Flashback Friday: Fire on the Banks of the Ontonagon

View of scattered wooden buildings in the snow
An early view of Ontonagon from the Brockway Photograph Collection.

To the west of his lighthouse, James Corgan saw Lake Superior spreading before him like a deep blue sheet, roiled and rippling from a stiff, hot wind. The lake had moods that Corgan observed through changing seasons, watching ice creep up along the shore as winter approached and gazing out quietly over its glassy surface on a placid summer day. This afternoon in late August offered no peace, either on the water or ashore. When Corgan looked east from the lighthouse, toward Ontonagon, he saw a village being devoured by flame.

Ontonagon’s roots were diverse. The Ontonagon Boulder, a massive piece of float copper found in the area, helped to spark interest in Upper Peninsula mineral deposits and give birth to the Copper Country. In the 1840s and 1850s, a series of mines blossomed in the woods of the newly-established Ontonagon County. The Minesota Mine, forever cursed with an unintentionally misspelled name, became the most profitable of these early ventures. Countless others set out with hope in their copper prospects, ultimately to be repaid with disappointment. The village of Ontonagon, the seat of the county and well-placed on a harbor, benefited from the people and money that descended on the western Upper Peninsula, from their products that shipped out over the rolling waters of Lake Superior. A wooden lighthouse to safeguard vessels carrying copper out and bearing goods for mines and miners to Ontonagon arose on the lakeshore in 1853; a brick successor replaced it in 1866. For a time, until Houghton County’s mines began to eclipse their neighbors to the south, it seemed that Ontonagon County might be the mining heart of the Copper Country.

As mines like Quincy and Calumet & Hecla proved more prosperous, and as the mines of Ontonagon County encountered difficulties in turning a profit in the 1870s, a different industry emerged. Lumbering gained new prominence in the region, with the first sawmill opening in 1881, according to the Ontonagon County Historical Society (OCHS); a second mill, called Sisson Lilly, began operations in 1882. Both quickly found themselves eclipsed by a larger competitor: the Diamond Match Company. Diamond Match arrived in the Copper Country in 1884, seeking to capitalize on Ontonagon County’s extensive stands of white pine. By the mid-1890s, it had made quick work not only of much of the pine forests but of the other sawmills, forcing out of business or purchasing its regional peers. At its Ontonagon mill, workers produced as much as 100 million board feet annually, per OCHS, and the company, all told, provided work to almost a thousand local men. The town that began as a copper harbor became a pine port, thriving on Diamond Match’s products. Diamond’s slapdash forestry and storage of its timber, however, soon turned Ontonagon into a match itself.

The summer of 1896 began like most Upper Peninsula summers, vacillating between frost and heat. By late July, James Corgan’s faithful lighthouse logs noted a number of warm and breezy days. On August 2, his daily observations included the first signs of trouble: “dense smoke from forest fires.” The blazes out in the woods had not yet come near enough to the village to threaten Ontonagon itself, but Corgan’s log documented its steady march toward disaster. Smoke hung over the lighthouse on August 4 and overnight on August 10 and 15. A few cool and pleasant days offered a respite before August 22 marked the return of smoke. Corgan deemed August 24 “hazy and warm.” It would be the last peaceful day for Ontonagon for some time to come.

Man sitting with child on beach before lighthouse
James Corgan with one of his children in front of the Ontonagon light.

“Something awful has happened to Ontonagon,” wrote the Ontonagon Herald in its edition of August 29. “Where one week ago stood a prosperous village of 2,300 population nothing is left but blackened ruins.” Although nineteenth century newspapers had a penchant for the sensational, in this instance, the Herald did not exaggerate. Fire had smoldered, in the estimation of the paper, for weeks in the swamps along the Ontonagon River’s west banks. When the flames at various times had threatened the Diamond Match Company’s property and goods, the concern dispatched employees to fight them back. Mid-morning on August 25, seeing the fire creeping up on the western edge of Ontonagon, “the company had sent men over with hose to try and check its progress. The reports which came back to town were that it was not very serious.” But the stiff wind that James Corgan observed at the lighthouse whipped the fire into a frenzy. “Men who had families living on the West Side began to get alarmed for their safety, but went to work just the same when the mills started up at one o’clock.” They would not remain there long. The fire alarm racing through Ontonagon as the mills began their afternoon shift called the village firemen to battle the blaze and to realize almost immediately the futility of their fight. Like the crew of a sinking ship, they urged women and children to flee the area.

