October 8, 1871: The Demon in the Gale

Tinder by Kevin Ryan

Tinder by Kevin Ryan

A sky of flame, of smoke a heavenful, the earth a mass of burning coals, the mighty trees, all works of man between and living things trembling as a child before a demon in the gale. To those who have seen, the picture needs no painting.”
-a history of Sanilac County

The Chicago Fire of 1871 which started on October 8th gets (justifiably) a great deal of attention, but something that is not as well known is the fact that it was only one of a number of major fires across the Midwest that burned millions of acres in October of 1871 and caused over 1200 deaths. Michigan was dealt grievous blows from “The Fiery Fiend” as fires swept across the state, wiping out or endangering entire cities, towns and villages including Holland, Manistee, Grand Rapids, South Haven and Port Huron doing millions of dollars worth of property damage and killing hundreds.

It’s probably impossible for us to fathom what the threat of fire was like in those days. This brief excerpt from a terrifying account account of the burning of Manistee might give a glimmer:

…A bright light came up out of the south, directly in rear of the town, and the fierce gale bearing it on directly toward the doomed city. Those who resided in that part of town, including the writer, rushed to the new scene of danger, the full extent of which few comprehended. The fire had originated two miles south of the city, on the lake shore. It first came upon the farm of L.G. Smith, Esq., which it devoured. Eighty rods north the extensive farm and dairy of E.W. Secor shared the same fate, with all his barns and forage. Another quarter of a mile, and the large farm buildings of Mayor R.G. Peters were quickly annihilated. Here the column of fire divided, the left hand branch keeping to the lake shore hills, and coming in at the mouth; the other taking a northeasterly course and coming in directly south of the town, as before described. Here a small band of determined men, fighting with the energy of despair to protect their homes, kept it at bay till past midnight. But all was vain – at 12:30 o’clock the gale became a tornado, hurling great clouds of sparks cinders, burning bark and rotten wood through the air in A Terrific, Fiery Storm.

Every man now fled to his own house. The fire now came roaring through the dead hemlocks south of the blocks included between Maple and Oak Streets, in the Second Ward. The flames leaped to the summits of the great hemlocks, seventy, eighty or ninety feet high, and threw out great flags of fire against the lurid heavens. The scene was grand and terrible beyond description. To us, whose homes and dear ones and all were in the track of the fire, it was heart-rending.

Read more of these amazing journal style entries from the history of Manistee County. The cause of these fires has been given as a hot dry summer, too many leavings from timbering operations and of course Mrs. O’Leary’s firebug of a cow. There is an interesting theory, however, that the root cause was the earth passing through the tail of a comet. You can read all about it at The Comet and the Chicago Fire where it’s noted that even a steamship passing the Manitou Islands in Lake Michigan noted that they too were on fire.

Kevin took this back in 2009 at a firefighter training in Grand Haven. See more in his Other gallery on Flickr.

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Riding out the storm on Poe Reef Lightship

Poe Reef Lightship LV62 riding out a storm on her station

Poe Reef lies just eight feet beneath Lake Huron’s surface between Bois Blanc Island and the Lower Peninsula mainland. Terry Pepper’s Seeing the Light shares the story of Poe Reef Lightship LV62, launched on this day in 1893:

In 1892 two contracts totaling $55,960 were awarded to the Craig Shipbuilding Company in Toledo for the construction of four lightships. Designated as Lightships LV59, LV60, LV61 and LV62, all four vessels were built to similar specifications. Framed and planked of white oak they measured 87′ 2″ inches in length, 21′ 6″ inches in the beam, with a draft of 8 feet. In a cost-cutting effort, the vessels were un-powered, outfitted with only a small riding sail carried on a short after mast. Equipped with a cluster of three oil-burning lens lanterns hoisted on their foremasts, each was also equipped with 6″ steam whistles and hand-operated bells for fog use. Work was completed on the four vessels the following year, and after sea trials, all four were commissioned by the Board and placed into service, LV59 being assigned to Bar Point, LV60 to Eleven Foot Shoal, LV61 to Corsica Shoal and LV62 to Poe Reef.

