The Metz Fire of 1908

In the late morning of October 15, the Metz Fire of 1908 started somewhere west of Millersburg, Michigan.  By evening, 37 people were dead.  The village of Metz was a charred and smoking ruin. And 134 families – about 700 people – were suddenly homeless. 

Because of the extent of the losses at Metz, the fire quickly came to be referred to as “The Metz Fire,” but it devastated an area well beyond the boundaries of the little farming and lumbering village.  Propelled by gale force winds, the fire spread to the northern reaches of Presque Isle County. It threatened the county seat at Rogers City, burned to the outskirts of the City of Alpena, and jumped across Grand Lake before it finally burned itself out at the Lake Huron shore.

Here are some of the stories from one of Michigan’s deadliest and most destructive wildfires.

In Metz Township - A Train Derails Amidst the Flames

The single worst tragedy of the fire occurred just a few blocks southeast of Metz. As the wildfire began to rage, the Detroit & Mackinac Railroad sent a train into Metz to evacuate the residents.
About 40 residents, mainly women and children, boarded the train, many bringing their prized possessions with them. Trunks, beds, and dressers were loaded into the rail cars. A local saloon owner even held up the train’s departure until he had safely stowed his stock of liquor. Many of those trying to escape the flames took refuge in an open gondola car.
By the time the train left Metz, the area around the village was engulfed in flames. At Nowicki’s Siding, just southeast of Metz, huge stacks of cedar posts, railroad ties, and hemlock bark were burning on both sides of the tracks.
The heat was so intense that it had warped the steel rails. The train derailed amidst the raging inferno.
Some of those aboard the train were able to escape, often by crawling back along the tracks. For 12 people, however, the gondola car became their crematorium. When rescuers reached the train, all that was left of those in the gondola car were piles of ashes and pieces of bone, including the remains of 9 children who perished with their mothers in the fire.
Just a few days later, The Detroit News published a story about a family who was spared that fate.

“Father’s Refusal to Leave Home Saved the Lives of His Children," The Detroit News, October 1908.

The persistent refusal to yield to the pleadings of his children to place them aboard the rescue train leaving the burning village of Metz, saved the family of John Zimmerman, who, with his five children, arrived Monday afternoon at the home of his brother, Henry Zimmerman, 12 Plum Street. With them came the two little daughters of Mrs. Edward Hardies, rescued by the merest accident from the steel gondola car in which their mother lost her life.
The young people and children who will remain in Detroit until their father is able to rebuild their home, are Martha, Augusta, and Mamie Zimmerman, young women; Lavina and Fred, aged 9 and 7; and Theresa and Louise Hardies, aged 6 and 5 years.
The Zimmermans lived on a farm just outside the village of Metz, about 25 feet south of the railroad tracks. Augusta this tells the story of their escape from the flames that swept the village:
“When everybody was getting ready to go in the train, we all gathered around father and teased him to let us go, too. It was so hot and smoky, we thought we couldn’t stand it much longer, and it seemed hard to see everyone going away in the cars and we staying behind.
“But father said, ‘No children, if we’re going to burn, we’ll burn right here on our own place. We’re safer here, anyway, than we would be out in the woods on the cars.’
“So we pumped up tubs of water and got quilts out of the house and soaked them with water to put them on the roof, for we thought that we would keep the house from catching fire from the sparks. But, at last, father saw that it was of no use. The wind blew so hard we could scarcely hold on to the things that we carried out of the house. The air was full of hot sparks and ashes and burning shingles.
“Then we carried bread and butter in cans out into the field, and buried them, for we knew if we escaped, we should have something to eat.
“It was about half past 6 when it got so hot that father saw there was no use trying to save the house with the wet quilts, so he wrapped them around the children and took us over to the field. The last thing, my brother Adolph went to the barn and drove out the cows and horses. Father stayed around the house, trying to keep it from catching fire. But, at last, it began to burn, and then we saw father start to come to us. He got part way across and fell. He had worked so hard, and the smoke was so thick, that it got the best of him.
“Sister Mamie and I ran to him and dragged him to the place in the lot where we had our things. We put water on him and in a little while he was alright again. Then father and Adolph got back to the barn and dragged out a load of lumber that we had stored for our new house. With the lumber and a hay rake, they fixed up a kind of shed where we spent the night.
“The next morning, the men took the lumber and built the first house that was rebuilt in Metz. Before night, we had 15 people staying there, though it is not as big as a good-sized room.
The two Hardies children, Theresa and Louise, were in the ill-fated gondola car with their mother when the car left the track and the awful holocaust began. They escaped by clinging to the coat of a man who was jumping from the car. Stunned by the fall, little Louise was lying on the ground, while Theresa, a year older, groped her way to a clearing where she was afterwards found by her cousin.
Stumbling along in the blinding smoke and heat beside the train, Edward Hardies felt something that yielded beneath his foot. He stooped and snatched up the body of little Louise and succeeded in getting her also to a place of safety. His return was cut off, and his wife and other children perished.