The homes and businesses of Ontonagon went up like the matches that Diamond produced. Its planing mill and sawmill were among the first casualties, followed by “the Bigelow house, a large four story frame structure.” This, per the Herald, convinced onlookers that they were in true danger. “Every person in the lower end of town who could get away [from] the flames went in the direction of Greenland and Rockland.” At first, some refugees tried to rescue a few treasured possessions or essential household goods. As they ran, blazing pieces of wood from burning buildings and trees rained down upon them. The smoke grew so thick that it blotted out the sun. To their horror, the people of Ontonagon saw houses further ahead of them on the evacuation route succumbing to flames. Hope for survival seemed to be vanishing as quickly as their town.

James Corgan could not abandon his post to flee with his neighbors. His vantage point at the lighthouse offered him a horrific panorama of the fire in Ontonagon. Shortly after one o’clock, he saw the Diamond sawmill–just a few hundred feet southeast–ablaze. Piles of lumber stored about the mill quickly joined it. Corgan had to act. The lighthouse was not only his workplace; it was his home. He had a new wife, Josephine, and several children from a previous marriage, at least one of whom still lived at the lighthouse. Harry Corgan, no more than fourteen years old, joined his father, Josephine, and the family’s hired girl to keep the ravenous flames at bay. The quartet doused the roofs of the lighthouse and its outbuildings with buckets of water to prevent them from going up in smoke. Although the Ontonagon lighthouse sat on the riverbank, “at times the heat was so intense,” said James Corgan, “that we could not obtain water from the river.” Scanty “drops of mocking rain” did nothing to abate the unfolding disaster. At five o’clock that morning, a vessel called the City of Straits had sailed into the harbor to take on a load of lumber, beckoned to safety by the lighthouse’s beam; that afternoon, the City of Straits and its cargo turned to cinders at the dock while the lightkeeper fought to keep his beacon safe. By the end of the day, the scorching sand had burned Corgan’s feet. He, Josephine, Harry, and the hired girl no doubt tasted smoke and for weeks dreamed of fighting an impossible inferno. But the lighthouse still stood on the banks of the Ontonagon River, its lens flashing far out onto Lake Superior as dusk fell.

Charred, smoking ruins
Ontonagon after the fire, as photographed by Adolph Isler.

At last, the fire exhausted itself, though the hot wind blew all night. Those who could sleep took shelter in farmhouses or bedded down with borrowed blankets in open fields. The next morning, the village of Ontonagon counted its losses. The Herald described a razing that seemed total: “the court house and jail, four churches, three hotels, a dozen stores, thirteen saloons, two newspapers, three school houses, the Diamond Match company’s plant, forty million feet of lumber, the large general store of this company [the Herald], the barge City of Straits, two iron bridges, Corgan’s opera house and many happy homes were erased from the face of the earth. It was indeed… woe sufficient to make the stoutest heart quail and bring tears to the eyes of the bravest men.” Among those men was James Corgan. “Went over town,” he wrote in his lighthouse log, “what a sight of devastation.” Remnants of the fire still smoldered throughout the village as residents carefully ventured out to see what yet stood. The Herald began to itemize the losses at residences and commercial enterprises, which ranged from household goods valued at several hundred dollars to Diamond Match property at nearly a million. The lumbering corporation was lucky to be insured for $500,000. Far too many others in Ontonagon found their names in the newspaper with the note “no ins” following it. They would have to rebuild from scratch.

