Holland history: The Great Fire of 1871

Dale Wyngarden
On Sunday, Oct. 9, 1871, the city of Chicago caught fire. That same day, so also did Peshtigo, Wis., and three Michigan cities: Holland, Manistee and Port Huron. Late summer and fall had been marked by extreme drought. Lands were being cleared on the edges of growing communities, and brush fires were not uncommon. These cities shared one other thing in common: They were constructed almost exclusively of wood. Add in the fact that most homes were built in the “balloon frame” style without fire-stops in walls, and all the ingredients for disaster were at hand.

The Holland fire began southwest of the community and at first seemed containable. But as it engulfed the first structures, it grew out of control. Burning in a northeasterly direction, it laid waste to most every residential structure west of Centennial Park, and most of downtown. Providentially, two early landmark buildings were spared — Pillar Church and Van Vleck Hall, the three-story brick Italianate building now in the center of Hope College. But in 1871 the building was the entirety of Hope College. The fire finally burned itself out when it hit the marsh north of downtown.


The legend of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow starting the Chicago fire by kicking over a lantern makes for a good tale, but in reality, no one knows why five fires so widely separated broke out on the same

day. Some speculated that burning embers from one were carried aloft and ignited others. Others thought it might have been widespread lightning . The wildest theory was that balls of burning methane from a passing comet caused the fires. While there is no definitive answer, it is most likely the Holland fire began as small brush fires were whipped into conflagration by strong winds that ignited first a nearby forestland, and ultimately the young community.

300 homeless

The Chicago fire left about 90,000 people homeless, but took only about 200 lives. Peshtigo fared worse, with estimates of fatalities ranging from 1,200 to 2,500. In Holland, 300 families were left homeless, but just one life was lost. But the young community was devastated. The decade of the 1870s was one of little growth as the city focused on rebuilding. The pioneer era had ended, and in its rebuilding, Holland was on the brink of becoming a small Midwestern city.
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