FIRE OF 1881


The Great Saline Fire of 1881
By Robert W. Lane

The once quiet intersection at Michigan Ave. and Ann Arbor St. has turned into a busy, noisy circus of trucks, SUV's, and automobiles. Reluctantly, they pause for the stoplights at rush hour when one hundred of them may pass in a minute. This is Downtown Saline of the 21st century, where over periods of time, a great deal of historic Saline has been lost or has changed.

In 1881, the intersection of Chicago Road and Adrian Street was known as downtown. Compared to today, the Village of Saline was a quiet, bustling shopping district and home for many business people and their families. Horse drawn wagons, people riding horses, and people who were walking came to this area to shop, to entertain themselves, to worship God at their church, or to attend one of the local saloons to worship a different life. Without a doubt, history was active in this location, but most of it is now forgotten or lost. How can we understand this time and place?

To understand what happened here, we have to understand the past through research, genealogy, archeology, and preservation. People wore different clothing, many structures were wood, and the streets were filled with fewer vehicles. In fact, compared to today, the streets were almost empty. To visualize this story clearly, we need to use our imaginations: the Saturday morning of May 21, 1881 was a frenzy of movement, as men and women fought through smoke and flames, feeling emotions of terror, excitement, fear, courage, physical exhaustion, despair and finally, hope.

Four Corners is another name for downtown and is the older of Saline's two business centers. The Railroad Depot area was the other center. The first buildings came here circa 1826 and the area quickly became a small town in the 1830s. Each of the Four Corners developed a unique history.

The brick Union Block (today's Mac's Restaurant) was divided into six stores with the west unit always a drug store until recently. The building replaced a wood Union Block that was destroyed in the fire. The builders were brothers Harrison and Howard Nichols. Harrison was a doctor who had an office at the rear. In front, druggist Howard had glass shelves of drugs on one side and jewelry on the other side of this long narrow store.

Across South Ann Arbor St. was the Finch Building, Saline's first commercial building. This was a wood structure, built in 1830. In 1915, it burned down and was replaced by a brick bank (today's Brecon Grille).

Across Michigan Ave. to the north, stood the Davenport Store and Bank. The bank was started by the Davenports in 1885 as the Citizens Bank. The brick building was built in 1860 and lasted until 1963, when it was replaced by a modern building (today's Key Bank). And across N. Ann Arbor to the east was another large wood frame structure, which became the Schafer Saloon in 1880. That building was replaced by a brick building circa 1917 (today's Pineapple House). The 19th century downtown area included other stores that were mainly wood with a few being brick. It was a busy place. This set the stage for a drama to play out like a movie.

Fires have been major events throughout history: Rome, 64 A.D.; London, 1666; Detroit, 1805; Chicago, 1871 and San Francisco, 1906 are examples. In the 19th century, fire hit often and destroyed much because most buildings were made of wood and fire fighting equipment was not always available. The normal pattern was to let these fires burn out until they lost the fuel that caused them to burn. Burning flesh is so unthinkable that people would rather leap from high skyscrapers than risk burn. Towns like Saline, with mostly wood buildings built close together made it easy for flames to jump in the intense heat from one structure to another. But this story tells of citizens who made a courageous decision to fight the fire.

(The following story appeared in the May 26, 1881 issue of the Saline Observer after the fire. The author was not named. I think the editor of the paper George J. Nissly wrote it. He interviewed all he could find who fought the fire. I made some changes because of 19th century grammar, abbreviations, and assumptions that the 21st century reader would not have knowledge. Mr. Nissly did not describe the buildings or say anything personal about the people.)
For many years, our pleasant little town has miraculously escaped all ravages of the fire fiend, but on Saturday morning last, it fell her lot to be a victim, to an extent that will always make it remembered by our citizens.

As many false rumors are afloat regarding the fire, we have taken pains to make this report as near correct as possible.

The fire was first discovered about 3:30 a.m. by Mrs. Caroline Hauser, who, as she glanced out of the window in the rear part of her house at the back of the wood frame Union Block, saw what she at first thought was a lantern, but upon looking more closely, was shocked to see a fire just starting in the end of the unoccupied two-story building just east of Nichols Brothers Drug Store. (Likely this Union Block was built in the 1830s and Caroline's house was just east of it and extending beyond, so she could see the rear.) She at once took in the situation and raising the window, cried "fire" several times. Her cries were heard by Fred Henne of the firm of Hauser & Henne, whose sleeping room was in the rear of the upper story of the store they occupied and also by Dr. Watson, on the opposite side of the street.

