Michigamme devastated by fire in 1873

Barnum Avenue in Michigamme, probably before the 1873 fire. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

“The confusion, the agony of the women and children, and the terror of the whole community, cannot be described. Men rushed wildly toward their houses to save their wives and children, women shrieked for aid, and children wailed for help which did not seem available.” — Mining Journal, June 21, 1873

During the 19th century many cities dealt with significant fires, including Chicago, Peshtigo, Marquette and Ontonagon. One U.P. community ravished by fire just a year after it originated was Michigamme.

Jacob Houghton, brother of Douglass Houghton, Michigan’s first State geologist, was instrumental in the founding of Michigamme. In 1870, he was employed to oversee the extension of the Marquette and Ontonagon Railroad from Champion to L’Anse. During that time, he discovered a significant vein of iron on the west end of Lake Michigamme.

In 1872 the Michigamme Company was formed, operating a mine and a sawmill with a community forming nearby. The Mining Journal reported in September 1872, “Michigamme City has now seven houses and a sawmill nearly completed.” Over the next year many new homes and buildings sprang up in small clearings in the forest some distance from the saw mill, which was located on the shore. There were rough roads, though people predominantly traveled through the woods from home to home on a haphazard system of walking trails.

In June of 1873, the mining editor of the Journal visited the area to report on the mine’s progress, and noted the community had grown to 100 houses and 500 residents. Everything pointed to Michigamme expanding and becoming one of the more prosperous communities in the area. This growth was slowed, however, by a devastating fire.

On June 19, 1873 a forest fire, which had been seen in the distance two days before, appeared to be moving toward Michigamme. Concern led to efforts to save property. However, these efforts were curtailed as a strong breeze spread the fire quickly into the community.

Fueling the fire were stumps, downed trees, and brush left from ongoing construction. People moved swiftly to escape the fire. Some people ran away from the path of the fire, while most had no recourse but to run into the lake.

A passing Marquette, Houghton, and Ontonagon passenger train ran through the flames to pick up as many people as possible. They were delivered safely to the care of the neighboring communities of Champion, Clarksburg, Humbolt, and Ishpeming. The Journal stated, “As soon as the news of the extent of the calamity reached Marquette measures were immediately adopted for the relief of the sufferers. Food, clothing, and utensils for cooking and lodging were at once contributed, and sent to the relief of the sufferers on a special train.”

Early reports indicated the loss of life was minimal. The Mining Journal communicated, “It is now quite certain that not more than four or five lives were lost. Some strangers may have been drowned, but the ruins have only revealed the remains of two persons.” At least one man, who worked at the wagon shop, was reported missing.

Luckily the Michigamme Company sawmill remained intact. It returned to production on the Monday following the fire, producing materials needed to rebuild. Neighboring towns donated supplies needed to live until the town was restocked. Both of these events must have provided some comfort to a citizenry who had lost everything. Within a week, reconstruction began and the Michigamme Company was extending credit to families.

The spirit of the people and their hard work allowed them to regain their lives in a short time period providing a testament to the strength of their community. Within six months after the fire, 300 houses and other buildings had been erected, and in December 1873 Michigamme was incorporated as a village. Among the first positions created was a Fire Warden who was responsible for building inspections and maintaining village fire equipment.

Many years later the village purchased a horse drawn steam fire engine. Hear the remarkable tale of this apparatus and its winding route home at Bill Van Kosky’s “Michigamme’s Steamer Comes Home” program at 6:30 p.m. today at the Marquette Regional History Center.

For more information, call 226-3571 or visit us at www.marquettehistory.org.