The tiny village of Metz stands as a monument to one of Presque Isle County's deadliest tragedies; the 1908 Metz Fire that claimed the lives of 37 people caught in the path.The fire destroyed nearly 300,000 acres of Presque Isle and Alpena counties and left 134 families without a home. The fire ranks as the third worst forest fire in the state of Michigan.
Local historian Jonas Taratuta said the stories handed down from grandparents and other family members paint a picture of horrific proportions, of families caught in the path of the inferno that burned through the area and virtually erased the village. He said the fire rampaged through the countryside destroying much of what stood in its path, but left other buildings standing that should have been destroyed.
"My grandmother told us about several family members going into the center of a recently plowed field and covering up with blankets," he said. "They survived, as did their farm, but one across the way was totally burned to the ground. Others tried to flee in a rescue train but were caught in the blaze when they reached Nowicki's Siding."He said the wind pushing the fire was the main reason people couldn't escape, as it blew at over 50 mph at times, blocking every escape route. He noted that even though smoke could be seen approaching from miles away, no one knew just how serious the fire was and much of a threat it posed.
Rogers City historian Mark Thompson said the fire started somewhere west of the village of Millersburg the morning of Oct. 15, burning out along the Lake Huron shoreline later that evening. It burned as far north as Hammond Bay and as far south as the city limits of Alpena.
The families of the survivors welcomed hundreds of visitors Sunday, to the community that virtually rose from the ashes, to mark the 100-year anniversary of the tragedy. A memorial service was held in St. Dominic's Catholic Church, a service that was standing room only for the hundreds who arrived early for the anniversary commemoration. Later, these same folks and many more stood in long lines to view the historic displays in the parish hall or to board buses for a tour of the major sites mentioned in the written histories of the fire.
Today, little evidence of the tragic fire can be found in the area surrounding the small village of Metz, but event organizers found a burned out stump, found in one of the farm fields near the community. The farmhouses and stores lost in the blaze have long since been torn down and new buildings put in their place. Others have simply been cleaned up and grassy fields allowed to cover up evidence of that tragic day.
The 1908 Metz Fire is little more than a memory, leaving its mark in the family histories of the survivors. The village has survived, even with the loss of 37 of its residents and the destruction of homes and commercial buildings, but according to Taratuta, has not forgotten the past.
Mike Modrzynski can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.