I remember studying American history in Mrs. Kesssenich’s class many years ago at DeForest Grade School. She said that most everyone in the United States knew about the tragic Chicago Fire of 1871. There was a much more tragic fire on that very same day in Peshtigo, Wisconsin. Although the Peshtigo fire was much larger and killed more people, it did not get the national press coverage like the Chicago fire. Many people outside of Wisconsin never knew about the fire in northern Wisconsin.
A few days ago I got an email from my good friends in Kasson, Minnesota. It contained an article written by Ron Albright and was published in the Kasson paper the first week in October. I think you will enjoy his take on the Peshtigo Fire of 1871.
I was thinking . . . The Forgotten Fire of 1871
The first full week of October is usually Fire Prevention Week. It coincides with one of the most famous fires in U.S. history, the Great Chicago Fire of October 8, 1871. Everyone has probably heard the story of how Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern and started a blaze that took the lives of about 300 people. But as Paul Harvey was famous for saying, you may not know “the rest of the story”. While Chicago grabbed the headlines, another fire on the same day, some 250 miles to the north, would become the most disastrous forest fire in U.S. history. It still surpasses the recent fires that devastated the California hill country recently. That fire was the Peshtigo Fire.
In 1871 Peshtigo was a community of 1,749 people living in NE Wisconsin about 50 miles from Green Bay. The Peshtigo River ran through the center of town and was how products were sent down river to the harbor on Green Bay. Peshtigo’s main industry was lumbering and the woodenware factory that made barrels, pails and shingles. Small farms that surrounded the community had cleared the forest land to start growing crops. Like all communities of the time, everything was wood. The buildings were made of wood, as were the sidewalks and sawdust was also spread on the streets.
The summer of 1871 had been unusually dry and warmer than usual. The temperature for October 8th was in the mid-seventies. While water was abundant at the bay and at the river that divided the town, the landscape in early fall was like a tinderbox. With the abundance of trees, the brush from lumbering was discarded and often just burned. It was not unusual for a passing train to leave a spark that would ignite an area. The local paper even made a reference to the danger of a larger conflagration unless the region received rain soon. But rain didn’t come. Instead a cold front moved in from the west, bringing strong winds that fanned the scattered fires and escalated them to massive proportions.
Residents on that Sunday saw the glow to the west and realized what they had feared was coming. The fire raced into the town and people described it like a tornado whirlwind of fire. The fire leaped the river and ended up destroying every building in the city except one under construction. When it was over, 800 residents of the town were dead. Those who lived through it, had made it to the river or creeks to survive. Later a mass grave was created for the 350 people who could not be identified. People in rural communities sought safety in creeks, wells, or open fields. Most did not survive.
While Peshtigo was the largest community affected, about 12 small communities in NE Wisconsin were also destroyed. The estimated loss of lives ranged between 1,500 and 2,500 in total. While Chicago had 3.3 square miles destroyed, the Peshtigo Fire burned 1.2 million acres covering 1,875 square miles. In addition to the loss of life, everything in the fire’s path was destroyed. Fences, houses, barns, haystacks, grain, cattle, horses and even railroad tracks were consumed by the fury of the fire.
But survivors were resilient, and Peshtigo was rebuilt and today is a thriving city of 3,500 people. I’m grateful for those who survived by making it to the river because if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here today. Peshtigo is my hometown and some of those survivors were my ancestors.