Fires at the Thumb 1871 and 1881

Its 2021 and still forest fires burn entire cities down with the expertise and equipment we have today, water bombers and trained fire fighters. Mother nature still wins!

Hiram Gibbs was worried. There would be some lean winter months ahead. The heat and lack of rain had made The Thumb region of Michigan at Port Hope a tinderbox! His forty acres were slowly cleared of the numerous white pine. There were now endless piles of stumps and branches , dried in the summer’s heat. This was called slash or the logging debris left from the logging operation. His wife Mary Elizabeth wiped Nellie Mary’s face to cool her. The child was the delight of her husband Hiram Gibbs. They had celebrated her third birthday in August. Although her mother, Mary Ann Wilson Smith had died in January, 1867 just before she wed Hiram, Mary Elizabeth knew the signs of morning sickness and knew their family would increase the next year. It had been such a long hot summer with no rain for months. The vegetation crunched under her feet.

Hiram lit the match. It was Saturday, October 7, 1871. As the pile went up in flames, he saw his neighbors doing the same thing, in preparation to plant the next year. Hiram watched the fire that night and saw in the sky the meteor shower from Biela’s comet.

My third great grandparents, James William and Mary Ann Wilson Smith sailed from St. Mary’s, Ontario to Port Hope, Michigan. Before the days of autos and highways, it was the only mode of transportation over the vast distance on the Great Lakes. The early timber industry drew them to the newly settled area. On May 8, 1867 their daughter, Mary Elizabeth, my second great grandmother was 17 when she married Hiram Garner Gibbs aged 26, born in 1846 at Farnham, Quebec. Their wedding day was May 8, 1867 at Huron, Michigan. Hiram was the grandson of Abraham and Keziah Atwood Gibbs.

Mary Elizabeth went to call Hiram for lunch. In the west the sky had turned to a yellow haze. She could smell the smoke. Burning to the west were other Michigan fires where the loggers had worsened the chance of fire with huge amounts of dry wood. In the haste to move on the loggers left stumps and branches. Maybe it was a milk cow kicking over a lantern in a barn or the remains of the comet striking the earth, no one ever determined. By summer’s end fires broke out and spread to still uncut timber lands and into the settled areas. The fire followed the slash loaded trails back to their towns. Burning embers ignited piles of brush. It blasted across and up the Thumb, fed by hurricane force winds which fed the fire, out of control.

Mary Elizabeth turned at Hiram’s frantic call. Roaring, cackling flames crept close. A rushing 100 foot flame was coming dancing on the tree tops. Then it spun like a tornado. On this Sunday of October 8th, 1871, a gale force wind arose from a cold front moving into the area. The fires had been lit and under the wind they whipped together to form a massive wall of firestorm. It escalated to a superheated inferno of 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, which advanced 110 miles per hour.

Hiram lifted a crying Nellie Mary, his daughter just turned three. There was no time for “things”. They rushed as others were doing to the shores of Lake Huron, then into the lake being battered by the waves. The early settlers used bucket brigades to protect their houses and barns. This was no match for the raging fire. The town of Port Hope was destroyed. By Tuesday rain came. But a new monster sent smoke into the already choking air, as drops of rain fell on the hot spots. It lasted for days.

The Hiram Gibbs and James Smith families and the whole area was devastated. They watched in horror as people who had hidden in wells, walked into town with singed or missing hair, blistered faces and the clothes on their backs with burn holes. There was so much human misery and death and want. Winter was only weeks away, with no food, shelter or clothes. The news travelled of their destitution. Port Huron became the headquarters for relief that came across the Great Lakes and steamships came with supplies.

By the time it was over 1.2 million acres were burned, prime forests lost and 2500 lives. Twelve communities were destroyed. In the neighboring state of Wisconsin, 350 bodies were buried in a mass grave; there was no one alive to identify them.

The Gibb’s rebuilt and their family grew. Soon Nellie Mary had brothers, James Abraham 1872 (named for his grandfathers James Wilson and Abraham Gibbs), and Charles Hiram, 1874. My great grandfather, George Arthur was born on June 13, 1875. then Marion Anna 1877, Nettie Estella 1879.

Dead timber now stood as stark reminders of the fire of 1871. Once again these sapless trees and dry branches would make food for a flame. Pine, hemlock and cedar trees that weren’t burnt before had blown down over the next ten years and the forest was full of slashings of dead timber with old roots. There was lots of fuel for the burning, besides the large quantities of harvested timber that left behind the slashings.

Once again, Hiram looked up at noon that September 5th, 1881, with nervous apprehension It had already been a tragic a year for the family. William Henry Gibbs had been born July 15th 1881 and had only lived two weeks. He took his last breath on August 1. Even the swamp had burned to hard clay under the relentless heat of the sun. Day after day no rain came. Nellie Mary at 13 was too old to play but tasked with keeping Marion Anna 4 and Nettie Estella 2 within her sight. The boys James Abraham 9, Charlie 7 and George Arthur 6 made a game of jumping over the wide cracks in the ground behind their house. Once again their father, Hiram watched the crops become drought stricken. Mary Elizabeth tended her garden with such care, but the heat had penetrated this plot too. Every drop of dish and bath water had been packed to the parched rectangular plot but each stem had drooped and wilted. Then the people of Huron Township, Michigan saw an ominous sign. The sky was like twilight with a yellowish glow. This time there was an elderly father, James William and step mother Amelia and 6 children rushing to the shores of Lake Huron. Blankets were grabbed in haste and put over their heads to stop the falling ash. By the next day what would be known as the Thumb Fire burned over 1 million acres, the consequences of drought, hurricane winds, heat and logging techniques of the era. The Great Thumb Fire, The Great Forest Fire of 1881 or the Huron Fire, all were its name that killed 282 people. The damage for the times was over $2million and once again consumed most of Gore Township, Huron County and three others. This was where my Smith relatives lived just north of the village of Port Hope.

Perhaps it was a lightning strike that started the fires fanned by the winds. Port Huron suffered serious damage. In 1881, the Thumb Fire followed the path of the 1871 fire.

Hiram and Mary Elizabeth Smith welcomed a boy, Lendley, who was named after his Uncle Lendley Smith when he was born the next year, August 21, 1882. Two years later Minnie was born August 24th, 1884 but by September 7 only 2 weeks old died. The Smith family stayed in the area for 3 more years but the lumbering industry was finished. They packed up the wagon and headed west. The appearance of Rachel Frances Lillian Smith at Spink, South Dakota on September 19, 1887 put a stop to their travels. At the time of the 1900 census Hiram and Mary Smith Gibbs had been married 33 years. They had relocated to Flathead, Montana; Hiram was 54, Mary Elizabeth 49, only the two youngest were living with them Lendley 17 and Rachel 12. Both Hiram and Lendley were listed as day laborers, living in a mortgage free home. Another move for the family, back to the country their ancestors had called home after the Revolutionary War was about to occur; instead of Ontario they would go homesteading in Alberta before it was even a province, 1904.

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