Fires 150 years ago leveled, remade Alpena

Courtesy Photo A bird’s eye view of Alpena in 1880 after reconstruction from a major fire in 1872 that leveled much of the city.

ALPENA — A pair of large fires in the late-1870s in Alpena altered the shape of the newly incorporated city and the development afterward remains visible today thanks to tougher building requirements inspired by the blazes.

The fires not only shifted future development from Alpena’s north side to the other side of the Thunder Bay River, but also led to the establishment of the city Fire Department and motivated what was then called the Alpena Common Council to draft and implement new zoning and building codes to help bolster safety.

Still, many people suffered loss of property, loss of livelihoods, and even lost their lives because of the intensity of the fires.

Alpena incorporated as a city on March 29, 1871. Less than a month later, a large fire broke out in the business district along the north shore of the Thunder Bay River. The fire started in the Guild and Clewey’s billiard saloon and spread from the river to Fletcher Street and down to 2nd Avenue.

That portion of the city was at the time a gathering place for residents and visitors. The blaze claimed popular establishments like the Star Hotel, Evergreen Hall, Bolton and McRae’s store (where Alpena Furniture currently sits), the Beebe’s buildings, and the Bogg’s Hotel.

Courtesy Photo The Maltz Block in downtown Alpena is seen in 1892, about 20 years after a great fire leveled much of the city and forced reconstruction under tougher new building codes.

At that point in time, the city did not have a fire department or even a fire engine, so the buildings were allowed to burn while volunteers tried to remove items from the buildings in an effort to save them.

“They pulled merchandise out of the businesses and stacked it in the middle of the street,” Don La Barre, head of special collections at the Alpena County Library, said. “They hoped the embers wouldn’t blow and start them on fire, too.”

La Barre said the destruction of Evergreen Hall was a major loss for the community, as that place operated as a public hall for dances and concerts. Also, he said, the loss of the hotel meant Alpena had no hotel for visitors.

When the smoke cleared, Alpena formed the Alpena Fire Department and purchased its first fire truck, which was named Sog-on-e-qua-do, in May 1871. The truck was capable of pumping water.

The new department was tested about a year later.

Courtesy Photo The McDonald and Creighton Block is seen in 1880 in Alpena. The building was the first constructed after a major fire in 1872 that inspired new building codes throughout the young city.

On July 12, 1872, another large fire ravaged both sides of 2nd Avenue, from the Thunder Bay River to Lockwood Street and from 3rd Avenue to 1st Avenue, including a portion of Washington Avenue.

The fire started at the Sherman House on 2nd Avenue and spread in multiple directions.

When the blaze was finally extinguished, it had consumed 15 acres of property in the business district and residential area of the city. Seventy-five buildings burned. Four people were killed and two people badly burned.

The Fire Department used bells to warn residents of fires and assemble the firefighting units in those days, but getting the resources and manpower into position to fight the blaze was time-consuming, which allowed the fire to spread quickly.

Among the destroyed businesses was the office of the Alpena Weekly Argus, but the local newspaper was only closed for 45 days, La Barre said. The Weekly Argus would later become The Alpena News.

Courtesy Photo Alpena business buildings made of brick began to be built on 2nd Avenue after major fires in 1871 and 1872. The Alpena Common Council strengthened zoning and ordinances to help prevent more large fires. One requirement was that all buildings on 2nd Avenue had to be built with brick.

“It took the paper about a month-and-a-half to get operational with the ability to print, so there was a lot of reporting about the fire that didn’t happen,” he said.

Initially, the fire was blamed on whiskey being stored in a building and catching fire, but trials afterward failed to prove it.

“The heart of the city was destroyed,” La Barre said. “It was just gone, decimated. Business and homes in that area were just gone. The whole area was a tinderbox because of all the lumber mills and the sawdust.”

After suffering two large fires in such a short period of time, leaders in Alpena knew more action was needed to help prevent future blazes and the destruction and loss of life that come with them.

La Barre said building codes became sterner and the Fire Department was expanded in the months and years following the 1872 fire.

Courtesy Photo This 1865 image shows wood buildings on 2nd Avenue in downtown Alpena. After a pair of major fires in 1871 and 1872, the city council passed tough new building codes requiring buildings made of brick on 2nd Avenue.

He said that, before the fires, most of the buildings were made primarily of wood, but new regulations required any business built on 2nd Avenue to be made of brick.

“After the 1872 fire, you really saw the Common Council — or city council — institute zoning regulations in place that established construction with brick and established fire districts,” La Barre said. “Post-fire, the business district moved over to 2nd Avenue, where downtown is now. That fire had the most long-lasting effects on the future of Alpena.”

In July 1875, at a special meeting of the Common Council, a resolution was passed for the purchase of another fire engine, a Silsby’s No. 4, and Alpena station No. 2 was organized. Large tanks of water were placed throughout the city for the department’s use for fires.

La Barre said the first building that was constructed with the new codes and zoning requirements was the A. McDonald’s building in 1873, so it only took about a year for new construction to begin. From 1873 to 1890, La Barre said, many of the brick buildings that grace 2nd Avenue in downtown Alpena were built.

“The Bostwick’s Store was built, and that is where Cabin Creek is now, and the Hanover Building is now the Center Building,” he said. “The fire also cleared the way to have the Maltz Opera House built. Those codes and ordinances are the reason so many of our iconic buildings downtown look so similar. They were all built within 10 or 15 years of each other.”

Courtesy Avenue A view of 2nd Avenue in downtown Alpena in 1875, about three years after a major fire leveled much of the city and inspired tougher new building codes.

The fires also impacted the local economy, La Barre said. He said the employees and owners of the hotels and other businesses often struggled to bounce back. He said some were able to reinvest and reopen, but others lost everything and became poor.

“Very few people had insurance, so there were absolutely people who got ran out of business because of the fire,” he said.

Courtesy Photo The devastation of a fire in 1872 in Alpena is seen in this 150-year-old photo. The fire consumed 15 acres of property and 75 buildings burned. Four people were killed and two people badly burned.

Courtesy Photo The Davidson Block in downtown Alpena is seen in 1891.

Courtesy Photo Smoke lingers in the air near the intersection of Water Street and 2nd Avenue after a large fire in Alpena destroyed a big portion of the business district. After the fire in 1872, city officials expanded the local fire department and strengthened ordinances to help prevent more structure fires.


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