Great Peshtigo Fire

Great Peshtigo Fire

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What's Peshtigo? A small speck of a lumber town about 250 miles north of Chicago, near the western shores of the Bay of Green Bay.Conditions were ripe in the area in the fall of 1871, owing to an unusually dry summer. And a railroad was being constructed at that time, between Michigan's Upper Peninsula and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This necessarily left debris to the sides of the track.The Peshtigo paradigmA cold front moved across a broad expanse of north central America that day, which brought swirling winds that allowed small fires to combine into larger ones. As the temperature rose, so did the wind's intensity. A firestorm, in essence "nature's nuclear explosion," burst into being.The firestorm, whipped by what is today acknowledged to have been a low-grade tornado, was described as "a wall of flame, a mile high, five miles wide, traveling 90 to 100 miles an hour, hotter than a crematorium, turning sand into glass." It destroyed 12 pioneer towns and about 1.5 million acres, or nearly 2,000 square miles, of prime timber, and killed an estimated 2,200 people.Traveling in a northeasterly direction, the fire leapt the Peshtigo River and burned a swath through the countryside before reaching the waters of Green Bay, where it finally died out.An obscure disasterWhy does the largest and deadliest fire in the history of the United States go largely unnoticed?Because on this very date, October 8, 1871, Mrs. O'Leary's cow supposedly kicked over the lantern. Yes, The Great Chicago Fire, which consumed 2,000 acres and claimed 300 lives, also occurred on this date — as did fires in Manistee, Saugatuck, and Holland, Michigan — and stole the spotlight from the Peshtigo fire, in part because communications to the rest of the world were better from those places.Comet or coincidence? Fragment or figment?Some scientists theorize that fragments of the expiring Biela's Comet survived entry into the earth's atmosphere and simultaneously set off fires around Lake Michigan. While it is tantalizing to try to connect the seemingly unconnectible events that occurred on that fateful day and night, there is no scientific evidence that ties these events together.

The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account

By Reverend Peter Pernin from the Wisconsin Magazine of History 1971

A COUNTRY COVERED with dense forests, in the midst of which are to be met with here and there, along newly opened roads, clearings of more or less extent, sometimes a half league in width to afford space for an infant town, or perhaps three or four acres intended for a farm. With the exception of these isolated spots where the trees have been cut down and burned, all is a wild but majestic forest. Trees, trees everywhere, nothing else but trees as far as you can travel from the bay, either towards the north or west. These immense forests are bounded on the east by Green Bay of Lake Michigan, and by the lake itself.

The face of the country is in general undulating, diversified by valleys overgrown with cedars and spruce trees, sandy hills covered with evergreens, and large tracts of rich land filled with the different varieties of hard wood, oak, maple, beech, ash, elm, and birch. The climate of this region is generally uniform and favorable to the crops that are now tried there with remarkable success. Rains are frequent, and they generally fall at a favorable time.

The year 1871 was, however, distinguished by its unusual dryness. Farmers had profited of the latter circumstance to enlarge their clearings, cutting down and burning the wood that stood in their way. Hundreds of laborers employed in the construction of a railroad had acted in like manner, availing themselves of both axe and fire to advance their work. Hunters and Indians scour these forests continually, especially in the autumn season, at which time they ascend the streams for trout-fishing, or disperse through the woods deer-stalking. At night they kindle a large fire wherever they may chance to halt, prepare their suppers, then wrapping themselves in their blankets, sleep peacefully, extended on the earth, knowing that the fire will keep at a distance any wild animals that may happen to range through the vicinity during the night. The ensuing morning they depart without taking the precaution of extinguishing the smouldering embers of the fire that has protected and warmed them. Farmers and others act in a similar manner. In this way the woods, particularly in the fall, are gleaming everywhere with fires lighted by man, and which, fed on every side by dry leaves and branches, spread more or less. If fanned by a brisk gale of wind they are liable to assume most formidable proportions.

