The Peshtigo Fire of 1871

The deadliest fire in American history killed over a thousand people in the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin. But the Peshtigo Fire is today largely unknown and forgotten–mostly because it happened on October 8, 1871–the same day as the much more famous Great Chicago Fire.


The Peshtigo Fire, a contemporary engraving                              photo from WikiCommons

For much of its early history, Wisconsin was populated by farmers and dairy cattlemen, many of them immigrants from Scandinavia and Germany. By the 1840s, the lumber industry grew at a rapid rate, and a number of towns grew up around lumber camps and sawmills. One of these was Peshtigo, not far from present-day Green Bay. The Peshtigo Lumber Company, run by a former mayor of Chicago, was the largest of several lumber mills, and other businessmen established furniture factories and woodworking shops, in addition to the normal panoply of saloons, banks, schools and general stores. Peshtigo became a typical 19th century American town, and although it existed at the very edge of “civilization”, and although lumber work was extremely dangerous and people were killed in accidents nearly every day, there were plenty of jobs which brought economic prosperity. By 1870, Peshtigo had almost 2,000 residents.

Then the drought hit, all across the American Midwest. The winter-time snowfall, usually several feet, amounted to almost nothing. There was no “spring melt”, and the surrounding forests became brittle and dry. The summer of 1871 was one of the hottest and driest on record. Barely an inch of rain fell in a 90-day period that summer, only one-fourth the normal level, and it had not rained at all in August, September, or October. In Wisconsin and beyond, everything became a tinderbox waiting for a spark. (There had already been a number of small forest fires, but they had all burned themselves out.)

No one knows today what started it. On October 8, 1871, a cold front from Canada collided with a warm front coming from the west, producing high winds (but no rain). Somewhere, somehow, a fire began in the thick layer of dead leaves and dry pine needles that lined the forest floor. The winds whipped the flames into a fury, and they rapidly spread, moving so rapidly that few people had time to escape. The wooden buildings and plank-lined streets of Peshtigo were a ready source of fuel. Flames leaped a hundred feet into the air, and temperatures exceeded 2000 degrees, producing a “fire tornado” that towered overhead.

The town was divided in half by the Peshtigo River that ran through it, and many of the surviving citizens ran to the bridge, hoping that the water would stop the advancing flames. Instead, the fierce winds blew flaming debris across the river, setting the other side of the town aflame as well–and also burning the bridge. The entire town was consumed. The trapped residents had nowhere to go: those who tried to escape the flames by jumping into the river drowned or, ironically, died of hypothermia in the frigid 40-degree water. Spreading quickly through the pine forests, the fire was then carried by the wind across the expanse of Green Bay, igniting the other side of the bay as well and enveloping over a dozen smaller towns. In all, over a million acres of Wisconsin were left charred and empty.

At least 1100 people were killed, and some estimates run as high as 2500. Many of the bodies were incinerated and never recovered. A macabre few were apparently untouched by the flames–they had either been drowned in the river, or had been suffocated when the fire consumed all the oxygen in the air. Most of the bodies were unidentifiable. Many were not identified because everyone who knew them had also been killed in the fire.

News of the disaster leaked out slowly. Peshtigo did not have a telegraph station, and it was not until survivors began to reach the outlying undestroyed towns–about two days walk away–that the scope of the devastation became apparent. But even though this was (and remains) the deadliest fire in American history, the story was overshadowed by the Great Fire that had, on that very same day, destroyed the downtown district of Chicago, one of the largest cities in the US. The Peshtigo Fire remains today virtually unknown and unrecognized.

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