The Great Fires of 1871

Bill's Blog

This week is the anniversary of the Great Fires of 1871. You’ve probably heard about the Great Chicago Fire of Oct. 8-10, 1871. The Peshtigo fire in NE Wisconsin was much bigger and killed five times as many people. Fires also burned large sections of downtown Holland, downtown Manistee, Port Huron and the Thumb Area of E. Michigan and Windsor, Ontario. (lots of good info. at the links). (Currier and Ives lithograph above)

The summer and early fall of 1871 were unusually dry. That left tinder-dry conditions. On the 8th, a strong wind developed and small fires quickly became very big fires. The story goes that the Chicago fire started on Oct. 8th, when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow knocked over a lamp. The resulting fire burned over 3.3 square miles of the city. At the time, the Chicago Fire Dept. consisted of 185 men and 17 horse-drawn carriages. There were an estimated 300 fatalities, though only 120 bodies were recovered. A few died from drowning when they ran into the Chicago River and Lake Michigan to escape the flames. Afterward, there was an effort to make some homes of brick instead of just wood.

Damage was estimated at 222 million dollars, the equivalent of 4.7 billion dollars today. New York City sent $450,000 worth of aid to Chicago. A total of 17,500 buildings were destroyed. Surviving the fire was the Chicago Water Tower, made of stone. After the fire 100,000 were homeless…that would be a little more than half the population of Grand Rapids.

Map of the Peshtigo Fire

There were two separate fires on either side of Green Bay. The fires consumed 1,875 square miles, an area greater than the state of Rhode Island. Huge fire tornadoes sent burning embers hundreds of feet into the air. There were an estimated 1500 fatalities. Twelve towns were destroyed and smoke hung in the air for weeks.

At the same time fire consumed large parts of downtown Holland and Manistee, Michigan. After the fire, one resident of Holland remarked, “It can be said that our beloved city of Holland no longer exists. The entire business district lies in ruins. Entire streets have disappeared; every businessman has lost everything, and between 200 and 300 houses have been destroyed by fire. The most beautiful part of our city has become an unsightly level plain of smoking and smoldering ruins.” Damage totaled nearly a million dollars (in 1871 dollars). Only $35,000 was insured, but little of that was collected because the insurers went bankrupt due to the Chicago Fire. Gerrit Van Schelven said: “No one unless he has been an eyewitness of such a scene, can conceive its terror or its awfulness. We shall not attempt to describe it. The entire territory covered by the fire was mowed as clean as with a reaper; there was not a fencepost or a sidewalk plank and hardly the stump of a shade tree left to designate the old lines.” Some of the quick-thinking residents of the town buried their treasures, before they fled their homes. When they returned, they found their homes gone but their treasures saved. Much of the campus of Hope College was spared. A significant shipment of aid was sent from the citizens of Grand Haven.

The city of Grand Rapids sent aid to Manistee. One citizen wrote: “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.” Here’s more on the Manistee fire.

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