Twice or thrice before October 8, the effects of the wind, favored by the general dryness, had filled the inhabitants of the environs with consternation. A few details on this point may interest the reader, and serve at the same time to illustrate more fully the great catastrophe which overwhelmed us later. The destructive element seemed whilst multiplying its warning to be at the same time essaying its own strength. On September 22 I was summoned, in the exercise of my ministry, to the Sugar Bush, 1 a place in the neighborhood of Peshtigo, where a number of farms lie adjacent to each other. Whilst waiting at one of these, isolated from the rest, I took a gun, and, accompanied by a lad of twelve years of age, who offered to guide me through the wood, started in pursuit of some of the pheasants which abounded in the environs. At the expiration of a few hours, seeing that the sun was sinking in the horizon, I bade the child reconduct me to the farmhouse. He endeavored to do so but without success. We went on and on, now turning to the right, now to the left, but without coming in view of our destination. In less than a half hour's wanderings we perceived that we were completely lost in the woods. Night was setting in, and nature was silently preparing for the season of rest. The only sounds audible were the crackling of a tiny tongue of fire that ran along the ground, in and out, among the trunks of the trees, leaving them unscathed but devouring the dry leaves that came in its way, and the swaying of the upper branches of the trees announcing that the wind was rising. We shouted loudly, but without evoking any reply. I then fired off my gun several times as tokens of distress. Finally a distant halloo reached our ears, then another, then several coming from different directions. Rendered anxious by our prolonged absence, the parents of my companion and the farm servants had finally suspected the truth and set out to seek us. Directed to our quarter by our shouts and the firing, they were soon on the right road when a new obstacle presented itself. Fanned by the wind, the tiny flames previously mentioned had united and spread over a considerable surface. We thus found ourselves in the center of a circle of fire extending or narrowing, more or less, around us. We could not reach the men who had come to our assistance, nor could we go to them without incurring the risk of seriously scorching our feet or of being suffocated by the smoke. They were obliged to fray a passage for us by beating the fire with branches of trees at one particular point, thus momentarily staying its progress whilst we rapidly made our escape.

The danger proved more imminent in places exposed to the wind, and I learned the following day, on my return to Peshtigo, that the town had been in great peril at the very time that I had lost myself in the woods. The wind had risen, and, fanning the flames, had driven them in the direction of the houses. Hogsheads of water were placed at intervals all round the town, ready for any emergency.

I will now mention another incident that happened a few days before the great catastrophe:

I was driving homeward after having visited my second parish situated on the banks of the River Menominee, about two leagues distant. 2 Whilst quietly following the public road opened through the forest, I remarked little fires gleaming here and there along the route, sometimes on one side, sometimes on the other. Suddenly I arrived at a spot where the flames were burning on both sides at once with more violence than elsewhere. The smoke, driven to the front, filled the road and obscured it to such a degree that I could neither see the extent of the fire nor judge of the amount of danger. I inferred, however, that the latter was not very great as the wind was not against me. I entered then, though at first hesitatingly, into the dense cloud of smoke left darkling behind by the flames burning fiercely forward. My horse hung back, but I finally succeeded in urging him on, and in five or six minutes we emerged safely from this labyrinth of fire and smoke. Here we found ourselves confronted by a dozen vehicles arrested in their course by the conflagration.

"Yes, since I have just done so, but loosen your reins and urge on your horse or you may be suffocated."

Some of the number dashed forward, others had not the hardihood to follow, and consequently returned to Peshtigo.

1 There were three of these farming communities: the Lower Sugar Bush, comprising settlements extending for about seven miles west of Peshtigo on the road leading to Oconto the Middle Sugar Bush, made up of settlements along a road running to the southwest and the Upper Sugar Bush, containing settlements along what was known as the Lake Noquebay Road. In all, they consisted of about 300 families. Frank Tilton, Sketch of the Great Fires in Wisconsin at Peshtigo, the Sugar Bush, Menekaune, Williamsonville . . . (Green Bay, 1871), 7.

2 A league varies from about 2.4 miles to 4.6 statute miles, depending on the nation involved. Pernin was probably using the English league which is about 3 miles, since Peshtigo is about seven miles from Marinette.

Peshtigo Fire Museum, grounds quietly preserve horrific history

The devastation happened almost 142 years ago, but it remains on the local newspaper’s online front page, where an easy-to-find link leads to somber details: One million acres burned. At least 1,200 lives lost. A community’s dreams destroyed, in minutes.

“The City Reborn from the Ashes of America’s Most Disastrous Forest Fire.” That is how the Peshtigo Times frames the lumber town community’s identity.

The catastrophic Peshtigo fire on Oct. 8, 1871, gets overlooked because the less-deadly but better-publicized Great Chicago Fire happened the same day, killing 300 and gutting 2,100 acres of the bigger city, leaving 100,000 homeless.

