THE ONTONAGON FIRE
"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."
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
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.
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
as 40 million feet of lumber. The
large general store belonging to the
Company also burned.
||Prior to the building
being completely burned,
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
||A large four-story
John Roosen residence
||Located on Parker
||Located on the
||Located on the
William Heard residence
||On the Greenland Road
Corgan's opera house
City of Straits
||Lost a livery. His
family temporarily relocated to
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
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.
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:
||W. F. Sawyer
|J. H. Haight
||R. A. Parker
||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.
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
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.
NEWSPAPER CLIPPING TRANSCRIPTIONS
FORT WAYNE SENTINEL,
Fort Wayne, Indiana
August 26, 1896
Town Burned: Only Fifteen Houses Remain to Mark the Site. Ontonagon,
....Now a Heap of
Lorain County, Ohio
August 29, 1896
In Ashes: Town of
Ontonagon, Mich., Destroyed by Forest Fires
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 DAILY GLOBE,
August 25, 1948
52 Years Ago Today Fire Hit, Wiped
Out Town of Ontonagon: Prophecy Made
Then Is Borne Out Today
|IRONWOOD DAILY GLOBE,
August 26, 1954
Witness Wrote Graphic Tale of
Ontonagon Fire of 1896:
Conflagration Hit Lumbering Village
58 Years Ago Today
Botti, Bill, "A Description of Some of Michigan's Worst Wildfires, "
Michigan Forests Magazine,