With the words POE REEF brightly painted in white on her fire engine red hull, LV62 was towed to Poe Reef by the lighthouse tender Marigold, and anchored on station to begin her vigil on September 29, 1893. For the next seventeen years LV62 spent every shipping season faithfully guarding the shoal. With the end of each shipping season, one of the lighthouse tenders would make the rounds of all lightship stations in the Straits area, and tow them into Cheboygan harbor for winter lay-up. While in Cheboygan, necessary repairs and improvements would be made in preparation for the following season. At some time in March or April, the ice would break up sufficiently to allow the vessels to be towed back to their stations to stand guard for yet another season.

Head over to Seeing the Light for more about Poe Reef Lighthouse & the stories of all Michigan’s lighthouses compiled by a champion for their preservation who has gone too soon.

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Boating Back in the Day

from a 4x5 glass negative by Bill Dolak

from a 4×5 glass negative by Bill Dolak

Bill shares:

The VanBuren County Historical Museum (a great afternoon visit, btw) is sitting on dozens, if not hundreds, of 4×5 glass negatives. Some of them were on display on a light table. I snapped a few with my iPhone and did a quick conversion of one using Snapseed (an iPhone image editor), which was perhaps the first time a “print” had been made from the negative in possibly a hundred years (these types of negatives were popular between the 1880s and the 1920s). Here are a few I “processed” in Lightroom. Sadly, I am sure that these images cannot reproduce the detail that is likely stored on those plates.

You can see more of his scans in the Michigan in Pictures group on Facebook & in his massive Michigan: Van Buren County gallery on Flickr!

Happy 320th Birthday Detroit!

the lamp post by kare hav

the lamp post by kare hav

320 years ago tomorrow on July 24, 1701, Antoine de la Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac realized the success of his plan with mentor and Governor General of New France, Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac, to found a new settlement at the south of Lake Huron to increase the security of French interests on the Great Lakes. Frontenac died, and his successor was not fond of Cadillac so, as History Detroit explains, the story of Cadillac took matters into his own hands:

Cadillac set sail for France in 1698 in order to convince King Louis to allow him to found a new settlement lower in the Great Lakes. Specifically, he was interested in the area south of Lake Huron known as le détroit, or the straits.

The area known as le détroit was ideal for a new settlement because the land was fertile, the location on the river was felt to be easily defended against the British and the climate was more hospitable than that in the more northern settlements like Michilimackinac.

Cadillac returned to Quebec, then travelled to Montreal where he gathered canoes, farmers, traders, artisans, soldiers, and Native Americans to accompany him on his quest. The men set sail on June 4, 1701.

Cadillac and his men reached the Detroit River on July 23, 1701. The following day, July 24, 1701, the group traveled north on the Detroit River and chose a place to build the settlement. Cadillac named the settlement Fort Ponchartrain du Detroit in honor of King Louis’s Minister of Marine.

Kare hav took this photo of the Detroit skyline from across the Detroit River back in 2017. See more in their Detroit gallery & have a great weekend!

Lots more Detroit photos & history on Michigan in Pictures!

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The 1938 Phantom Corsair: Different by Design

1938 Phantom Corsair by Alden Jewell

1938 Phantom Corsair by Alden Jewell

In their Story of the Week feature, the Motor Cities National Historic Area shares the story of the “different by design” 1938 Phantom Corsair:

The Phantom Corsair was one of the most unique automotive designs ever when it was introduced to the public in 1938. he model was designed by Rust Heinz, who once had a dream of what an American supercar should look like. Heinz was from the well-known family that made its fortune selling condiments like ketchup and mustard across the country.

The Phantom Corsair was intended for a limited manufacturing run and would have sold for $15,000 on the consumer market. However, that price was a problem for the Phantom Corsair since it was designed and engineered when most Americans were still struggling with the Great Depression.