Chicago’s population in 1871 was 324,000. Peshtigo’s was 1,750. Now it is 3,500.

“In 1870, the wood industry was the heartbeat of this area,” explains Pauline King, a volunteer guide at the Peshtigo Fire Museum. Chicago’s first mayor, William Ogden, owned the Peshtigo Company, a lumber mill and nation’s largest producer of woodenware – shingles, broom handles, buckets and more.

All that remained after the fire were the contents of a fireproof safe or, as Pauline tells it, “the ledger with the company’s debts.”

Before the incident, the area’s last measurable rain was in early July. Although it was not unusual for the people in Peshtigo to deal with fire during the summer of 1871, because of the drought, the October blaze was different.

Tornado-level winds from a cold front, Pauline says, increased the velocity of an evening blaze – and “it wiped out the area in an hour.”

The few who survived fled, in nightclothes, to the Peshtigo River and dipped themselves into cold water all through the night to avoid being burned or overcome with smoke.

“When they finally could leave the river at dawn,” Pauline explains, “they rolled over and over on the riverbanks, to try and get warm again.”

It has been 50 years since the volunteer-run museum opened as a way for local residents to make sure the story of Peshtigo wouldn’t die. Most amazing are the three display cases of fire artifacts and stories that survived the smoke and blazes.

Some of these simple remnants of history are little miracles.

A Catholic church tabernacle, taken to the river by a priest, was found intact three days after the fire. A local resident’s Bible also was found floating in the river.

The remains of a watch helped one family identify the ashes of their former home. “In the rush to the river all they took was a blanket which they kept wet and over their heads,” writes a son, W.H. Bentley of Breckenridge, Minn. “The blanket saved their lives.”

Sidonia Tagatz of Neshkoro donated a brooch and earrings worn by her grandmother on the night of the fire, with this explanation: “Her two sons were running with her to get to the safety of a plowed field when she died of a heart attack. They dropped her and she was found later, burned. They made a casket of charred boards and buried her in the Harmony Cemetery, where other victims of the fire were interred.”

Surrounding the fire artifacts are rooms full of typical attire, furnishings and appliances of the 1870s. These donations came from neighboring towns not damaged by the Peshtigo fire.

The museum is a former Congregational church, and a short stroll outside of it leads to a mass grave where the bodies of about 350 fire victims who couldn’t be identified are buried. About 75 of these people lived at the Peshtigo Company’s boarding house, “so completely consumed by fire that one could not tell man from woman or child from adult.” Plaques of explanation also say some bodies were intact, “bearing no trace of burns” but overcome by smoke.

As time marches on, it becomes more challenging to find devoted stewards of the museum. Many of the Peshtigo museum’s volunteers are in their 80s.

“We really are in need of younger blood,” Pauline acknowledges, to keep the life-changing story from being lost with the passage of time.

The Peshtigo Fire Museum, 400 Oconto Ave., is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily from Memorial Day weekend until Oct. 8, when closing ceremonies include a bell ringing and music by the local high school band. Museum admission is by donation., 715-582-3244

Wisconsin Historical Society Press recently published “The Great Peshtigo Fire: Stories and Science from America’s Deadliest Firestorm” ($16) by Scott Knickelbine. It is a book for children, and the author discusses his research from 12:15-1 p.m. Oct. 1 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, 30 N. Carroll St., 608-264-6555

The publisher’s previous titles include “The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account” ($13) by the Rev. Peter Pernin.

Great Peshtigo Fire - History

Wikimedia Commons Memorial marking the cemetery of Peshtigo Fire victims, including 350 unidentified bodies. Peshtigo, Wis.

“The only light available in the dark of the night was that given off by the fire itself,” reads The Deadly Night Of October 8, 1871, “creating an eerie glow that seemed to taunt the dying and surviving alike like the open mouth of hell.”

On the night of Oct. 8, 1871, the mouth of hell did indeed seem to open up in both Chicago and Peshtigo, Wis.

As lore has it, at 9 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 8, Mrs. O’Leary was milking her cow in her Chicago family barn when the cow kicked over a lantern, igniting the surrounding hay. While the Chicago Fire Department quickly responded to the alarm, the watchman made a mistake and led the firefighters to the wrong location, wasting valuable time. The fire then began to spread and made its way across drought-ridden Chicago, scorching 3.3 square miles of the city.