Fred immediately arose and on looking out of the window of his room, also saw the fire. He at once started for the street, on his way down called to his partner Ed A. Hauser, who occupied a room in the front part of the building and he immediately followed him. Upon reaching the street, the only person to be seen was Dr. Watson, who, without having stopped to arrange his toilet in the least (this is a 19th century term meaning he didn't stop to wash up or comb his hair) was standing in front of his office shouting "fire" at the top of his voice. The business partners Fred and Ed then started around the corner to the point of the fire, meeting on their way Howard Nichols, who had heard Dr. Watson's cries and whose first act was to awaken his brother the doctor, (Harrison) who was sleeping in his room over the store, although but a few feet from the fire. (All of them lived and worked in the old wooden Union Block, except for the Doctor and Mrs. Hauser.) When the boys reached the fire, they found it creeping up the rear end of the buildings rapidly, as though it had been saturated with some inflammable oil.

The alarm had by this time become quite general and re-enforcement were fast arriving, but it was readily seen that with no pump equipment at their disposal, it would be folly to endeavor to extinguish the flames, which were rapidly gaining headway so all that remained to be done was to remove the goods from the buildings and save, if possible, the adjoining buildings. John H. Bortle, who was also among the first that heard the alarm, after arousing others near his north side Chicago Road store, started for the quarters of our fire department. But, of course, the door was locked and the whereabouts of the key unknown, making it necessary to procure an axe to gain an entrance before what few ladders and buckets that was there could be brought into use.
(It was about this time that Saline citizens made a decision. Fires like the one described above caused people to flee for their lives and let the fire burn its course. Possibly against all logic, a woman, her daughter and another lady ran with pails towards Finch's store, where the Brecon Grille stands today. Other men and women of the town grabbed buckets in hand and went to the nearby pumps and filled them with water. To save buildings, they climbed ladders and dumped the buckets on the flames in intense heat. This was a unique decision to fight for their homes, stores, and small factories. It must have been a stunning and thrilling sight. Can you imagine 50-foot flames with intense heat and smoke?) A large amount of praise is due many of the ladies of Saline, for their heroic efforts to help save property during our recent conflagration. Many of them really showed more presence of mind and did more hard work than some of the men.
At any rate, the people could see that the wood Union Block was going to be lost and all that could be done was to get their belongings out and try to stop the fire from spreading. The buildings, being of wood and perfectly dry, the flames spread with such terrible rapidity that in almost less time than it takes to write, the Nichols Brothers' Store, on the west and Fred Derindinger's on the east, were in flames. As much as possible, every effort was made to save the contents of the buildings. Men rushed in at the peril of their lives to snatch what they could from the angry elements.

The frame of the Nichols Brothers' Building and the large amount of paints, oils, etc. among the contents made the heat so intense that the Finch Building (Brecon Grille) on the opposite side of Adrian St. was also threatened with destruction. In fact, 200 panes of glass were blown away by the heat. Ladders were run up and every available pail brought into use, carrying water to save it, for had the fire once got started on that side of the street, the entire south half of the town would have gone. Several times, the roof and cornice caught, but each time some heroic citizens would, in the face of a heat that was almost death itself, rush up and dash on a pail of water and continued to do so until the danger in this quarter was over.

An effort was made to secure the aid of the Ypsilanti Fire Department, but as the telegraph operator was not yet at the Ypsilanti office, it proved fruitless. (Ypsilanti had a steam driven pump carriage to throw water on the flames.)

During this time, the fire was rapidly extending east and south. Going south, the frame building just beyond Nichols Brother's owned by Geo. H. Jewett was gone in comparatively no time; next was the double brick block, occupied by C.M. Webb and J.H. Schwalm. The occupants of this building suffered the heaviest loss, as previous to it catching fire, the attention of the people was diverted more to Finch's and buildings on the west side of Adrian St., and when its time to burn came, the heavy wooden awning in front was the first to catch, thus soon making it impossible to enter the building. Mr. Schwalm lost nearly all his household goods in the fire. Their living in the second story was one disadvantage. An organ, which they tried to save, became so wedged in the stairway as to cut off all passage and it was necessary to literally smash it to pieces, before Mrs. Schwalm and her child, who were still upstairs, could be rescued.
?The fire followed in rapid succession, feasting on these buildings: H.G. Mandt's cigar factory, David Sears' shoe shop, and the Wallace Barn used by Nichols Bros. The old wood Wallace Building was occupied as follows: H. Pattee dwelling, C.N. How, Township Clerk's Office and jewelry shop, Mrs. Foxs hair dressing shop, and R.P. Parr dental rooms. Then, Dr. S.W. Chandler's residence and barn were devoured by flames.

