The summer of 1871 had been a hot and dry one for the people of the north-central states, and as October arrived, there was still no sign of the rain residents had been praying for since the almost-forgotten storms of May. Rivers and lakes were low and even the creeks and farm ponds were drying up. Men who had returned from the battlefields of the Civil War just five years earlier watched their crops wither and their woodlands turn to tinder.
The same railroads which carried northern timber to other markets, and brought needed goods back to the country boomtowns of northern Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois, depended upon locomotives whose fireboxes in turn burned huge quantities of wood and coal. No doubt many of the wild fires which kept local fire fighters busy that first week of the harvest month originated from the sparks tossed from the stacks of passing trains, while the most famous of those blazes may - or may not - have been caused by the sheer cussedness of Katherine O’Leary’s cow.
Whatever the real cause, the fire that broke out in a residential neighborhood of Illinois’ largest city on October 8th would forever after define the word disaster for Americans, and “The Great Chicago Fire” would dominate newspaper headlines for days and weeks after the actual event. Four square miles of downtown Chicago would burn and as many as 250 would die.
Ironically, just 240 miles to the north, at almost the same hour, a series of grass fires, pushed by the winds of an advancing cold front from the west, joined together to begin a march on the quiet village of Peshtigo, Wisconsin. Families gathering in their parlors for a peaceful Sunday evening or preparing for an early bedtime heard a terrible sound – like the noise of many thunders. Most would never have a chance to tell anyone else what those moments had been like, because by morning the town of Peshtigo no longer existed, and its 2200 people had been wiped away as if by a mighty hand.
Historians differ as to the exact number of deaths, in part because official records were also burned, but also because many of those who lived or worked there at the time had no surviving relatives who might even have known of their presence. More than 1200 were known by name, while 350 were buried in one mass grave. Because of the tornadic winds which fed the inferno, blowing over buildings, rail cars, and everything in their path, attempt at escape sent victims into wells, ponds and the Peshtigo river, where they were either drowned or cooked to death by water which boiled. Virtually every standing building, including the world’s largest wood ware factory was gone by ten o’clock that night !
Before it was done with its work, the most terrible fire in terms of human life, in America’s history would consume 2400 square miles – twice the area of Rhode Island – jumping the Peshtigo river itself as well as the waters of Green Bay. The rains finally came . . . the next day.
The conditions which brought about this nearly-forgotten disaster – “lost” against the overpowering media coverage of the Chicago event – have been much-studied, and are even known as “The Peshtigo Paradigm”. The writer, William Lutz, in his book “Firestorm at Peshtigo. . . “ says “A firestorm is called nature’s nuclear explosion. Here’s 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.”
In the course of planning possible bombing strategies during World War II, the allies based the devastating 1000 plane incendiary raids against Dresden and Hamburg on just such studies. Those raids, as well as the fire-bombing of Tokyo matched anything done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The city of Peshtigo was rebuilt and incorporated in 1903 and is today the second largest city in Marinette County. Its citizens honor those who died, and the community’s connection with history in a Fire Cemetery and Museum.
Today, thousands of visitors each year tour the Peshtigo Fire Museum
and nearby cemetery as reminders of the Great Fire time forgot.