The occurrence of the meteorological phenomenon known as a fire whirl — when hot air rises and interacts with cold air creating a tornado-like vortex — contributed to the fast-paced spread of the conflagration as it sent flaming debris flying from one place to another.

Finally, on Oct. 10, two days later, the fire finally burned out, ultimately leaving 100,000 of the city’s 300,000 people homeless, and killing 120 to 300 others.

But on that very same night, some 250 miles north of Chicago, another inferno raged as well, this one in Peshtigo, Wis. Although widely eclipsed in history by the Great Chicago Fire, the Peshtigo Fire proved even deadlier than its neighbor to the south, and in fact gained the infamous status of the deadliest fire in recorded history.

The Peshtigo Fire began in the forest, where it was common practice among midwesterners to start small fires in order to clear trees for farming and railroads. However, on Oct. 8, strong winds moving in from the west fueled the flames and caused them to spread to the town of Peshtigo, turning the innocuous fires into a raging and deadly firestorm.

The Peshtigo Fire ultimately reached the blistering temperature of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and speedily fanned through the fire hazard of a town built out of wood.

When the flames eventually died out, the damage of the Peshtigo Fire was staggering: The conflagration had consumed 1,875 square miles, obliterated 12 communities, and caused the deaths of between 1,500 and 2,500 people.

Because so many people died, there were not enough survivors to identify the victims, and many bodies remain unidentified to this day.

Wikimedia Commons Destroyed buildings ravaged by the Great Chicago Fire.

On the very same day, beyond Chicago and Peshtigo, fires also raged in Holland and Manistee, Wis., across Lake Michigan from Peshtigo, and farther south in Port Huron, Mich. Because of the coincidence and relatively close distance between these locations, some have theorized that the origin of all these separate fires was one and the same.

One of the most popular of these theories even turns to an extraterrestrial cause: a comet. According to this theory, the impact of fragments from Comet Biela struck Earth and sparked the fire.

However, scientists have widely debunked this theory claiming that meteorites cannot ignite a fire as they are cold when they reach Earth’s surface. Thus, the complete origins of the Peshtigo Fire, and the Great Chicago Fire, remain a mystery to this very day.

After this look at the Peshtigo Fire, read more about the Great Chicago Fire. Then, read up on Centralia, Pa., the town that’s been on fire for more than 50 years.


One of the most common myths about how the fire started was Mrs. O'Leary and her cow tipped over a lantern which then caught fire to some hay and began to spread for miles. However, it is more than likely that the fire was started by the lumber industry and linked with the overly dry conditions that Northeastern Wisconsin had been suffering. Before the fire, Peshtigo was a leader in the lumber industry which led the town to be rich in timber. The timber was in the roads, houses, and helped make up bridges and buildings in town. In addition, due to the importance of the lumber industry fires were a common practice in the area by lumberjacks, farmers, and even railroad construction crews. Setting these fires was part of their daily work. After the day was over these fires were often left to burn out on their own. Furthermore, the weather had been very dry through the fall and winter months of 1870 and northeastern Wisconsin faced many dry conditions. With the hope of improving these dry conditions, spring and summer arrived and conditions declined even more. The continuous dry conditions year round and heavy involvement of the lumber industry in town, including the use of fires, led the town to catch fire in October, 1871. Α]

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The Great Midwest Wildfires of 1871

From Sunday, October 8 through Tuesday, October 10, 1871 wildfires claimed thousands of lives and destroyed millions of acres across the Upper Midwest. The most famous fire struck Chicago, and claimed about 300 lives while destroying over three square miles of the city, including more than 17,000 buildings. For many years, the cause of the fire was attributed to a cow housed in a barn on 137 DeKoven Street. The cow, owned by Mrs. O&rsquoLeary, purportedly knocked over a lantern that set off the blaze. A reporter later admitted to fabricating the story, but it continues to endure in popular culture. The actual cause of the fire was never determined, but weather conditions across the entire region during the summer and fall of 1871 produced conditions conducive to large, rapidly-spreading fires should one ignite. Large wildfires also struck several areas in Michigan, with Holland, Port Huron, and Manistee seeing the most significant damage and loss of life. Although the exact death toll from the Michigan fires is unknown, it likely claimed in excess of 500 lives. However, the most costly fire in terms of loss of life occurred in and around Peshtigo, Wisconsin, and remains to this day as the deadliest fire in American History.

