Fighting the Phillips Fire of 1894

Feb 3, 2021

Mary Lynn Norton and Cathy Mess unveil the Phillips Fire historical marker.  Alderman Victor Cress (seated) was a survivor of the terrible fire and spoke about the day the fire raged in 1894.
Credit Wisconsin Historical Society

The early history of Phillips in Price County is primarily one of the railroads and logging industries.   Like other Northwoods communities, Phillips had a healthy economy based in logging, and that industry helped contribute to a catastrophic event in its early history.  

The town of Phillips is in the center of Price County and serves as the county seat of government.  It was a logging town but originally came into existence because of the railroad.

The Wisconsin Central Railroad was formed in 1871 from the consolidation of two earlier railroads that existed only on paper.  The Wisconsin Central was the only land grant railroad in the state and wanted to link the southern part of the state with the undeveloped north.  It started building in 1871 with the tracks finally connecting to Ashland in 1877.

Before the railroad built through, the Ojibwe had a village on the east side of Elk Lake.  In 1876, after the railroad arrived, a small shanty town called Elk Lake popped up around the small depot the railroad had built.  The Central Wisconsin Railroad formally platted out a town, and by the end of the summer named it Phillips, in honor of Elijah J. Phillips who was one of the contractors in the construction of the railroad.  Price County itself came into being in 1879 and was named for William T. Price, an early logger in the region.

Logging and lumbering were the primary occupations during the ensuing decade, and Phillips remained a relatively quiet Northwoods community.  By the 1890s, however, clearcutting had left its mark on the region, and debris left behind by loggers was a real hazard.  The summer of 1894 was a particularly hot and dry one in the Northwoods.  People in the town of Phillips were ready for problems that year.  Brush fires had been popping up throughout July, and the streets were lined with barrels of water as a precaution, but no one anticipated what came at the end of the month.

The volunteer fire department had put out a brush fire threatening the town on the 26th, but another unknown fire was already burning near Lake Ten.  On the afternoon of the 27th, a strong southwest wind pushed the fire into Phillips.  The buildings were mostly wood in those days, and according to one account the fire leaped into town and ignited ten or twelve buildings at once.  The scene was reminiscent of a battle zone.  Block by block the firefighters had to give up sections of the city in the desperate hope that water and blasts of dynamite would save the rest.  It was to no avail as the fire leapfrogged over the firefighters and burned everything.

The railroad quickly assembled a train of flatcars and pulled as many refugees south to Prentice as it could.  Other desperate people jumped into the lake, hoping to escape the flames.  Overall, thirteen people died in the blaze that day.  The town was a total loss as every home and business, except for a few houses on the south end, had burned.

Despite the tragedy, the people of Phillips rebuilt.  Today about one-third of the red brick and sandstone buildings on the town’s main street date to the years immediately following the fire.  A memorial to the disaster now stands on the shore of Lake Duroy.