The Fire Burns Beyond Metz Township

The fire raged eastward toward Grand Lake, where the Lapczinsky family were staying. The fire jumped the lake and burnt eastward to the Lake Huron shore, but they were still alive. Presumed dead for days, the Alpena News reported that they’d been found alive:

"Family of Four Turns Up After Being Missing a Week," The Alpena News, October 22, 1908"

Martin Lapczinsky, his wife and two children, missing since Thursday, and though to be either burned to death or drowned on Grand Lake, were located today at the cottage of Bliss Stebbins on the lake shore, where they have been for several days.
“Six of us were in a lumber camp near the lake Thursday night,” said Mr. Stebbins today. “We did not think the fire was serious and turned in at the usual hour. About 11 o’clock we were awakened by Lapczinsky, who rushed into our camp and gave the alarm. We just had time to get to the lake when the flames burst through the forest. We pushed our boat out and waded a long distance along the shore to a part of the forest where the fire had not yet come. There we rested awhile, until the flames approached, then launched our boat again and pulled for Grand Island. There was a tremendous wind, and it was all we could do to keep afloat with ten in the boat.
“In the morning we tried to reach the mainland, but the fire was still burning. Finally, we succeeded in reached the clubhouse and cottages, where we have stayed ever since. We did not know that people were searching for Lapczinsky.”
Mr. Stebbins reported that the camps of the Emery Martin Lumber Co., near Presque Isle, were destroyed, as was also the camp of Joseph Ritlitz, in the same vicinity.
“There were no fatalities in this region,” he added. “We have slept only one night in the past five, however, and have been constantly on guard. There is no fire near here now.”

Mourning and Rebuilding: The Aftermath of the 1908 Metz Fire

Sunday, I buried, at one funeral service, ten of the members of our church who died in the fire. It was a strange worship service, which I conducted with a loudly sobbing congregation alongside a church in ashes, conducted over open graves. I never experienced such despair in my whole life. At first, I could not even begin. I leaned against a lonely standing fence post and wept, perhaps the first time since I was a child. – Pastor Ernest Thieme, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church

People throughout Michigan, and beyond, had heard of the terrible plight of those in the Metz area. One newspaper reported, “The Metz refugees are sadly in need of warm underclothing, shoes and stockings, bedding, and stoves. The food supply is sufficient for a few days, but no longer. Lumber has been sent, but more is needed. Tools are scarce. Cooking tinsels are few. Hay and grain for the remaining horses and cattle must be procured. In the immediate vicinity of Metz there are 84 families without homes, nearly all penniless and in want.”
Also, winter wasn’t far off. The first ice formed on the lake on October 31, a sure sign that the long northern winter was just ahead.
The D&M Railroad immediately began to bring relief supplies into the area. Their construction crews began building 16’x20’ “relief shacks” to house those who had survived the fire. The shacks were built of rough boards covered with tar paper. Each shack was equipped with a small wood stove used both for cooking and heating.
Relief supplies quickly began to pour into Metz and the surrounding area. Among the first shipments brought in by the D&M was clothing donated by residents of the wealthy Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe. The ladies of Metz dressed in high-style evening wear donated by the wealthy ladies in Grosse Pointe. For many of the women in Metz, it was undoubtedly the finest clothing they’d ever worn.
The Detroit News published a story of Michigan’s Governor Fred Warner’s visit to the area in its October 21 edition:

