Few people are aware that on the same day as the Chicago Fire, a far more devastating fire occurred only a few hundred miles north of Chicago. The Peshtigo Fire killed some 1,200 people in Wisconsin— five times as many as the Chicago Fire— and became North America’s worst forest fire in history.
The town of Peshtigo is located in northern Wisconsin. In 1871, there were about 2,000 people in town. There were 60 logging camps in the area, and the economy revolved around timber. The town was made entirely of wood. Where loggers had been and gone, huge piles of logging slash were left behind. Sawmills left huge piles of sawdust around. The banks of rivers were lined with logs that had been cut but could not be floated downstream because the drought had left the rivers too low. Farmers cut trees to clear fields and dragged them to the edge of fields where they lay in large piles.
The year of 1871 was one of unprecedented drought. It rained on July 8 and there was a tiny sprinkle on September 5, but otherwise no rain fell that summer. The previous winter had been very dry as well, with far less than the normal four feet of snow falling. The swamps dried up and became peat ready for burning. Many local streams went dry.
Fire was an essential tool: Loggers burned their slash. Railroads burned their right-of-way. Settlers burned their land and farmers burned their fields. Because the summer had been so dry, many people put off their burning and waited for rain to lessen the fire danger. After a short rain on September 5, people set fires. Afterwards, a number of uncontrolled fires popped up and grew bigger as no rain arrived.
People took the fires in stride. Barrels of water were placed on street corners. The church bell served as a fire alarm, and the townfolk responded to its peal to douse fires too close to town. The possibility of leaving their homes was not considered. They stayed to protect their possessions.
On October 8, 1871, the temperature in Peshtigo was 83F. An inversion was hanging over the area that day, with a layer of cold air trapping the warm air underneath and causing the fires to burn slowly. When a column of hot air rising from the fires finally became strong enough to break through the inversion layer, it was as if a furnace damper had been opened. Hot air rushed up, and cool air swept in from all sides, fanning the fire. Small fires became huge quickly.
There is a convection column above every fire, as heated air swirls upward. If two fires are burning near each other, their convection columns can be drawn together so violently that a “tornado” of fire is created. These whirlwinds can sometimes reach half a mile across with winds up to 200 mph. Superheated gasses kill everything, and firebrands are flung for miles.
By 8:30pm on October 8, there was a glow in the southwest and a low moaning growing louder. At 9:30pm the wind began to blow hard.
THE FIRE ARRIVES
Peshtigo residents had been dealing with fire for weeks and did not think that this one was going to be any worse than the many that had preceded it. A team of men was stationed west of the town with shovels and pails. Soon embers were raining down, and then it wasn’t just embers-- it was fireballs. At 10:00pm, panic set in. The men dropped their shovels and ran to find their families. Within a few moments, the wind was blowing so hard that people found it difficult to stand. A half an hour after the first building caught on fire, the entire town was burning. By 10:30pm, the town was gone.
When the priest heard the roar of the approaching fire, he feverishly began to dig a ditch next to the church, while loggers continued to get drunk in a nearby saloon and neighbors looked on, amused. Next door there was a party going on as he worked. Six of the eight in attendance were dead before morning. Father Pernin filled his trench with valuables from the church and covered them with dirt. He filled his wagon with more things and headed to the river. He hauled the wagon himself because he had let his horse go free to try to save itself. He dragged the wagon into the river. Father Pernin survived after spending five hours in the river.
Many people were sheltering in the boardinghouse, which was the most substantial building in the town. The only fire truck in town was just beginning to wet the building down when the fire arrived. At 10:05 it collapsed, killing those inside. G. J. Tisdale was in the boardinghouse when it caught fire. He ran out the door and as he stepped off the porch, the wind blew him across the yard. He got up and ran for the river, and was knocked flat by the wind several times. He survived.
A lumberjack had been nursing a friend who had typhoid fever. The lumberjack carried his sick friend outdoors, dug a trench, laid the sick man in it, covered him with dirt, and then ran for the river. He never made it. The sick friend lived; the lumberjack died.
