What was the deadliest fire in our nation's history?
Ask your friends, family, co-workers or total strangers and odds are
that they will say the Great Chicago Fire. In October, 1871, it was
the infamous Chicago fire that grabbed the front page headlines
nationwide even though it did not nearly match the death toll or
destruction visited upon northeastern Wisconsin during the same
dreadful hours. It was another five weeks
until the news of the Peshtigo holocaust slowly seeped out.
"Cities in ashes, towns swept out
Millions on millions destroyed in
The eighth of October, for long
Remembered by many that
mourn for their dead"
Marinette Eagle, 1871
No one knows for certain what started the fire or
where it originated. Speculations range from slash burning to
meteors and even extraterrestrial involvement. What is certain is
that Northeastern Wisconsin hadn't seen a drop of rain in three
months and hardly a week had passed without a fire breaking out
somewhere. As two weather fronts converged the gale force winds quickly
fanned the smaller fires into a horrific fire storm which reached
its peak on Sunday night, October 8th, 1871 when it unleashed it's full fury on Peshtigo.
In Oconto, Marinette, Shawano, Brown, Kewaunee, Door, Manitowoc and Outagamie counties over
1,280,000 acres of land, an area
roughly twice the size of Rhode Island, was reduced to ashes leaving
twelve communities destroyed. But it was the pretty little
village of Peshtigo, in Marinette (at that time Oconto) county, that felt the destruction most when, as Stewart Holbrook put it, "All hell rode into town on the back of a wind."
A low moan in the distance soon turned into a
deafening roar. Slabs of fire, hurled by the inferno which had
gained in intensity to the point where it was generating it's own
weather pattern, including tornadoes of fire, fell on the sawdust
streets, plank sidewalks, and roof tops. Superheated winds rushing
before the fire-storm were intense enough to snap large virgin timber like twigs and toss railroad cars about like toys. In Peshtigo, as startled residents crowded onto doorsteps, the sidewalks and roof tops burst into flames. Some 40 of them ran for the protection of the large brick company owned boarding house and all perished there. Others ran for the river as fire rained down around
and upon them, setting hair and clothing ablaze. The
very air itself seemed to be on fire and had turned toxic, smothering many who dropped in the streets.
The ones that made it to the river found
themselves with new terrors as they met with the frigid water,
floating logs from the mill which had been ignited by the fire, and panicked livestock which trampled many river refugees. It's a wonder that anyone survived at all. Three hundred people wedged themselves in between the rolling booms where they roasted in the intense heat that hovered above them. Others, being knocked aside by cows, lost their hold on friendly logs and were swept under the water, drowning in the midst of a fire storm.
As local population records were destroyed in the fire it is
impossible to determine the exact number of lives lost however the
1870 Federal Census of Peshtigo showed a population of 1,756. The 1873 Report to the Wisconsin Legislature listed the names of 1,182 persons dead or missing in the fire districts. In Peshtigo 350 victims were buried in a
mass grave , some having been burnt beyond recognition while others could not be identified as entire families had perished and there was no one left alive to do so.
Today the Peshtigo fire is still the greatest forest fire disaster in American history and yet is barely remembered except by the locals. A marker, the first official state historical marker authorized by the Historic Society of Wisconsin, was erected in 1951 at the Peshtigo Fire Cemetery.
The cemetery itself is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Adjoining the cemetery, on U.S. Route 41, is the Peshtigo Fire Museum which holds artifacts from the great fire as well as first hand accounts and letters written by survivors.
Marinette Eagle, 1871
The Milwaukee Journal, April 23, 1939
The Milwaukee Journal, March 2, 1948
The New York Herald, October 16, 1871 - page 8
East Shore News, October 27, 1871
"The Great Calamity!" by Alfred L. Sewell, 1871
"The Great Conflagration", by James W. Sheahan - 1871
"The Centennial History of Menominee, Michigan", 1876
1870 Federal Census of Peshtigo, Oconto county, Wisconsin
Peshtigo Fire Cemetery Monument
"Wisconsin in Three Centuries" by George E. Bryany - 1906