Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2013

The Great Ontonagon Fire

By Jack Graham


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Vintage image of Ontonagon Lighthouse where James ...

From the earliest beginnings, fire was the mortal enemy of lighthouses. Built mainly of wood at first, and then full of highly flammable oils in their later years, many were the keepers who lost their jobs if not their lives to flames. Kerosene, which had become the system-wide lamp fuel by the 1880s, was respected if not feared by keepers and lighthouse administrators alike. Separate fire-proof storage houses were mandated for the storage of kerosene. By 1902, official “Instructions” directed that fire buckets, fire extinguishers, and ashes and sand be kept ready for use, but it was not fire from within that endangered Michigan’s Ontonagon Lighthouse in the summer of 1896.

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Ontonagon Lighthouse keeper James Corgan.

This account draws heavily on the journals of Keeper James Corgan, who served at several Michigan lights in a long career. He was the keeper of the Ontonagon light, located where the Ontonagon River joins Lake Superior, from 1883 until his retirement from the service in 1919. The fire all but destroyed the town of Ontonagon, and it was the heroic efforts of Keeper Corgan and his family that saved the lighthouse from destruction as well.

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Shown here is Josie Dolan Corgan, the second wife ...

From the very first of August, the weather had been unusually warm on the south shore of Lake Superior. “Hot and calm,” “weather continues very hot,” and “very hot steady wind,” were just a few of the station’s journal entries for the early part of the month. But another word was found often in the journals that month as well - smoky. “Smoky during the night,” and “very smoky and warm” are two such entries. The cause of the situation is explained in the entry for August 22 - “Quite smoky during night from forest fires.”

The present cream-brick lighthouse at Ontonagon was built in 1866, replacing an earlier wooden structure that first displayed its light in August of 1853. Unlike many that serve to warn mariners of off-shore or in-shore hazards, Ontonagon was a “welcoming” light. Its purpose was to aid the ships plying Lake Superior’s waters to find their way to its harbor. The native Americans here, and the earliest explorers, knew of the rich copper deposits in the upper Ontonagon River valley, but it wasn’t for more than another century that large scale mining was profitable. It was this copper that first brought commercial shipping to the harbor at the mouth of the river. By the 1880s, logging of the vast tracts of white pine and other timber in the valley had also become a major industry, and the sawmills at Ontonagon converted the logs to lumber. Ships sought the harbor to carry both copper and lumber to the world. By 1886, the Diamond Match Company was producing millions of board feet of high grade lumber, while using lesser grade wood to produce even more millions of the wooden matches that gave the company its name.

A common feature of a light station is some kind of sounding device to be used when fog or other weather conditions negated the usefulness of the light in the lantern room, or during the day when the lamp was not lit at all. By the 1880s, steam-powered whistles were the standard at larger stations. As the Ontonagon lighthouse did not warn of hazards, a major fog-signal was not a part of the station. The sounding device there was a simple hand-operated bellows-box. Ships off the harbor would sound their own horns, and the keeper or a family member would pump the horn-box in response. At Ontonagon, the smoke from raging forest fires up the valley was as frequent a cause to sound the horn as was fog.

By mid-August, such forest fires, spawned by the logging practices of the day, when all but the prime logs were simply left laying and quickly became a volatile source of dry fuel, were rampant in the valley south of Ontonagon. Corgan’s journal noted as early as August 2: “dense smoke from forest fires.” For about a week, the town found relief as the winds blew the smoke in other directions. On August 16, the journal noted “Cool fresh wind from W all day.” On August 19, it noted, “Weather continues pleasant wind light W.” But it was not to last. On August 25, the wind was “hot and blowing a living gale S.W. x W all day.” That wind from the southwest brought the still raging fires to the doorstep of the town.

Keeper Corgan’s journal entry for August 25 described the blaze that followed: “Fire in the swamp S of station approached the dwellings of the Diamond Match Co employees & at 1:20 p. ignited them. Immediately thereafter the large sawmill S.E. of station a few hundred feet distant caught fire also the lumber piles & at 2 p.m the town was ablaze. At 4:20 p.m the wind verried to N.W with a few drops of mocking rain & drove the fire up the Greenland & Rockland roads to complete the devastation. . . . The Consort City of Straights arrived 5 am for lumber and was burned at the dock with 50 000M aboard The steam barge Huron City got away from the lumber docks in safety & lay by the E pier during the fire & fed & sheltered the refugees thereafter.”