Logs floating in the river caught fire and burned to the water line. A cow came swimming downstream, and clinging to the horns was a 5 year old girl. Someone reached out and grabbed her. The bridge burned and collapsed, killing many. Some who sought refuge in the river couldn’t swim and drowned. Some were knocked off their feet by floating logs and swimming cattle. But without the river, it is unlikely that any of Peshtigo’s residents would have survived.
Those who could not reach the safety of the river headed for plowed ground, fields, or gardens. 21 women and children huddled under a single large quilt in a field. Their fathers stayed in the open, continually wetting down the blanket. All the men died. The women and children survived.
In September, Abraham Bush started plowing circles of land around his house, forming a firebreak. His neighbors dismissed him as foolish. When the fire swept in, he and his family laid wet blankets on the roof of his home, soaking them as they dried. He was one of the few people who still had a house after the fire. 100 of his neighbors joined him there on October 9.
Lovell Reed and his relatives fought to save their home until the battle became too desperate. Deciding that suicide was preferable to death by fire, he pulled out his pocketknife and plunged it twice into his chest, trying to hit his heart. Fortunately, his knowledge of anatomy was lacking and he was surprised to find himself still alive. He ran to a creek, rolled in mud, and survived.
PESHTIGO FIRE AFTERMATH
On October 9, the call for help went out. The railroads, roads, and telegraphs were in ashes. A message was taken by ship to Green Bay. When the first ship arrived with the news of the Pestigo disaster, the people of Green Bay were excited about reports of the Chicago Fire. The telegraph had brought news of the Chicago disaster 200 miles away long before they heard of the bigger disaster that had occurred literally in their own backyard. The great Chicago Fire got much more attention than the Peshtigo Fire because that city was the pride of the west and a center of enterprise and energy. Nobody had ever heard of Peshtigo but everybody knew Chicago.
The message was delivered to the office of Governor Fairchild in Madison. But the governor was not there to receive the news because he had gone to Chicago to help. It was the governor’s wife who received the succinct message: “We are burning up. Send help quick.” Although she had no authority to do anything, she took charge and organized aid. A freight car full of supplies that had been destined for Chicago was re-routed instead for Peshtigo. She called a town meeting and organized teams to go door-to-door collecting blankets and clothing, and the railroad gave the relief cars priority over all other traffic.
As refugees began straggling into Green Bay and other towns, no one had any idea of the extent of the damage. Even those who had survived the fire estimated that only 50 or 100 people had died. Some 5,000 people were left homeless and without means of support.
One mill on the harbor that survived the fire began turning out planks as fast as possible and the rebuilding began in haste before the winter set in. By New Year’s Eve, the railroad was back in business.
CAUSE OF DEATH
When you mix a heavy forest with a dry summer and sprinkle liberally with people, you have a recipe for disaster.
On the same day that the Peshtigo fire was raging across Wisconsin, there was a series of forest fires in Michigan as well. Two million acres of timber burned and one or two hundred people died. But the fires in Michigan were much less deadly than the Wisconsin counterparts because they reached their crucial proportions in the afternoon while people were still awake. In Peshtigo, it was after dark when the conflagration became dangerous, when most people were in bed and many off-duty loggers were drunk. A person who is rudely awakened to find his town on fire is less able to meet the crisis than one who faces a similar danger at noon.
The danger of death often increased in direct proportion to the altitude. Sometimes a small child survived while the taller parents died. Often those who lay on their faces in the dirt lived while those who remained standing died. Those in small depressions lived while those on hillsides died. Those who wore heavy clothing lived and those in light clothes died.
Around 1,000 square miles burned. In an area 12 miles wide surrounding Peshtigo, there was not a single plant left alive. 26 years after the fire, 80% of the burned area was still devoid of any valuable forest growth.
The winter following the fire was a time of hardship for many, but still there were advantages. The fire cleared off much land so that more land was available to be cultivated. Because a lot of timber had been destroyed, many loggers turned their attention to farming instead. The hay crop the next summer was particularly good, and the number of cows eventually grew bigger than ever. Now Wisconsin is America’s dairy land.