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"When the lumber piles took fire, burning boards were hurled through the air and slapped up against the sides of buildings, where they were held by the wind till the building was ignited.  The town was afire in 100 places at once and nothing could save it."
Ontonagon Herald, 5 Sep 1896



Ontonagon Fire Department before the fire of 1896

The summer of 1896 was unusually dry, especially in the Upper Peninsula. As early as August 25, the Detroit News reported that "forest fires have gained terrible headway in the vicinity of Trout Creek." On August 29 Rockland, Greenland, and Bessemer were threatened.

On September 12, the town of Ontonagon, its sawmill and lumberyard, were wiped out. For weeks fires had been burning unchecked in the swamps along the west side of the river.  When the fire threatened to encroach on the Diamond Match Company's fences and boom, men were sent to fight it.  On the 12th, however, brisk southwest winds continually refreshed.  The Company sent men with hose to check on the fire.  Reports came back that the fire wasn't serious.

By noon the wind was blowing a gale from the south. Sparks from the fires in the swamp set fire to the sawmill and soon the lumberyard was ablaze. From there it spread to the town which was largely consumed.  Fortunately, only one life would be lost.*


A total of 344 buildings burned, including a bank, the courthouse and jail, 4 churches, 3 hotels, a dozen stores, 13 saloons, 2 newspapers, 3 school houses, 2 iron bridges.  Some of the noted damage is listed in the table below...

Diamond Match Company plant As well as 40 million feet of lumber.  The large general store belonging to the Company also burned.
Herald building Prior to the building being completely burned, proprietor F.J. Dirr had telegraphed for a new press.  Dated August 29, 1896, the first issue following the fire came out on September 2nd.  Village druggist, Henry Powers, was the Herald's editor.
Bigelow House A large four-story frame structure
John Roosen residence Located on Parker Road
Martin residence Located on the Rockland Road
Gothard residence Located on the Rockland Road
William Heard residence On the Greenland Road
Corgan's opera house  
City of Straits A barge
Charles Skelton Lost a livery.  His family temporarily relocated to Rockland.
Frank Neville Lost 13 pigs

Hundreds of residences took refuge in outlying farms while others took the train to Rockland, 12 miles away.  Many others slept out in the village's surrounding fields with blankets while those who couldn't sleep spent the night walking.

Though many animals perished, just one human life was lost.  Mrs. Pirk was an aged German lady who had been living in the lake shore portion of town with her daughter, Mrs. Geist (who was severely burned about the face in her endeavor to get her mother away from the home).  On Thursday, the 27th, Mrs. Pirk's charred remains were found about a block from her home.  Only a small fragment of clothing still attached to the body identified Mrs. Pirk.  She was later interred in Evergreen Cemetery.

About 100 buildings still remained within the village limits.  The Lake Superior House and the village power house containing the water works and electric light plant survived.  At the other end of town the residences of Ed McMullan, merchant John Hawley, conductor Allen, and an additional eight others also continued to stand.  On the Rockland road about 70 houses remained, among them C. E. Haring's grocery store.

On the night of Tuesday, August 26th, a mass meeting was held in front of Haring's store in South Ontonagon and the following relief committee was elected:

James Corgan John Hawley W. F. Sawyer
J. H. Haight R. A. Parker Michael McGuire
  J. H. Comstock  

A meeting of the committee was held that evening and the following officers were elected:  W. F. Sawyer, chairman; John Hawley, treasurer; and R. A. Parker, secretary.

Following the fire, about 400 people left town.  According to a census taken by J. J. Vincent that week, the village still contained a population of 1825, just 490 of them being men.

On Tuesday a detachment of 30 state militia belonging to Company D of Calumet and Company F from Houghton, under command of Lieutenant R. H. Fliege, of Calumet, arrived with tents and camp equipment.  Much of it replaced those which were borrowed from Wisconsin.

One hundred and fifty tents were erected on the Fair ground, and White City as it was called, held a population of several hundred people.  Of great concern would become the weather and coming winter.

Mrs. J. K. Paul, relict of the founder of the town and a woman nearly 80 years of age had a very narrow escape. 

For several days Mrs. Julia Herbert of the Lake Superior House, which was left standing, fed 250 people every meal furnishing them food out of her own supplies.

More history of the fire can be found in the following newspaper transcriptions. 


Fort Wayne, Indiana
August 26, 1896 Town Burned: Only Fifteen Houses Remain to Mark the Site.  Ontonagon, ....Now a Heap of Blackened Rubbish. 

Lorain County, Ohio

August 29, 1896 In Ashes: Town of Ontonagon, Mich., Destroyed by Forest Fires
Frederick, Maryland
August 29, 1896 The fire at Octonagon [sic] :  Flames Break Out Afresh and Consume the Temporary Structures.
New York Times,
New York City, New York
September 3, 1896 Barbarous Fire Sufferers:  Michigan Militia Sent to Protect the Weak from the Strong.
Ironwood, Michigan
August 25, 1948 52 Years Ago Today Fire Hit, Wiped Out Town of Ontonagon: Prophecy Made Then Is Borne Out Today
Ironwood, Michigan
August 26, 1954 Witness Wrote Graphic Tale of Ontonagon Fire of 1896: Conflagration Hit Lumbering Village 58 Years Ago Today

*Source: Botti, Bill, "A Description of Some of Michigan's Worst Wildfires, " Michigan Forests Magazine, Spring 2003.