The Phantom Corsair was a prototype 2-door model sedan. A clay scale model featured an aerodynamic shape that was sleek and futuristic. The model offered room for six passengers … Heinz’s parents disapproved in the beginning of his developing the Phantom Corsair. His aunt ultimately agreed to fund the project. Unfortunately, Heinz was killed in an auto accident in July 1939, and the Phantom Corsair project came to an end.

…For many years since, automotive writers and historians have said that “Although sometimes dismissed as a failure because it never entered production, the Corsair is regarded as ahead of its time because of its futuristic features and styling cues such as faired-in fender and a low profile.”

The Phantom Corsair prototype offered an electric push-button door operation, along with green tinted triple-layer safety glass windows, hydraulic impact bumpers, and fog lights for nighttime driving. The instrument panel offered a flush design with a dozen instruments that included a compass and altimeter. The interior offered an aviation design theme with a warning light that signaled when the door was ajar. Other features included a multi-wave radio with twin speakers plus a great air conditioning and heating system. The prototype model used a Cord V8 Lycoming engine with a front wheel drive transmission.

Read more & see some really great photos at motorcities.org!

For a chance to really geek out on some wild automotive designs, have a look at Alden’s Concept Vehicles & Prototypes gallery on Flickr.

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The GM Futurliner

GM Futurliner by Bruce Bertz

GM Futurliner by Bruce Bertz

Wikipedia’s entry for GM Futurliners explains that these wild custom vehicles were designed in the 1940s for General Motors by the legendary Harley Earl:

Originally manufactured for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the Futurliners were later featured in GM’s Parade of Progress, a promotional caravan travelling a 150-stop route across the United States and Canada. The Futurliners, along with 32 support vehicles, were driven by 50 college graduates, who also staffed the exhibitions along the route.

Typically arranged at each stop around a large tent and an information kiosk, each Futurliner featured a self-contained stage as well as a prominent deployable light tower, and each vehicle featured a particular subject. The mobile exhibition covered such topics as jet engine technology, agriculture, traffic engineering, stereophonic sound, microwave ovens, television and other innovations.

At 33 feet long, 8 feet wide, more than 11 feet tall, and weighing more than 12 tons, each Futurliner featured heavily stylized art deco, streamlined bodywork, deep red side and white roof paint, large articulated chrome side panels, a military-grade 302 cubic inch GMC straight-six gasoline engine and automatic transmission, whitewall tires and a prominent, high-mounted, centrally located driver command position with a panoramic windshield.

There are only nine of these left & the last one to sell sold for a cool $4 million!! Photos & more info at Wikipedia. You may also enjoy the many pics & stories including a restoration project at Futureliner.org.

Bruce took this photo at Wing & Wheels at the Yankee Air Museum & you can see more shots in his Yankee Air Museum 2021 gallery on Flickr.

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America’s First Urban Freeway: Detroit’s Davison Freeway

The Davison Urban Freeway by Wayne State University

The Davison Urban Freeway by Wayne State University

The Daily Detroit is one of my favorite Michigan podcasts, and their story on The Davison, America’s First Urban Freeway in Detroit is pretty cool: 

While freeways are pretty standard in American cities now, it wasn’t always that way. Instead of the ability to potentially go up to 70 miles an hour like on today’s highways, motorists had to use regular city streets to cross town. That was especially the case for motorists who wanted to cross Highland Park and enter Detroit.

Everyone piled onto Davison Avenue, the only large street that ran through Highland Park and connected to Detroit running roughly east to west. The avenue and freeway was named after an English immigrant from the 1840s that settled in the area, Jared Davison (it was then Hamtramck Township). His farm was approximately between Woodward and Oakland avenues along the south side of the street.

It wasn’t uncommon for drivers to spend 15 minutes sitting in traffic to reach Detroit. By 1940, thanks to Detroit’s growth and the growth of auto factories, Davison Avenue was approaching gridlock during rush hour by 1940.

