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The Great Peshtigo Fire

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The Great Chicago fire of October 8, 1871 grabbed all the headlines, but a far more devastating conflagration broke out 250 miles to the north on the same day. Although it was the most devastating fire in American history the Peshtigo Fire is largely unknown today.

The Drought of 1871

The fall and winter of 1870 were drier than normal. The spring of 1871 also experienced low rainfall and rivers and marshes dried up.

The National Weather Service reports that in the Midwest “weather conditions across the entire region during the summer and fall of 1871 produced conditions conducive to large, rapidly-spreading fires should one ignite.”

A dome of high pressure settled over the upper Midwest and central Plains from July to September. This produced hotter weather with less rainfall than normal. Forest underbrush was tinder dry.

Logging and farming practices at the time involved a lot of slash and burn techniques to clear land. Peter Leschak, author of the 2003 book Ghosts of the Fireground, has written “There were fires burning all summer and into the fall . . . And nobody put out fires in those days.”

Stephanie Hemphill (Minnesota Public Radio) noted that “During the week before the fire, the air was so filled with smoke that harbormasters on Lake Michigan blew their foghorns constantly to keep ships from running aground. But still, people saw fire as a good thing.” It was the simplest and cheapest way to clear land for planting.

A Lumber Town

The town of Peshtigo sat astride the Peshtigo River, which ran into Green Bay about ten miles to the south. The town was on the edge of vast forests, and lumber sustained its economy. It was home to the world’s largest wooden products factory.

According to the Peshtigo Fire Museum, “Most buildings in the community were made of wood, complete with wooden shingles. Wood was stacked next to the houses for winter. Sidewalks were made of boards, and trails between towns were updated to corduroy roads made of split logs. Bridges were made of planks supported by timbers . . . Sawdust from the woodenware factory covered the streets to keep down dust and mud, and was also used to stuff mattresses; the excess sawdust was piled.”

In the context of fire, another name for wood is fuel.

An artists's impression of a bird's-eye view of Peshtigo in September 1871.

An artists's impression of a bird's-eye view of Peshtigo in September 1871.

Out of Control Burning

On Sunday, October 8, the weather turned nasty. A cold front swept in from the west; the temperature on the back side of the front was about 40oF lower. This set up a powerful wind storm that fanned the flames of the already-burning small fires; they joined together to form a massive fire.

Downwind from this blaze was Peshtigo where roughly 2,000 people were getting ready to turn in for the night. They were not overly concerned about the smoky air; it had been like that for weeks.

However, at about 10 p.m., people became aware of a rumbling noise that quickly turned into a roar before a massive sheet of flame burst out of the forest on the edge of town. Then, it hit the fuel that was Peshtigo.

The heat was so intense that it created a tornado effect. As the hot air rose, cold air was sucked in at ground level creating 100 mph winds so strong they knocked people off their feet. At the centre of the fire, the temperature is estimated to have reached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. This caused clothes and hair to burst into flames and destroyed respiratory systems. The fire sucked all of the oxygen out of the air so those whose lungs were not destroyed were asphyxiated.

The only escape was the Peshtigo River, but even there there was danger. Not many people could swim so there were drownings. Others, who did not frequently duck their heads under water, found their hair catching fire. Paradoxically, in the intense heat, some people succumbed to hypothermia in the frigid cold of the river water.

Seeking safety in the river.

Seeking safety in the river.

Aftermath of the Peshtigo Fire

By the morning of October 9, there was nothing left to burn in the town.

The few survivors staggered about, chilled to the bone from being immersed in the river. Many had gone temporarily blind and everybody was having trouble breathing. Others were in agony from the burns they had suffered.

There has never been an accurate count of the number of dead as all records were destroyed in the fire. The estimates are that the blaze took the lives of between 1,500 and 2,500 people in and around Peshtigo. About 350 were buried in a communal grave because they could not be identified.

The lumbermen and farmers, whose practices caused the inferno, did not learn from it. Cleaning up brush and putting out fires cost money so could not be justified. The inevitable result was more catastrophic loss of life. The Hinkley, Minnesota fire of 1894 killed 400 people, and the Cloquet fire in 1918, also in Minnesota, left 500 dead.

Memorial to those who died in Peshtigo.

Memorial to those who died in Peshtigo.

Bonus Factoids

  • The Great Chicago Fire occurred on the same night as the disaster in Peshtigo. In terms of property damage, the Chicago blaze was much more devastating, but the death toll, at about 300, was much smaller. However, Chicago was home to major newspapers so it gave way more coverage to its own fire than one in a small town almost nobody had heard of.
  • It’s popularly believed that the Great Chicago was started by a cow kicking over a lantern in a barn owned by a Mrs. O’Leary. A reporter later confessed to making that story up and the cause of the fire has never been determined.
  • During World War II, the effect of the Peshtigo firestorm was studied by Allied forces and recreated in the fire bombing of Dresden in February 1945.

Sources

  • “The Great Midwest Wildfires of 1871.” National Weather Service, undated.
  • “Peshtigo: A Tornado of Fire Revisited.” Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio, November 27, 2002.
  • “Massive Fire Burns in Wisconsin.” History.com, November 13, 2009.
  • “The Great Peshtigo Fire.” John H. Lienhard, University of Houston, undated.
  • “The Deadliest Fire in US History Raged Through Peshtigo, Wisconsin.” Peshtigo Fire Museum, undated.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

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