Great Fire of 1871 - HOLLAND BURNS

HOLLAND BURNS (Illustration) American History Awesome Radio - Narrated Stories Famous Historical Events Social Studies STEM Tragedies and Triumphs Nineteenth Century Life Disasters

This updated 1870 map of Holland, Michigan depicts the area (in red) which burned during the Great Fire of 1871. A contemporary writer summarized the devastating impact on Holland’s citizens:  "It can be said that our beloved city of Holland no longer exists. The entire business district lies in ruins. Entire streets have disappeared; every businessman has lost everything, and between 200 and 300 houses have been destroyed by fire. The most beautiful part of our city has become an unsightly level plain of smoking and smoldering ruins." Click on the image for a better view.


Michigan had been affected by the same drought and the same type of brush fires as Peshtigo and Chicago. But during the evening of October 8, the city of Holland had to contend with much more than brush fires.

Settled by Dutch immigrants looking for religious and economic freedom, Holland was established in 1847. Within a short time, under the leadership of Albert C. Van Raalte, the town of 2,400 was prospering. Hope College, still an excellent academic institution, had already been established by 1871.

According to eyewitness accounts, a devastating fire began during the evening of October 8th. Gerrit Van Schelven describes the lightning speed with which the flames devoured 80% of the city:

No one unless he has been an eyewitness of such a scene, can conceive its terror or its awfulness. We shall not attempt to describe it. The entire territory covered by the fire was mowed as clean as with a reaper; there was not a fencepost or a sidewalk plank and hardly the stump of a shade tree left to designate the old lines.

Mercifully, the college campus had been spared:

The grounds at Hope College, somewhat isolated as they were, seemed to be the only spot where one could escape with his life. Many took to the waters of Black Lake [now known as Lake Macatawa], escaping in small boats.

Located on the shore of Lake Michigan, Holland's sandy beaches are a source of family fun every summer. But the night Holland burned that sand was put to a different family use.

Realizing all their possessions would be lost unless they were submerged in sand, some of the quick-thinking residents of the town buried their treasures before they fled their homes. When they returned, they found their homes gone but their treasures saved.

Today some of those family heirlooms are displayed in Holland's Museum. Several bear the marks of a fire that almost destroyed them.

When first light shone on the devastation, people could not believe what they saw:

The break of day on that Monday morning presented a scene, the memory of which will outlive all other recollections in the minds of its victims...

Three hundred people were homeless. Property damage was about $900,000. Unfortunately, only $35,000 was insured, but even those claims were essentially denied by insurances companies overwhelmed with the Chicago disaster. Van Schelven reports:

Amount of property destroyed, $900,000. Amount of insurance, $35,000. Of this insurance only a small part was recovered, inasmuch as many companies had been rendered insolvent by the Chicago fire.

Damage was not limited to the town of Holland. Homes and businesses were destroyed in the surrounding areas as well. Fortunately, loss of life was limited to one (an "aged widow woman, Mrs. J. Tolk").

Grand Haven, twenty miles north of Holland, came to the aid of its destitute neighbor.

...in order to understand this we should imagine these people, regardless of their prior condition or home comforts, and clad in the garments of destitution and misery, standing in line each awaiting his or her turn to receive supplies according to the number in his or her family. It was this which brought home to them a realizing sense of their true condition, and how, for the present, they were thrown upon the charities of their fellow men.

Today, when people from around the world visit Holland during its famous Tulip Time Festival, they see a distinctive type of architecture on Hope’s campus. Thoughtful visitors might wonder: "Why do the buildings on campus look so different from all the other buildings in town?"

No doubt, they would be shocked to learn nearly all of Holland burned to the ground at the same time the Great Fire destroyed Peshtigo and parts of Chicago.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Sep 01, 2002

Updated Last Revision: Mar 14, 2018

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"HOLLAND BURNS" AwesomeStories.com. Sep 01, 2002. Jan 25, 2020.
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