By this time, the excitement was intense. Men, women, and children rushed about almost exhausted by heat and overwork. The streets were filled with goods that had been saved from the buildings, but were now again in imminent danger of being destroyed, making it necessary to remove them a second time, but there was no time for meditation. The heat was so intense that only a repetition of the work done on the Finch Building would save the other buildings on the west side of Adrian Street and the Methodist Church (the Calico Cat in recent years) just south of Dr. Chandler's house. G.A. Lindenschmidt's Meat Market (Little Caesar's Pizza) and A.C. Clark's Furniture Store (Grossman's Law Office) it was thought would surely go, but the citizens, seemingly stimulated by the excitement, worked as though their very lives depended on their efforts, and succeeded in saving them, but their scorched appearance now shows their narrow escape. (It would be interesting to see if this scorching shows today.)

The wooden Methodist Church was the next endeavor to save. The wind which, fortunately, had heretofore been almost imperceptible, had now raised somewhat, sending the flames from Dr. Chandler's house directly toward the church. It was at first thought to be useless to try to save it and some commenced carrying out what was movable but others, realizing that if the church went, other property south and east would surely follow, said, "The Church must be saved". And, through the almost superhuman efforts of some brave citizens, who at the peril of their lives mounted the long ladders, and by the liberal use of water, kept off the hungry flames, it was saved.

Back on Chicago Street, east of the point of origination of the fire, the flames had made almost equal headway. Next to Nichols Brothers (on the corner) came the vacant building in which the fire started, then F. Derindinger's building occupied by O.M. Wood's Grocery; and the upper rooms by Mrs. Armstrong as a dwelling; the next two buildings owned by Sherman Hinkley and occupied by Hauser & Henne as a grocery; and Mrs. M.J. Bacon as a millinery store; then followed Mrs. C. Hauser's building (it was she who had first seen the flames) occupied as a dwelling and shoe shop; and next the brick residence of Daniel Weinett.

The following building also of brick, but some distance off, further progress of the fire eastward was arrested, but seemingly not yet satisfied with its cruel destruction, the fire took a southeasterly course and licked up the barns belonging to Mrs. Hauser, D. Weinett, Lorenzo Haight and A. Gordon, also the latter's woodhouse and a year's supply of wood, and Hauser & Henne's ice house. Nothing else being within its immediate reach, the fire was at length brought until control, but it had done its work and when the morning's sun looked upon the scene, it seemed like a look of disaster.

After the battle was over and the light of dawn revealed the ruin, there was a general reaction among the people. Some who had not yet taken time to think of their loss, now sat down and wept; others, who had worked for nearly three hours without a thought of being tired, were now completely exhausted and scarcely able to move. It was really a touching sight – a mass of ruins on one side and thousands of dollars worth of personal possessions that had been rescued from the burning buildings strewn promiscuously about the streets. Considering the fact that the majority of our people had never had any experience with fire, a great deal of credit is due them for their presence of mind and the efficient work done by them, under such adverse circumstances. Everybody, with but a few exceptions, seemed anxious to do all they could; brave women rescued goods, pumped and carried water like the strongest men. There are some who deserve special praise, but as there are doubtless others, who did equally well that are not known to us, we will mention no names. (Twenty-two buildings had been lost. Homes and private possessions were gone, but most would rebuild their homes, businesses and lives.)

The origin of the fire was a deep mystery. There was a diversity of opinions in regard to it, but the general belief seems to be that it was the work of an incendiary (arsonist). The circumstances certainly point strongly in that direction. Some, who saw the fire when it first started, expressed the belief that the rear end of the building in which it originated was saturated with kerosene. "We hope that time will solve the mystery and should the above prove true, may the guilty wretch receive his just reward."

The necessity for some fire protection was fully realized for had Saline been, as it should be, provided with necessary means for protection, the fire could have been extinguished in its early stages or at least prevented from spreading as it did. Saline has paid dearly for her negligence in this matter and the question now arises: shall we still continue to take such chances rather than invest the amount necessary to procure some means of protecting the lives and property of our citizens? Should a fire break out in either of the wooden buildings on the north side of Chicago Street, or in any of the buildings further west on the same street and a west wind be blowing, what would be the result? Gentlemen, consider the matter and take some prompt action. Do not wait for another costly warning. We believe if our people were to vote on the matter today, they would be unanimous in saying, "Tax us for a fire protection".

Thus ends the story published in 1881. Led by the efforts of William Davenport and his son Beverly, the Village purchased a pump wagon and fire bell later that year. Today, both items can be seen at the firehouse.

When you approach that historic intersection in your car, stand on a corner, or sit in a downtown restaurant, imagine the struggle that morning in Saline when, when without help, courageous citizens refused to watch, only, but saved our town all by themselves.