Even more devastating than the destruction of the town was the human toll. Amazingly, only one person died in the blaze, a Mrs. Pirk whose age left her unable to flee in time. Although her family tried to help, the flames kept them from reaching her. Two days afterward, her body was found “about a block from her home… unrecognizable but for a small fragment of clothing attached to her body,” in the words of the newspaper. She was buried in a local cemetery. The September 5 edition of the Herald told of the emotional devastation faced by several parents who had lost their children just before the fire. Mr. and Mrs. James McDermitt’s infant daughter was being prepared for burial when the fire approached their home. Quickly, the grieving mother had her little girl’s body taken to the family parish, hoping the church would be spared. It was not, and the parents had no one to bury. Mrs. Leander Anderson, “a poor Finland woman,” walked the beach on the night of the blaze, watching the flames consume Ontonagon as she held her own child, who had died on August 24. When the fire subsided, she had nothing left but the clothes on her back and her child’s remains. The weight of such losses must have rested heavily on the McDermitts and Mrs. Anderson.

The Copper Country did what it does best in the face of disaster: it found its sisu and reached out helping hands to its people. A first tug, the Colten, chugged into Ontonagon harbor at 5pm on August 26, carrying relief supplies donated by Baraga County. People of Rockland took in countless evacuees; five families in Ontonagon whose residences still stood housed a collective 110 people. One milkman, Patrick Casey, who had faced heavy losses distributed his milk to those in town who needed it more. Julia Herbert, whose business at the Lake Superior House survived, “fed 250 people every meal furnishing them food out of her own supplies. She stood by the flour barrel baking for thirty-six hours till nature demanded her to rest,” the Herald wrote. “What a noble woman.” Donations of groceries, stoves, utensils, clothing, bedding, and building material poured in from towns and businesses across the Upper Peninsula, Lower Michigan, and the Great Lakes states. Relief committees paid rail fare for those who had families elsewhere and wished to join them, including Mrs. Anderson. Even the Diamond Match Company, which would ultimately choose not to rebuild and cast its workers into unemployment, provided funds to help ease the blow. And when a government representative sailed in on the steamer Amaranth in expectation of inspecting the charred ruins of the lighthouse, he saw it instead preparing to guide ships safely on their night’s journey.

Panorama of a town in a grassy valley
Rockland, which sheltered many fleeing from the Ontonagon fire.

Ontonagon survived. It takes more than fire, more than flood, more than financial devastation to keep Yoopers down. Whatever comes next, rest assured that the Upper Peninsula will rise from it, ready to fight another battle.

Want to learn more? In addition to the Ontonagon County Historical Society and the Ontonagon Herald, Volume 1. of “Ontonagon Lighthouse Journal” from Firesteel Publications and material from Lighthouse Friends helped to inform this post.


5 Comments on "Flashback Friday: Fire on the Banks of the Ontonagon"

  • MarKay
    August 14, 2020 at 10:08 pm

    Well told story of factual events drawing on the humanity of experience for the local people who called the Copper Country home. The heartaches continued but their strong will to survive prevailed. Sisu!

  • Lynne Koski Lanczy
    August 18, 2020 at 11:38 am

    I heard about the fire from my grandmother, Elsie Corgan. (Harry’s wife.) She was about 11 at the time.

  • Patricia Simons
    August 19, 2020 at 7:07 am

    Family home on Trap Street, has a double roof. The interior roof has charred wood mixed in. The home is the lighthouse keepers of Thomas Stripe.

  • A proud YOOPER and grateful Finn guy
    August 19, 2020 at 7:20 am

    As an avid reader of history I have read many tales of sadness,woe and defeat. The ability to overcome these trials is not as common,but in the U P it is a way of life! For the love of our beautiful peninsula we shall prevail!! SISU yes!!!

  • Gordette Leutz
    August 19, 2020 at 8:00 am

    Missing from this tale are details of who owned the Diamond Match Company, how many they employed, and what became of (the owners) them afterwards.