Peshtigo: The Devastating Fire That History Forgot

Peshtigo: The Devastating Fire That History Forgot

Patrick Lynch - June 1, 2017

When historians discuss a terrible fire that killed hundreds of people on October 8, 1871, most people assume they are referring to the Great Chicago Fire which rampaged through the Windy City and killed around 300 people. Yet incredibly, an even more devastating fire occurred on the same day just 250 miles away in Peshtigo, Wisconsin and had been largely forgotten by history.

While the fire in Chicago left 100,000 people homeless, it was confined to an area of just over nine square kilometers. The fire in Peshtigo killed an estimated 2,400 people and spread across an area of 4,900 square kilometers. Even more remarkably, there were also fires in Holland and Manistee and another at Port Huron in Michigan on the same day. The spate of fires has led historians to believe there was a mutual cause because it is very odd for so many huge blazes to take place at nearly the same time in a relatively small geographical area.

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.

Peshtigo: The Devastating Fire That History Forgot
Area of the Peshtigo Fire. InTimesGoneBy

What Happened?

Clearly, the residents of Peshtigo were at least concerned about the prospect of fire because, on September 23, they stockpiled a huge supply of water. However, they were completely unprepared for what happened on October 8. The previous day, a fire began in an unknown spot in the Wisconsin forest. The first place to feel the wrath of the fire was the small village of Sugar Bush where every resident died.

A combination of dry land and high winds turned the fire into a raging inferno that spread with terrifying speed. At one point, the fire was over 200 feet high, and it apparently jumped several miles over Green Bay’s waters; most historians say that never happened and was simply a case of another fire happening at the same time. The fire almost became its own wind system, and the blazing tornado made its way to Peshtigo at a speed that caught the residents by surprise. The fire reached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and caused trees to explode along its path.

Peshtigo: The Devastating Fire That History Forgot
Peshtigo Mass Grave. AwesomeStories

When the fire reached the town, the inhabitants had no chance. According to sources, 200 people died in a single tavern, and some of the residents who fled simply burst into flames such were the intensity of the blaze. A number of people fled to the local river but were unable to escape and drowned. Archaeologists found evidence that three people who tried to hide in a water tank were boiled to death because the fire heated the water so much.

A mass grave was found containing up to 350 people; they were buried together because the fire burned them beyond recognition. Despite the impact of the blaze, it became a mere footnote in history as the Great Fire of Chicago happened on the same day. Also, no one has ever found the exact location where the fire started.

Peshtigo: The Devastating Fire That History Forgot
Peshtigo Fire Museum. Wisconsin Historical Markers

A Terrifying Impact

The impact of the fire was especially devastating due to the cold front that moved in from the west at the same time. It brought strong winds that sped up the flames and made them uncontrollably large. It’s estimated that the fire traveled with the aid of winds up to 110 mph. When the dust had settled, 1,875 square miles of land had been consumed, a total of 1.2 million acres. The estimated dollar amount of damages was placed at approximately $169 million; roughly the same as the fire in Chicago.

Other sources suggest that 1.5 million acres were destroyed. An accurate assessment of the number of casualties is impossible to ascertain because local records were burned in the fire. The death toll was anywhere between 1,200 and 2,500 people. A total of 16 towns suffered the effects of the fire although Peshtigo was the worst affected. According to a Report to the Wisconsin Legislature in 1873, almost 1,200 people from the town died in the fire. Peshtigo was obliterated in around an hour.

Researchers who analyzed the fire were struck by the impact it had on people at the time. Some people genuinely thought it was the beginning of the end of the world. Certainly, the sheer terror experienced by the residents of the many towns engulfed in flames is difficult to quantify; one can only imagine seeing a wall of flames coming towards you at lightning speed.

The town was rebuilt, and visitors can read about the fire and the many tales about the blaze at the Peshtigo Fire Museum. In one story, a man saved a woman he thought was his wife but picked up a stranger in his confusion; he reportedly went crazy. A significant number of people believed the Peshtigo River was the only hope they had but most drowned in the water. A 13-year-old immigrant girl from Germany spoke of how she survived by desperately clinging to the horn of a cow all night.

Peshtigo: The Devastating Fire That History Forgot
Peshtigo Fire Cemetery. Wikiwand

Alternative Theories

Officially, the cause of the blaze was a combination of several factors; drought, high temperatures, and a cyclonic storm. Add in the fact that the area was laden with wood and you had a powder keg waiting to explode. There is a suggestion that the fire was started in the forest by someone attempting the traditional slash and burn method of clearing land for farming.

A slightly wilder theory is that the impact of Comet Biela caused the multitude of fires in the Great Lakes area. The comet was first spotted in 1772 but has not been seen since 1852 after splitting in two in 1846. It is assumed that the comet disintegrated, but remnants have survived as a meteor shower known as the Andromedids.

The so-called Impact Theory suggests that Biela, or its remnants, collided with the Great Lakes area in 1871. The theory was first espoused in 1883, revived in a 1985 book and explored in a paper to the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 2004. Once the evidence was properly analyzed, the theory becomes fanciful or even ridiculous. Scientists point out that meteorites can’t ignite a fire since they are cold when landing.

In reality, there was no need for an external source of ignition because the exceptionally dry land was primed for disaster. Add in a penchant for creating small fires, and it is easy to see how a large fire could have started. The additional and unexpected wind only increased the deadliness of the blaze. Indeed, the fires started by people clearing land in 1871 created so much smoke that the Green Island Light was kept on all day for several weeks before the fire.

The Great Fire of Chicago generated far more media attention as it was a large city and of course, there was the fable about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow that knocked over a lantern and started the fire. As a result, the Peshtigo Fire was forgotten, and even today, it generates far less interest.