The Great Thumb Fire and the Birth of the Red Cross

Eaton County Courthouse 089.jpg

Eaton County Courthouse, photo by joshames

In 1871, the Thumb area of Michigan was ravaged by The Great Michigan Fire, part of a series of fires across the Midwest that included the Chicago Fire.  The Michigan DNR’s History & Ecology of Fire in Michigan explains that 10 years later on September 5, 1881, another devastating fire rolled through the Thumb area.

…the fire of September 1881, commonly known as the Thumb fire, was more severe and did more damage since settlers had begun pouring into the region and logging had gotten underway. As a result, more people were rendered homeless and the loss was greater. It is estimated that this fire burned well over one million acres, cost 282 lives, and did more than $2,250,000 worth of damage. ($55,834,321 adjusted for inflation)

Like the 1871 fire, the fire of 1881 came at the end of an extremely severe drought and was the result of hundreds of land-clearing fires whipped into a seething cauldron of flame by high winds. It was worse in the Saginaw Valley and Thumb region where it burned over much of the same territory that had burned ten years before.

In 1881 Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross. The organization’s first meeting had taken place in Washington DC  at the home of Sen. Omar D. Conger of Michigan. Their first official disaster relief operation was the response to the Thumb Fire, and the Red Cross provided money, clothes and household items to victims of the fire.

Check Josh’s photo out bigger and see more in his slideshow.


6 thoughts on “The Great Thumb Fire and the Birth of the Red Cross

  1. Busted link for the slideshow? When clicking on it, it goes to a black screen w/a message something like, “Oh no, we couldn’t find anything.”

    Thanks! Hope it gets fixed!


  2. My maternal grandmother was a young girl living in Brown City when the Thumb Fire of 1881 burned through the area. Her family had moved to Michigan to that area from Thedford, Ontario a few years before. They came to Michigan in a horse drawn wagon, crossing the river at Port Huron. I remember her telling me that she and her brother had a hard time finding their way home from school because the smoke was so thick. At times they crawled on their knees in the road to stay below the heavy smoke cover and held hands to keep from getting separated.. She was interviewed in the 1950s or 60s by the Brown City Banner newspaper for an article they did about the fire.


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