Map showing the burnt area of the Peshtigo fire.
Image courtesy of

Figure 1: Peshtigo after the fire (Pernin 1999)

Fire reached Peshtigo during the evening of Sunday, October 8, 1871. By the time the fire ended, it had consumed 1.5 million acres, and an estimated 1,200-2,400 lives, including approximately 800 in Peshtigo. Only one building in the town survived the fire (Figure 1). What we know of the fire is primarily taken from the first-hand account of Reverend Peter Pernin. His account details a number of personal stories from those who were present in Peshtigo during the fire, and many of those personal stories are displayed alongside graves in the cemetery adjacent to the Peshtigo Fire Museum. One such story details the experience of the Kelly family (Figure 2):

"Terance Kelly, his wife, and four children lived in the upper Sugar Bush. When the fire came with the terrible wind and smoke, the family became separated. Voices could not be heard above the roar of the fire. Mr. Kelly had a child in his arms, as did Mrs. Kelly. The other two children clung to each other. In search for safety, each group lost track of the others. The next day, Mr. Kelly and a child were found dead nearly a mile from his farm. The mother and another child were safe. The other children, a boy and a girl, five, were found sleeping in each others arms near the farm. The house, barn, and all the outbuildings had burned to the ground."

Figure 2: Gravestone and story of the Kelly Family at the Peshtigo
Cemetery. Photo by Thomas Hultquist.

Click for larger image

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 5
The fire in Peshtigo resulted from a number of factors, including prolonged drought, logging and clearing of land for agriculture, local industry, ignorance and indifference of the population, and ultimately a strong autumn storm system occurring in the presence of conditions supportive of a large, rapidly-spreading fire. In order to better understand the large-scale weather conditions leading up to the fire, data from the 20th Century Reanalysis (which covers the period from 1871-present) was analyzed. A large upper-level ridge was present across the region from July through September (Figures 3 and 4), which would have set the stage for warm and potentially dry weather. Reanalysis of 2 m temperatures from July through September indicates above-normal temperatures were present from the central Plains into the upper Midwest (Figure 5).

Click for larger image: Figures 6, 7, 8

Click for larger image: Figures 9, 10, 11

The fires of October 8-10, 1871 helped serve as a wake-up call to many about the land use practices of the time. Timber from cleared land was discarded without regard to its potential to fuel wildfires. The subsequent 144 years has seen an evolution in how to mitigate wildfire potential with varying degrees of success, but awareness of the issue has dramatically increased. Weather support has become an integral part of fire operations, for both planned burns and wildfires. The National Weather Service has Incident Meteorologists trained in providing remote and onsite support to firefighters who battle wildfires across the United States, and have also supported operations internationally. Although wildfires will always occur and continue to claim lives and property, improvements in weather information, land management, and general awareness of the danger of wildfires helps ensure tragedies of the scale that occurred in early October 1871 will not be repeated.

A Disaster Waiting to Happen

In the middle of the 19th century, it was normal for companies to set small fires to get rid of forest land and clear a path for railroad construction and farming. Peshtigo was a lumber and sawmill town, and William Ogden was the main businessman in the region. The summer of 1871 was unusually hot and dry in the northern Midwest. Despite the obvious risks, settlers continued to adopt the traditional burning of a land method to create new farmland. It was a recipe for disaster, and there had already been warnings with significant fires in several locations from Canada to Iowa within the previous month.

A large number of Midwestern towns were susceptible to fires and Peshtigo was especially prone given its dependence on lumber. In fact, practically every building in the town was made with a timber frame. To make matters worse, the most important bridge in and out of Peshtigo was made from lumber, and the roads to and from the town were covered in sawdust. As a result, if a fire started, it would be incredibly difficult to flee.

Area of the Peshtigo Fire. InTimesGoneBy

Great Peshtigo Fire - History

by Sarah Derouin Tuesday, September 19, 2017

On Oct. 8, 1871, the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, another, even more devastating fire in and around the lumber town of Peshtigo, Wis., burned nearly 500,000 hectares of land and killed as many as 2,500 people — more than any other fire in U.S. history. Credit: K. Cantner, AGI, based on a map from the Atlas of Wisconsin.

On Oct. 8, 1871, the Great Chicago Fire burned through 900 hectares of the city, killing as many as 300 people and leaving another 100,000 homeless. More than 17,400 buildings were destroyed and financial losses totaled more than $200 million at the time (equivalent to $3.7 billion in 2016 dollars).

