Monday, October 10, 2016

The Great Midwestern Fires

As  I said, I was on a quest for history.  As I was mentioning it in a few of those posts, you wouldn't think that there would be a connection, but sure enough there was.
 Pretty much everybody has heard of the Great Chicago Fire.  The fire there started at about 9:00 P.M. on October 8th of 1871 in or around a small barn belonging to the O'Leary family.  Legend has it that it was started by a lantern kicked over by one of their cows.  That spot is somewhere in the left hand side of this picture of Chicago.
A combination of dry weather and the fact that many of the structures in Chicago at the time were built of wood caused the fire to spread.  Not only were some of the buildings made out of wood but many of the sidewalks were as well.  This was compounded by the fact that Chicago only had 171 firefighters that manned 17 horse drawn fire engines.   The firefighters were sent to the wrong locations and the fire spread.
As the fire spread, the city's water main was destroyed.  After a gallant effort by the city's fire fighters, it was put out on October 10th.  By that time, 3.3 square miles of city was destroyed and up to 300 people were killed.
The O'Leary legend was pretty much debunked although it's still not clear was caused the original fire.  One main result of the fire was that Chicago was remade using more modern city planning techniques, hence the fact that it is pretty much a grid.
 On the same day as the start of the Chicago fire, the city of Port Huron would also find itself on fire.  This fire would cause fires that spread across the thumb region of Michigan.  This particular fire would consume 1.2 million acres of land and kill up to 200 people (of which 50 were from Port Huron).
 Also on October 8, 1871, the town of Manistee, Michigan would find itself engulfed in flame.  One of the casualties was the original lighthouse that was built on the pier to the left.  The city was pretty much destroyed but rebuilt.
 Probably due to the droughts that was plaguing the other towns, the city of Holland would find itself on fire from October 8th to October 9th of 1871.
Sometimes, when I am doing posts like this, I have to use other people's pictures.  This particular picture comes from Wikipedia.  On October 8th, 1871 (notice a pattern here?), the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin would find itself swallowed by flames.  There were a series of forest fires to the west of the town that were directed to the town by the winds at the time.  This fire was probably the deadliest of the four fires that started on that day as 1,200 to 2,500 people perished as a result of that fire.  They were unable to identify hundreds of residents and they were buried in a mass grave near the city.  This was probably the worst fire in the United States.
Not on the same day, but a few days later, the City of Windsor, Ontario would find itself surrounded by flames.  This fire would end up destroying the center of the city.  I would guess that Windsor was probably suffering the droughts that were plaguing the rest of the towns that burnt during that period of time.

Now, this is were the history takes a turn for the bizarre.  In 1836, the village of Singapore, Michigan was founded by Oshea Wilder.  He was hoping to build a city that would rival Chicago or Milwaukee in size.  At its height there would be three mills, two hotels, some general stores and Michigan's first schoolhouse.  The sign above is one of the few clues that there was a town here.

I can only guess about why the city was called Singapore.  If I were going to take a stab, I would say that it was a town located at the end of a peninsula like Singapore. 
This sign provided by the Michigan Historical Society is another clue of Singapore, Michigan.  In 1838, the Bank of Singapore was created.  This was known as a wildcat bank that was allowed to print its own money before the Federal Government stepped in and stopped that practice.  It would have $50,000 of Singapore Bank notes in circulation at its earliest point.  Shortly after the Civil War, the bank was involved in a scandal as the Federal Government added the requirement that banks had to be able to cover 1/3 of the notes they had in circulation.

In 1842, there was a forty day blizzard that would have wiped out the city had there not been a shipwreck that supplied the city during that period.  In 1846, the town would change ownership.
By 1871, the town would boast a harbor and several hundred residents.  I think one of the ships in this pictures was the schooner Octavia and that was used to carry lumber over to Chicago.  This particular picture comes from the Historical Museum in Saugatuck.
Now, what does a town with a banknote producing bank, a schooner and a lumber mill have to do with the fires you might ask?  Well, Chicago, Peshtigo and Holland all needed to be rebuilt.  And rebuilding would require lots of lumber.  Singapore had lots of lumber to sell.  Unfortunately, they sold too much lumber and pretty much deforested the area.  If you didn't notice, there are lots of dunes along the Lake Michigan shoreline.  That's because it gets pretty windy.  Because the protective forests were gone, it took almost three years for the city to be buried in the sands of what are now known as the Saugatuck Dunes.  This made this one of the more interesting ghost towns in Michigan.
Eventually, many of the residents of Singapore would move across the river over to Saugatuck.

I guess one of the things that I like about history is that there are many lessons that can be applied to modern times.  One of the lessons here is that we shouldn't mess with nature too much.  Sometimes, nature has a way of biting us back.  The other lesson is that you can under prepare for major fires.  It seems like there is a current trend of cutting fire fighters and I have a feeling that may come back to bite us.  Another thing about history is that sometimes unconnected events can react in unimagined ways.  Who would think a series of fires would lead to the disappearance of an unrelated town?

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