and millions of acres of forest burned. Farm buildings, whole villages, and thousands of human lives were lost along with the forests. (7)

In 1871, fires killed about two hundred people and burned hundreds of thousands of acres in Michigan, including an undetermined acreage in the Thumb. …

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