The ruin brought by the fire to the populous city quickly became national news, bringing the Chicago fire legendary status in local and U.S. history. But that same day, another, even more devastating fire ripped through the Midwest, 400 kilometers north of Chicago around the lumber town of Peshtigo, Wis. The wildfire burned nearly 500,000 hectares of land and killed as many as 2,500 people — more than any other fire in U.S. history. Yet, most Americans have never heard of it.

The Peshtigo and Chicago fires were not the only blazes in the Midwest that week. Fires also broke out in the Michigan towns of Holland and Manistee, prompting some to ask: Were the fires a coincidence, the result of months of dry weather? Or was there something cosmic to blame for all four fires?

Fertile Soil and a Wealth of Lumber

In the 1870s, the upper Midwest, sometimes called the Northwoods, was a boon for the lumber industry. Rapidly growing cities like Chicago and Milwaukee sent lumbermen north to provide timber for building supplies. Rail lines and harbors in Lake Michigan carried wood and manufactured products like shipping boxes to a growing nation. By 1870, the value of lumber produced from Wisconsin forests was valued at $15 million ($277 million today).

A map of Peshtigo, Wis., as it looked in September 1871, the month before the fire. Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society.

The city of Peshtigo is located on the banks of the Peshtigo River, about 11 kilometers inland from Green Bay, an arm of Lake Michigan. The 150-kilometer-long river has plenty of rapids along its length — a plus for transporting large amounts of lumber from the Northwoods downstream to Peshtigo with the river&rsquos current.

During the Quaternary, much of Wisconsin was covered numerous times by the Laurentide Ice Sheet, with the last glacial ice covering the area between about 25,000 and 10,000 years ago — a period referred to as the Wisconsinan Glaciation. When the ice retreated northward, glacial sediment was deposited across the Midwest. This sediment contributed to the creation of productive soils across the region. Northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan have predominantly acidic, sandy soils they are classified as spodosols and are a favorite of pine trees. Falling conifer needles combine with water to form organic acids that dissolve iron, aluminum and organic matter in topsoil. White pine trees grow readily in this soil, and the tree was a sought-after commodity that northern Wisconsin provided in bulk.

People flocked to the Midwest for the new jobs the lumber industry provided. In 1870, Peshtigo&rsquos population was about 1,200 people, with an estimated 50 to 100 immigrants arriving by steamer each week, note authors Denise Gess and William Lutz in their 2002 book, &ldquoFirestorm at Peshtigo.&rdquo

It wasn&rsquot just loggers migrating to the area. Farmers often made their way to the Northwoods to clear a plot of land and make their home. Many prospective farmers headed to a nearby area called Sugar Bush — a series of settlements that took their name from the abundance of sugar maples in the area. Farmers commonly set fires to get rid of trees and stumps so they could clear the fields. &ldquoEven the immigrants who came from Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Germany — they knew this is how you clear land. They saw fire as an ally,&rdquo Gess said in a 2002 interview with Minnesota Public Radio (MPR).

In the months leading up to the huge October blaze, fires burned constantly, producing so much smoke that residents suffered from smoke-induced symptoms, including lethargy, fevers, hacking coughs and &ldquored eye.&rdquo

It was the amalgamation of these smaller fires that would be the undoing of Peshtigo.

Fuel That Flamed the Fire

During the late 1800s, logging and farming practices created an abundance of slash — piles of felled trees, branches and vegetation cleared from pine forests. Pine needles, small branches and bark covered the ground, creating natural fuel for any fires. The abundance of sawmills also meant a profusion of sawdust, which was spread on streets and flowerbeds, or used as stuffing for mattresses. Additionally, lumber mills and railroads had large quantities of chemicals, glues and paints on hand to make wooden crates, window sashes and furniture.

An 1871 Harper's Weekly illustration depicted the horrific scene during the Peshtigo fire as people tried to escape into the river. Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society.

From 1870 to 1871, the Midwest was engulfed in drought. Peshtigo and the surrounding area, which normally gets a meter or two of snow, got almost none that winter. The spring and summer also brought lighter than normal precipitation. Historical records mark the date of the last soaking rain before the fire as July 8, leaving the slash to bake in the dry air for another three months through summer and early fall.