…By November 1942, the five and a half mile long Davison Freeway was finished. It opened without a dedication ceremony, probably due to the desperate need the defense plants had for a functioning freeway. Despite its lack of dedication, the freeway became the first one of its kind – an urban freeway meant to connect one part of a metro area with another with as little interruption as possible.

…Ironically, the invention from Highland Park eventually played a key role in emptying the city out. In 1992, Chrysler moved their headquarters down the road – off of I-75 with a special off-ramp built for the development – to Auburn Hills, to follow the trend of suburban sprawl that the American highway system helped enable.

Read more at the Daily Detroit!

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Sofa, Sand & Saipan

Private First Class Raymond L Hubbard from Detroit by Andrew B Knight

Private First Class Raymond L Hubbard from Detroit by Andrew B Knight

My buddy Cave Canem shared this absolute gem of a photo in our Michigan in Pictures group on Facebook. He writes:

A Special Treat…

“Sitting on top of the world: Of all things, Private First Class Raymond L. Hubbard from Detroit, Michigan chooses a huge exploded naval shell as a sofa as he removes a three day accumulation of Saipan sand from his field shoes.”

Photograph by: Staff Sergeant Andrew B. Knight, US Marine Corps WWII 1939 – 1945

PS: You can see some of Cave Canem’s photos from back in the day on Michigan in Pictures right here!

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Before the Mackinac Bridge: Remembering the Chief Wawatam

Chief Wawatam, St Ignace, MI by Bill Johnson

Chief Wawatam, St Ignace, MI by Bill Johnson

Central Michigan University’s Clarke Historical Library shares that on August 21, 1984, the Chief Wawatam sailed for the last time:

Since she first sailed the Straits of Mackinac between the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan in 1911, the Chief Wawatam carried thousands of passengers, automobiles, and railcars. The last coal-burning vessel on the Great Lakes, the Chief Wawatam made a name for herself for reliable, efficient service across the often-treacherous waters of the Straits. It was often the Chief who would deliver food and fuel to other Great Lakes vessels who became stuck in the thick winter ice.

After the Mackinac Bridge opened in 1957, the crossing time was slashed from nearly an hour by ferry to a matter of minutes by car. While other ferries ceased running almost immediately, the Chief Wawatam stayed in service for another twenty-seven years before finally retiring. Four years later, the boat was sold to a Canadian firm that cut the 338-foot ferry down to a deck barge.

Bill took this photo back in 1979 & writes:

The Chief is closing in on the dock at St Ignace, MI after crossing the Straits of Mackinac with another load of freight cars. There’s a Soo Line crew waiting for the Wawatam’s arrival. They’re taking a break right now, as are the deck hands on the Chief. Soon, everyone will be hard at work, moving their share of America’s freight. This was a daily scene way back when and will never be repeated. I was lucky enough to catch the action on September 24, 1979.

See more in his Boats, Ships & stuff that sails album on Flickr & have a great weekend everyone!

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Dearborn’s Ford-Wyoming Drive-in Theatre #1 nationally!

Off Season by Derek Farr

Off Season by Derek Farr

The Freep tweets that Dearborn’s Ford-Wyoming Drive-in Theatre was the top grossing movie theater in the nation last weekend. The Henry Ford shares a little of the history of this Michigan icon:

The Ford-Wyoming drive-in was built by Charlie Schafer, opening for business in May 1950. He and his family grew a veritable movie house empire in the Metro-Detroit area under the umbrella of Wayne Amusements, but the Ford-Wyoming is the only evidence of the legacy that remains. When it was first built, there was only one screen—the backside of the immense Streamline Moderne structure that sits at the front of the property. One screen with accommodation for 750 cars grew to nine screens and a 3,000-car capacity, and the theatre began to make the claim of being “the largest drive-in in the world.” Today the theatre has downsized to five screens.

Read more at The Henry Ford & visit the Ford Wyoming Drive-in online for current shows.

Derek took this photo way back in 2012. See lots more in his massive Detroit album on Flickr.

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