Corgan notes his Herculean efforts, and those of his family and even the “hired girl,” to keep the station buildings from being consumed by the fire. “During the fire at times the heat was so intense we could not obtain water from the river E of the station. It required the utmost exertion of my wife, son Harry, hired girl & myself to carry water & keep the roofs & buildings wet down to prevent igniting. I burning my feet in the hot sand where we had extinguished fire.” The keeper’s house, attached to the tower, was built of brick on a stone foundation, but it had a wood shingled roof, as did the other buildings of the station. Countless buckets of water were carried up to the lantern room and dumped from the gallery onto the roof below.

The Ontonagon Herald of September 5, 1896 noted “When the lumber piles took fire, burning boards were hurled through the air and slapped up against the sides of buildings, where they were held by the wind till the building was ignited. The town was afire in 100 places at once and nothing could save it.” The paper went on to report that 344 buildings burned, including a bank, the courthouse and jail, four churches, three hotels, three school houses, a dozen stores, and 13 saloons. The large general store belonging to the Diamond Match Company was destroyed, as were 40 million board feet of lumber stored at the company’s mills awaiting shipment. It was also noted that town resident Frank Neville lost 13 pigs.

The worst of the fire, burning fast and furious, was over quickly. Corgan’s journal entry for August 26 states, “Fires still smouldering everywhere in the burned district. Went over town and what a sight of devastation. Relief being generously sent in. Tug Colton arrived 5 p.m. with supplies contributed by the Nestor Estate.” A relief committee of eight of the town’s leading citizens, one of whom was Keeper Corgan, always active in local politics and events, was quickly formed this same day. In spite of rain noted on August 31 and September 1, his journal for September 7, almost two weeks after the fire began, noted, “fires still smouldering close by.”

Keeper Corgan’s account of the fire is echoed by the report of Martha Chase of Akron, Ohio, who was visiting in Ontonagon at the time of the fire. Her account of the fire was published in the Cleveland (Ohio) Press of September 2, 1896. Martha stated: “Small fires had been smouldering around Ontonagon for several weeks. They were so common that people paid little attention to them. I started for a walk into the woods across the river. A fire was burning there, though it did not seem large enough to warrant worry. At about 11 o’clock the smoke began to be troublesome. A terrific southwest wind had begun to blow, carrying the smoke from across the Ontonagon river to the saw-mills of the Diamond Match Co., and the 60,000,000 feet of lumber piled up in the yards. By 1 o’clock the wind carried the blaze from the woods to some frame houses, occupied by mill hands, on the farther side of the river. Then alarm was taken. John Cameron, superintendent of the mills, ordered all hands to leave work and help fight the fire. The large and well-equipped fire department of the Diamond Match Co., was summoned and the fight began in desperate earnest. But it was too late.”

Martha‘s account continued, “Of the handsome block occupied by the large general store of the Diamond Match Co., nothing was left but a heap of blackened bricks. Over the ruins of the saw mills and lumber yard, the two immense iron stacks of the vast furnaces look mournfully down --all that remained of property worth a million.”

Many of the lighthouses of Lake Superior, even those on the mainland, are isolated far from civilization. Ontonagon is most unusual in that it is, for all practical purposes, an “in town” light. Both Keeper Corgan and his wife were very socially and politically active in the affairs of the town and county. Corgan built and operated, albeit briefly, an Opera House that sadly was among those many buildings consumed by the fire. He also owned a general store in town, and served for many years on the school board. He served for a time as the Ontonagon County Coroner, and also as town fire chief (but not at the time of the 1896 fire.) Most importantly, he “kept a good light,” as evidenced by the fact that he was the Keeper of the Ontonagon Lighthouse for a remarkable 35 years, after serving as well at the Manitou Island and Gull Rock lights, both offshore posts from the Keweenaw Peninsula in Lake Superior. He certainly earned his keep on that horrendous day in August of 1896.

The Ontonagon lighthouse, one of several of the “school-house” type so common in the Lake States, is owned by the Ontonagon County Historical Society. It is open for tours, which start at the Society’s excellent museum on River Street in town, during the summer months. No longer an active aide to navigation, the lighthouse’s original Louis Sautter fifth-order Fresnel lens is on display at the museum. The Society also owns and preserves the Ontonagon Pierhead light.

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2013 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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