"Gov. Warner Describes Trip Thro’ Fire District,” The Detroit News, October 21, 1908

PLYMOUTH, Mich., Oct. 20 —“The people in the burned district need food, lumber and hay most of all,” declared Gov. Warner this morning, on his return from the northern fire-stricken region. Sunday the governor went up to Alpena, joined Gen. Rogers and Supt. Luce of the D&M railway, and made a tour by special train, an engine and one coach, Monday. He had to miss his scheduled meetings in Washtenaw County yesterday, but got back in time today to take up his Monroe County meetings on time.

“The fire victims, up north,” said the governor, “will be flooded with clothing. Alpena alone has already supplied half enough clothing to supply all who need it.

“According to best estimates there are about 200 destitute families around Metz. As most of the families are large, this means from 1,200 to 1,500 persons.

“Shipments should be made to Alpena, care of the relief committee. This Alpena organization is an excellent one, splendidly managed and working with remarkable efficiency. As has already been announced, the Michigan Central, Pere Marquette and D&M will carry all such consignments free.
“The Alpena relief committee is working especially for the relief of those persons living along the line of the D&M at LaRocque, Metz, Posen and Bolton, and in the surrounding country. There are, however, many other districts more or less damaged, and many isolated cases of suffering will be found.
“I wish the officers in all parts would report such isolated cases to the Alpena relief committee, and they will attend to the wants of the sufferers. This will be a more effective way of affording relief than the attempt to send special consignments from the lower part of the state to the individual cases.
“Lumber is needed in great quantities. For this purpose, money will be much better than loaded freight cars from the south, because lumber can be bought for so much less in the district.
“It will require about 600,000 feet of timber to build shanties and sheds for the 1,500 people and their horses and cows. The D&M railroad has sent up its full force of carpenters and is assigning one to each family or group of families to direct the rebuilding. The shacks are about 20 by 16 feet, with two or four double-deck bunks in each room. Five lumbermen of Alpena have already contributed one carload of lumber each, making 75,000 feet in all.
“From Grand Rapids has come two carloads of furniture, available as fast as the shacks go up. In the meantime, the victims are stopping with farmers living outside the burned region.
“For the winter, fully 100 cars of hay will be necessary, in addition to quantities of food for the people. And of the money raised, the committee ought to hold back at least $5,000 until spring to buy seed, for the people are destitute. Their crops, hay, grain and all the rest has gone.
“Here is a sample: I talked with one farmer who said: ‘I had 40 acres of hay in my barn, 300 bushels of potatoes, other things in proportion, and seven cows and two horses, also houses, outhouses, barns, and the like. Now, I’ve nothing save seven hungry cows and two horses, and ashes all over my farm.’
“These people have got to start all over again. Many of them have lived there many years—18 or 20—and had grown quite comfortable. They came as pioneers after the timber had been cut, cleared fields of stumps and found good farmland.
“The fire burned a swath from five to six miles wide from the interior, easterly to Alpena, ending at the lake. The people are mainly Germans and Poles. They are hardy citizens but with everything wiped out they must be maintained until spring and then started out with seed.
“One of the most pathetic incidents I encountered was at Metz. A German farmer and his wife [Mr. and Mrs. John Nowicki, Jr.] left their four children, boys 10, 8, 6 and 4, while they went to town. They lost their lives, and when rescue parties went out they found the farm house and all the buildings gone. It was supposed the four boys were dead, but they were found alive in an orchard. The ground had just been plowed, and with presence of mind the 10-year-old boy led his smaller brothers to safety. All four have been sent to Alpena to homes.
“Metz is all gone save the schoolhouse.
“At Bolton only a church is standing.
“Posen got off luckily, but the surrounding country is devastated.
Along the lines of other railroads there will be found families here and there whose possessions are all gone. As to the total number killed, it is hard to say: between 30 and 50, anyway.
“At Posen, I called on the parish priest. He said he has 350 families in his parish and from an enumeration he took Sunday finds that between 50 and 100 are destitute. All are Polish.
“The board of supervisors of Presque Isle County met Monday and named a committee to go over every township to find just how the people stand. Some whose property is wiped out may not be destitute. The committee with learn just where aid is needed and see that it is given.”