  • Nichols Bros. - store and part of stock, $3500; insured for $2800.
  • A.W. Slayton: store, $2000; insured for $1000.
  • J.H. Schwalm : store, household goods, icehouse, $2500; insured for $1500.
  • E.W. Wallace : two small frame stores, dwelling, and barn - $1800; insured for $1200.
  • Dr. S.W. Chandler : residence and born $1400; no insurance.
  • Fred Derindinger : frame store, $900; no insurance.
  • Sherman Hinkley : two frame stores, $1800; no insurance.
  • Mrs. C. Hauser : dwelling and barn, $1200; no insurance.
  • Daniel Weinett : dwelling and barn, $1300; no insurance.
  • C.M. Webb : grocery stock, $1500; insured for $1000.
  • Hauser & Henne : grocery stock and ice house, $550; insurance for $500.
  • Mrs. M.J. Bacon : millinery goods stock, $186; covered by insurance.
  • H.G. Mandt : furniture and stock of cigars, $350; insured for $300.
  • D. Sears : fixtures in shoe shop, $50; no insurance.
  • Julius Rhodes : household goods stored in building occupied by C.M. Webb, about $300; no insurance.
  • Miss Jessie Gates : goods and furniture in dressmaking shop over Nichols Bros., $150; no insurance.
  • H.J. Miller : small wooden building, $300; no insurance.
  • George H. Jewett : small building, $200; no insurance.
  • Orrin Culver : household goods, $100; no insurance.
  • O.M. Wood : grocery stock, $100; no insurance.
  • Mrs. M.A. Armstrong : household goods, $400; no insurance.
  • Alex. Gordon : barn, wood house, 40 cords of wood, $200; no insurance.
  • Lorenzo Haight : barn, $100; no insurance.
  • H. Pattee : slight loss on household goods; no insurance.
  • Mrs. Fox : small loss on household and hairdressing goods; no insurance.
  • T. Eccles : slight loss on household goods; no insurance.
  • The buildings of McKinnon & Son, G.A. Lindenschmidt, and A.C. Clarke were also slightly damaged. In the east side of McKinnon's (Finch) store, there were 188 panes of glass, every one of which was broken by the heat from the burning buildings on the opposite side of the street.
  • Dr. (Harrison) Nichols lost all his Florida collections in the fire.
  • Everything in the Township Clerk's Office was saved.
  • Our people now appreciate the advantage of having their property insured.
  • About twenty parties were thrown out of a business or dwelling place by the fire.
  • Dr. S.W. Chandler and family have, for the present, moved into the rooms over G.B. Mason's store.
  • Thomas Eccles has survived the fire and is now "pegging" away in the rear end of Tom Blackburn's Barber Shop.
  • David Sears has put up a small building near the old American House and is again ready for business.
  • Mrs. Bacon has settled with her insurance company and received the full amount of her loss, which was $186. She was the first of the "unfortunates" to resume business. Scarcely had the building she had occupied ceased blazing, when she was again ready for business.
  • Miss Jessie Gates suffered considerable loss by the fire. Besides her furniture, carpet, etc., she lost twelve dresses that she was making for customers and $10 in cash. Sympathizing friends made up a purse of $10 and presented it to her.
Saline's female photographer Lucretia Gillett photographed the ruins and it is possible one of these photos may be found someday. Perhaps on e-bay?

  • The 1881 Saline Observer.
  • No author was named for the reports I read, but I suspect Editor George Nissly did most of the writing, with assistance from his partner.
  • The Peninsular Courier, Ann Arbor, MI.
  • I have found many stories on Saline in this newspaper, prior to 1880, when Saline lacked its own paper. I was allowed to read this paper, courtesy of Prof. Russell Bidlack.
  • The Bentley Library, Ann Arbor, MI.
  • Nothing specific, but I have seen many files on peopled named in the story. The Michigan Historical Library, Lansing, MI.
  • Michigan Gazetteer confirms names of business.
  • The Saline Standard, publ. in 1878 has names in story.
  • The Saline Library, Saline, MI.
  • The Saline Observer on microfilm.
  • Saline Cemetery records.
  • Wayne Clements, President of the Saline Area Historical Society.
  • Maps of Washtenaw County, 1864, 1874, 1915.
  • The Saline Area Historical Society, Saline, MI.
  • Photographs of Saline citizens and buildings, many taken by Lucretia Gillett.
  • Map of Washtenaw County, 1856.
  • Birdseye View Map of Saline, 1872.

Author's Note: 19th century writers and geographers were very accurate in their reporting and truthful, until it hurt sometimes. I truly believe this because I've done a great deal of research and have found substantiating evidence.

: 2005 Robert W. Lane