In early October, a cyclonic weather front formed over the Great Plains, creating westerly winds that headed toward Peshtigo. When the storm hit the Northwoods on Oct. 8, a huge temperature difference created strong winds, kicking up coals and fanning the smaller fires, which merged into one enormous fire. A wall of flame nearly 5 kilometers wide and almost a kilometer high roared through the town and quickly spread, according to survivor accounts.

Based on the vitrification of sand, the fire was estimated to have reached more than 1,000 degrees Celsius. It burned so intensely that it created its own weather system, with winds whipping the fire into a tornado-like column of fire and cinders. Authors Gess and Lutz reported that winds rushed through the town at more than 160 kilometers per hour. Escape routes were limited outrunning the fire was impossible. Many survivors used the same phrase to describe the speed of the flames: &ldquofaster than it takes to write these words.&rdquo

Some fled to the Peshtigo River, but the cold water created new problems for the residents. Peter Leschak, author of &ldquoGhosts of the Fireground&rdquo and a firefighter, said in a 2002 interview with MPR that air temperatures were likely between 260 and 370 degrees Celsius — hot enough to combust hair. People taking refuge in the river had to repeatedly hold their breath and dunk themselves into the cold water, or splash water over their exposed heads. Some who survived the fire died from hypothermia in the river.

The wildfire eventually was quenched by decreased winds and rain the next day. The cold front that brought the strong winds also dropped the temperature, and those who had survived the fire — it is not known how many — were left in danger of succumbing to the elements. All the buildings in Peshtigo had burned to the ground, leaving a flat, smoldering expanse where the town previously stood. The land was burnt deep and the water was fouled — both from the fire and the dead bodies in rivers and wells.

The Aftermath

The front page of the Madison Daily Democrat on Oct. 13, 1871, reported "there is scarcely any estimating the damage done to farms and forests, not mentioning the frightful loss of life which has attended the fire." Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society.

After the fire, patches of sand were melted into glass, railroad cars had been tossed off their tracks, and holes dotted the landscape where burned roots turned to ash. The fire destroyed lines of communication out of Peshtigo. The nearest telegraph was in the city of Green Bay, about 70 kilometers to the south at the head of the bay, so the surviving townspeople dispatched a boat to the city to get word to Madison, the state&rsquos capital. As news of the fire was reported in national and international press, donations of tools, bedding, clothing and food poured in from around the world.

No official death toll was determined after the fire. With so many dead and the weekly influx of newcomers, exact numbers were difficult to determine. In 1873, Col. J. H. Leavenworth sent a report to the state government titled &ldquoThe Dead in the Burned District,&rdquo detailing those who were killed in the Peshtigo fire. He compiled a list of those known to have perished and documented what he saw:

&ldquoWhole neighborhoods having been swept away without any warning, or leaving any trace, or record to tell the tale … The list [of the dead] can be depended upon as far as it goes, but it is well known that great numbers of people were burned, particularly in the village of Peshtigo, whose names have never been ascertained, and probably never will be, as many of these were transient persons at work in the extensive manufactories, and all fled before the horrible tempest of fire, many of them caught in its terrible embrace with no record of their fate except their charred and blackened bones … for the very sands in the street were vitrified, and metals were melted in localities that seem impossible.&rdquo

Ignition by Comet?

The landscape around Peshtigo, Wis., after the fire. Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society.

The coincidence of the four separate fires in Chicago, Peshtigo, Holland and Manistee led to speculation about a potential common source for the fires beyond the dry conditions and winds. One hypothesis was raised in 1883 by Ignatius L. Donnelly, a congressman from Minnesota and amateur scientist with an affinity for catastrophism. He published many works on the destruction of past civilizations by floods, comets and meteors, and he proposed that the fires were caused by pieces of Biela&rsquos Comet breaking apart and hitting Earth as meteorites.

The idea was revived in the 1985 book &ldquoMrs. O&rsquoLeary&rsquos Comet&rdquo by Mel Waskin, the title of which refers to the idea that the Chicago fire was started when Mrs. O&rsquoLeary&rsquos cow kicked over a lantern. (Mrs. O&rsquoLeary and her cow were exonerated in 1997 by the Chicago City Council.) Another article in 2004 by Robert Wood called &ldquoDid Biela&rsquos Comet Cause the Chicago and Midwest Fires?&rdquo supported the fire-by-comet theory.