Hope Amongst the Ashes

In the face of adversity, the victims of this Presque Isle County wildfire pulled together and supported one another.

"Found His First Clothes Ready," The Detroit News, October 21, 1908

The home of Mrs. Frank E. Haske, two miles north of Metz, was destroyed in Thursday’s big fire. Haske tells this story:
“Our horses, barn, and stables burned to the ground, and we saved nothing,” he said. “My wife was fighting the fire with me. She was taken ill. I drove her as fast as I could to the place where her father was staying. She is all right now, and so is our new baby. It’s a boy. First baby after the fire. Something to be proud of, yes?”
If the Haske family were familiar with the classics, they might name the boy Phoenix. As it is, he will probably be known as John. This important question has not been decided. Preparations were at once made to give the newcomer a few reasons for remaining. A large bag was filled with the smallest articles of apparel that could be found. It was about to be handed to the Haske family when one of those rummaging among the boxes brought to light a bundle marked “Full outfit for a new baby.”
At this manifestation of the wonderful work of Providence and the people of Michigan, Haske nearly collapsed.
Some thoughtful person sent a baby carriage and blankets to the week-old child of Mrs. Oliver Hurket, which came through the wreck at Nowicki Siding without a scratch or a burn after being thrown from the gondola by its mother.
John C. Haske, grandfather of Metz’s fat cat, stopped his wagon, laden with clothing, food, and a new stove, to discourse on past and future. Haske was reputed the richest farmer in Metz township. He owns 400 acres.
“I used to live in Detroit,” he said. “I drove for C.A. Newcomb when the Newcomb-Endicott store was built. Afterwards, I was coachman for George Robertson. But, I wanted to be my own boss, so I came here, where my father was, about 25 years ago. I lost two barns, all my stables, my granary, my hog pens, and my house. It was the biggest house and the biggest barns in the township. I had an organ and four stoves, and 20 chairs. I saved only two chairs. That’s all. First I tried to save the house, but the fire came up like a …oud and took it. I soaked my shirt in a barrel and put it on, so that the water ran over me.
“Then I tried to save one of my stoves, but I couldn’t get it out. Then I ran for my organ and carried it into the yard. Then I went back for the stove, but I thought of my new $7 clock and my $2 alarm clock, and tried to save them, but everything was on fire. So I ran out and grabbed my organ after soaking my clothes. I ran with it, but the fire was so hot I had to drop it and run for my life. It was all burned up.”
Three of Haske’s 13 children were in the ill-fated gondola, but one became terrified before the train started and climbed out. The others followed to rescue him from the flames, thus probably saving their own lives.
Despite the obvious hardships, most of those who lost their homes and businesses that tragic day in October of 1908 rebuilt. Metz is a much smaller community today than it was in 1908, but many of the residents are descendants of those hearty pioneers who rebuilt their lives after the fire.

The 1908 Metz Fire: By the Numbers

From the report of the State Fire Relief Commission, February 1, 1909

Presque Isle County Residents Impacted:
150 Families Totally Burned Out
80 Families Partially Burned Out
  • 730 adults
  • 162 children over 16
  • 959 children under 16
700 Families with Small Losses (timber, fences but no buildings)
  • 990 adults
  • 1,774 children
930 Families who Received Relief
4,615 Total number of individuals receiving relief from the commission
Farm Implements Destroyed in the Fire:
14 Buggies
59 Harnesses
73 Harrows
61 Plows
75 Sets of Small Tools
65 Wagons
107 Sleighs
69 Horse Rakes
76 Mowers
1 Threshers
1 Potato Harvester
7 Pea Pullers
29 Seed Drills
12 Disc Harrows
1 Hay Press
61 Binders
47 Cultivators
51 Fanning Mills
63 Food Cutters
1 Corn Sheller