We’ve all heard of the Great Chicago Fire that killed 200 or so people and destroyed 4 square miles of Chicago, Illinois. However, most of us don’t know that on the very same day a far worse fire occurred, in Peshtigo, Wisconsin. The October 8, 1871, Peshtigo Fire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, is the conflagration that caused the most deaths by fire in United States history.
By the time it was over, 1,875 square miles of forest had been consumed, an area twice the size of the State of Rhode Island, and twelve communities were destroyed. Between 1,200 and 2,500 people are thought to have lost their lives. A report on the fire submitted in 1873 to the Wisconsin Legislature listed 1182 names of known victims, but the total loss of life was almost certainly higher. More than 350 bodies were buried in one mass grave alone because there was no one left alive who could identify any of them.
The fire was so intense it jumped several miles over the waters of Green Bay, and burned parts of the Door Peninsula, as well as jumping the Peshtigo River itself to burn on both sides of the inlet town.
Surviving witnesses reported that the firestorm generated a tornado that threw rail cars and houses into the air. Many of the survivors of the firestorm escaped the flames by immersing themselves in the Peshtigo River, wells, or other nearby bodies of water. Some drowned, some were boiled to death from the superheated fire, while others succumbed to hypothermia in the frigid river.
The summer and fall of 1871 had been a dry one with only two small rains falling between July and October. The drought in the vast forest lands of the area had dried up ponds, creeks, and bogs, and swamps were reduced to dry clay beds.
The lumbering practices of the day left a lot of waste with brush and sawdust piles dotting the landscape. Loggers often set small debris fires to get rid of these unwanted piles. These fires burned unchecked throughout the timberland and no one gave them much of a thought.
The night of October 8 seemed like any other, with the glow of fires in the distance and black smoke in the air. Hot blasts of wind blew from time to time causing minor concern. Warmer temperatures brought increasingly higher winds into the area and fueled the patch fires cutting the telegraph wires and isolating towns from each other. As the fires picked up they began to rage and burn together, moving rapidly.
A sound resembling the “heavy discharge of artillery” preceded the horrors that followed. The thick smoke made it difficult to see even a few feet ahead. Out of the darkness leapt large fire-whirls that twisted off tree tops while they burst into flame. Flames shot into the sky like lightning as the wind showered the landscape with fire brands, cinders and hot sand. One man recalled how “great volumes of fire would rise up, fifty feet from the top of the trees, leap over thirty acres of clearing and, in an instant, flame up in the forests beyond.”
As the fire continued, it grew exponentially. Exploding marsh gases hovered over the ground like black balloons until they exploded above the ground throwing fire like shrapnel. Houses and people literally burst into flame. “The fire arrived . . . not as a wave or a surge of flame but as though [it] suddenly dropped from the sky.”
Describing the Peshtigo holocaust as a “tornado of fire” is not an exaggeration. Fire-whirls, small fire tornados, traveled ahead of the blaze. Surface winds only blew between fifteen and forty miles per hour, but the firestorm fed itself creating internal winds of up to eighty miles per hour. The fire became a great convection feeding itself and drawing in oxygen and fuel. Hurricane force winds ripped the roofs of houses, blew over barns, uprooted trees, and tossed 1,000 lb. wagons like they were tumbleweeds. Papers and wood caught in the updraft traveled as far north as Canada. The peculiar physics of mass fire had multiplied its fury into a maelstrom of energy equivalent to the chain reaction of a thermonuclear bomb.
Panic quickly settled on the fleeing settlers. With the flames moving so rapidly, people found themselves surrounded with no apparent escape. A constant barrage of falling embers and hot ash caught peoples clothes and hair on fire. The heat alone burned many, causing large blisters on their backs arms and faces. Many seeking shelter in cellars died from asphyxiation when the flames sucked all the oxygen up in its wake. Others seeking safety jumped into wells and shallow marshes where they were boiled alive.
In Peshtigo terrified cattle stampeded over a group laying in a stream. Others losing all sense of reason tried to escape by running into large buildings, which burst into flame and collapsed. Settlers surrounded by flames in the forest laid down face first in the middle of clearings. For some it saved their lives. The majority of the survivors spent the night in rivers, ponds and the Green Bay. Those in the water could only have their heads above the water for a few seconds due to the intense heat, which caused debris to burn on the surface. For the victims consumed by fire on land, most were burned beyond recognition some even being reduced to ashes.
The Peshtigo fire pressed a heavy mark on the lives of the victims in 1871. In Peshtigo, all that stands as a reminder to the disaster is a small memorial. Although the fire is not well known, it is a disaster in every description. The destructive force of the Peshtigo fire ended hundreds of human lives and destroyed an ecosystem. Twenty six years after the fire the area remained void of any valuable forest growth.