While massive impactors such as the Chicxulub bolide, which hit Earth about 66 million years ago, are thought to have ignited widespread fires due to the tremendous heat and friction produced upon impact, small rocky meteorites are generally poor conductors of heat. NASA debunked that particular ignition method in 2001, noting that there has never been a historically documented case of a small rocky meteorite igniting a fire.

The combination of conditions that caused the Peshtigo fire and others in the Midwest in October 1871 — normal land-clearing methods, extensive drought conditions and a particularly windy weather front — was not unique or even especially rare. Beginning in spring 2016, wildfires ripped through the Fort McMurray area in Alberta, Canada, burning more than 600,000 hectares. &ldquoThere was a mild winter and not a lot of meltwater from the mountain snowpack,&rdquo said Mike Wotton, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, quoted in a 2016 CBC article. &ldquoThen there was an early, hot spring, and everything got very dry. Then on top of that, it got windy,&rdquo Wotton said.

&ldquoThis really shows that once a fire like this is up and running, the only things that are going to stop it [are] if the weather changes or if it runs out of fuel to burn up,&rdquo said Mike Flannigan, professor of wildland fire science at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, in the same article. &ldquoWith a fire like this, it&rsquos burning so hot that air drops [of water by firefighters] are like spitting on a campfire.&rdquo

Since the late 1800s, major advances have been made in firefighting and public safety that will likely ensure that there will not be another fire as deadly as Peshtigo. But wildfire will continue to be a regular occurrence, Flannigan said in a 2017 Global News interview. &ldquoThese were not one-offs. It is not a fluke,&rdquo he said. &ldquoIt is going to happen again.&rdquo

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A Peshtigo Fire Story of Survival

As a fire swept across her hometown, Emmerence Gaspard Englebert and her husband crept into a hand-dug well on their property, carrying only their 6-month-old child and a woolen blanket.

When they came out of the well the next morning, their home was gone. Their barn was gone. Their cattle were scattered.

It was October of 1871. Englebert's story is one of few survivors of the Peshtigo Fire, the deadliest fire in American history. More than 1,200 people died.

Today, Englebert's great-granddaughter, Barbara Englebert Chisholm, reenacts the history of the fire through her grandmother’s tale, making sure the history lives on. Sunday marks the 146-year anniversary of the blaze.

"It’s a subject that people … don’t really realize," Chisholm said. " . It did burn here and it did affect lives of many, many people."

She became interested in the history of the fire after discovering at a young age that her great-grandparents, as well as her great-great-grandparents, were survivors.

"And my grandfather lived with us so he sort of … told me stories about them, which I found very interesting," she said.

As Chisholm tells it, her great-grandparents had been looking forward to Kermis, a traditional Dutch festival. As the fire came closer they planned to stick it out and save their buildings by tossing pails of water on the fire. But once the fire had approached, Chisholm says the couple knew it couldn’t be stopped.

They hid from the fire safely, underground, in their hand-dug well.

"They told my grandpa stories about how terrible it was, because they could hear the screams of the animals and fire approaching, and everything just became one big inferno," Chisholm said.

When the fire was over all of their possessions and property were destroyed. For several days, they didn’t know how they would survive with winter approaching.

"Little by little, word did get out and provisions did start coming in," Chisholm said. "There were different relief services set up. The government of Belgium actually sent $5,000 for its former citizens. And they set up relief areas in Green Bay and in Milwaukee, but there were strict provisions."

Chisholm said her great-grandparents had to prove their loss wasn’t trivial. And eventually, they had to get back to their own work. They were cut off from government support by May, she said.

"You have to admire these people. They came back and over terrible odds, they claimed a new living," Chisholm said.

Survivors farmed areas where trees had burned. They rebuilt homes of red brick, so they would be slower to burn in case they were hit by fire again.

Because the fire happened on the same day as other large Midwestern fires, most notably the Great Chicago Fire, the significance of the Peshtigo fire often gets lost in history. But some, like Chisholm, still remember.

Chisholm often tells the story in schools, and children typically are intrigued. They become nearly silent listening. In one classroom she asked the class if they had heard of the fire. One small boy raised his hand.

"He says, 'Every Oct. 8 at noon, we have a moment of silence,'" Chisholm recalls, "Because his particular relatives, some of them, burned in the fire. So it was a little time of remembrance."

Watch the video: Peshtigo: Americas Deadliest Fire (May 2022).


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