Alcona County burning

This month, “The Latest from the First” looks back on the sad experience of fires in Alcona County, “First of the 83.”

The ongoing wildfires out West have blackened 5 million acres, the size of New Jersey, and they show no signs of being contained anytime soon. This column offers a history of nearby conflagrations.

The end of the logging era brought the first fires capable of erasing entire towns. Those blazes raced across acres of desiccated boughs cut from the trunks of trees that had been felled. The trunks went off to the docks and sawmills of coastal settlements. The “slash” stayed behind, to become the fuel for the wildfires that followed.

Black River had half again the number of residents as Harrisville (population 500) does today (and 10 times as many taverns) in 1904, when a fire that ignited inland blew east into the town, and burned much of it down. The mansion of timber baron Russell Alger, former U.S. senator and secretary of war, did not burn, but the pivotal narrow-gauge RR locomotive roundhouse did.

With the trees near Black River reduced to stumps resembling charcoal, there was no money in rebuilding. Black River hung on as a fishing port for a few decades, but, then, as the matching mansions of Alger and his partner, Smith, fell into a terminal state of ruin, the town itself followed suit. The fish houses and the twin Alger-Smith abodes melted into the land. The little post office finally closed. Black River achieved “ghost town” status, eventually, because of the 1904 fire.

Just over the Iosco County border, the city of Oscoda fared much better in 1913, when a devastating fire swept across it from the scrubby ex-forest lands to the west, consuming all but a few buildings (the Hilltop Tavern was spared, saints be praised!). The people ran to the beach in a panic, chased by flames, to be saved by fishing boats.

But, unlike Black River, Oscoda bounced back and stayed back.

Harrisville might have met Black River’s fate after back-to-back fires in 1926 took out all but a couple of buildings on Main Street. But the plucky populace rebuilt, and Harrisville keeps hanging on.

Many of Alcona’s fires left charred holes in the landscape and the social scene. The first such fire I can recall claimed the Hubbard Lake Tavern. It has been rebuilt, but there was no replacing the grandeur of the original giant log structure, nor the sandy, bowling-lane long shuffleboard table.

Flames next leveled the Greenbush Tavern, which had the best view of Lake Huron of any restaurant south of the Straits. Its widely eclectic menu weighed toward Polish cuisine. It featured escargots du Bois Vert, the best preparation of snails I’ve ever had, in my sluggish experience at tables of fare around the world.

The worst loss was Cuyler’s Dugout Bar and Grill, in December 2018. That fire incinerated both a favorite eatery, and also the last visible vestige of Alcona County’s favorite son, Baseball Hall-of-Famer Hazen “Ki Ki” Cuyler. His birthplace sits just north of Harrisville, but no sign honors the great Major Leaguer there.

Two fires in Alcona County in the last year made the pandemic even worse.

First, the BP gas station and restaurant in Curran went up in an intense, towering inferno, utterly consuming the structure within minutes. The loss left residents of remote western Alcona County with few options for fuel and takeout food. The BP sprang back quickly, but without a dining option.

Heartbreakingly, Alconians lost the adorable and community-minded Dockside Cafe in August.

The fire gutted the interior, breaking out in the rear and spreading to the kitchen and dining area. Had it not been for the prompt efforts of the Alcona County Fire Department, the whole building, (once Pizer’s General Store) and maybe those adjacent might have gone up in acrid smoke (I appreciate firefighters, my haters notwithstanding).

As it was, Harrisville lost a nexus of social interaction, along with a kind of museum. The Alcona County Historical Society had given many items from its collection to the Dockside, which provided the perfect decor for a place of that name, with the logo of an ore carrier: ship portraits, historic photos, running light lanterns … a visitor to the Dockside was treated to a lesson in Alcona County history, along with tasty food and drink.

Let’s hope the Dockside Cafe reopens soon, and that fire spares all of us Up North in the perilous, warming future.

Eric Paul Roorda is a professor, historian, lecturer, author, and illustrator. He has called Alcona County home for 50 years.


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