Remembering The Peshtigo Fire, 1871Issue Date: October 10, 2019
Children in school are taught American history including the immense tragedies that struck its people. One moment in history that is sorely amiss in history books is the Peshtigo Fire of October 8, 1871. This is because the fire in Northern Wisconsin has been overshadowed by the Great Chicago Fire, which occurred on the same day in a much larger city, both then and now. While the Chicago Fire is an important moment in history, it was not nearly the most devastating fire our country has seen. People get caught up with the theory of a cow kicking over a lantern, but this fire claimed approximately 300 lives, whereas the Peshtigo Fire claims upwards of 1,500 lives in Northern Wisconsin and the lower part of the Upper Peninsula.
The year 1871 had a notoriously dry summer and droughts affected the whole country. Typically, Wisconsin is not subject to droughts thanks to the surrounding Great Lakes, but like the rest of the country, Peshtigo and its surrounding areas saw the effects of the unparalleled drought. Even the swamps had dried up so one could walk clean across on dry land. The summer was spattered with forest fires and it became customary to smell smoke and ash, so October 8th seemed no different and people went about their usual Sunday routine.
The Northern Wisconsin Railroad Company was working on expanding the Northern extension from Fort Howard (Green Bay) to Menominee, Michigan. That summer, many workers refused to work due to lack of sufficient drinking water. Allegedly, the workers had started a brush fire to clear more land for the railroad, but with the dryness of the terrain, lack of rain and water, and perfect fire conditions, the flames could not be controlled. By 9PM it sounded as though a train was heading toward Peshtigo, but people soon realized it was the fire rushing in on the heals of a gusty wind.
Parents ran to wake their sleeping children, and everyone hastily made their way to the river. By 10 PM men lined the streets to fight the fire, others stayed near their properties to save homes, land, livestock, and all earthly possessions, thus separating families and neither side knowing the safety of the other. Burning coals fell from the sky and winds reached the force of tornado further spreading the flames. Those who survived commented, "This must be what Hell looks like," as the oxygen became scarce and complete chaos spread throughout the Northwoods. Those who did not reach the river died by smoke inhalation, crushed by collapsed buildings, impaled by flying debris or things falling from the sky, run over by panicked livestock, or even spontaneously combusting in the nearly 2,000 degree heat. It is impossible to know the true death toll as many people were unrecognizable due to their now charred skin or they were reduced to complete ash with only a melted wedding ring or metal belt buckle in the center of where their body used to lay. Still others fleeing the fire saw there was no hope in reaching safety and thus decided to take their own life. There is a story of a man who slit the throats of his three young daughters and finally his own to save them from the torturous flames.
The river seemed to be the only safe place for people to go, mainly a marshy spot on the east side of the river. In a short time, both sides were engulfed in flames and the bridge was completely compromised. People tried to run from one side to the other believing there to be hope on the other end, only to jump into the frigid waters. Everyone needed to keep their heads underwater or put a damp cloth over their heads to keep from getting singed by the flames. Many people drowned and others died of hypothermia.
Within a half hour the smoke was so dense, no one could see where to go or which way was safe. One woman with her children attempted to flee by wagon, but soon came to a barrier in the road. She then carried on by horseback, children still in tow, until she reached the river bank, at which point she gave birth amongst the flames to another child. Not everyone had her luck but stories like hers are incredible to hear in such dire situations.
The next day, survivors could no longer recognize the city they called home. Peshtigo had only two remaining buildings and was completely leveled, along with 15 other townships. The fire consumed 1.2 million acres of land and even skipped across the Bay. The known human death toll was 1,152, but with many unrecognizable corpses and ashes, it is believed that many more people died in the flames or after due to their injuries from the inferno. To make matters worse, approximately 3,000 people in this remote, rural area were left homeless.
People leaving the river, after the flames calmed, had to push past floating bodies and avoid tripping over even more that lined the riverbed. Few, if any, survivors were not without injury, but medical aid was scarce. The temperature had dropped to 40 degrees overnight and survivors sought out the remaining flames for warmth and dryness. And then, like a slap on the already burned wrist, the much-needed rain came in, distinguishing the rest of the fire. Where there had once been fertile soil, remained a layer of ash, sand, and rocks lined with dead people, livestock, wildlife, and even fish floating in the river. Not a tree, bush, street, or sidewalk could be seen and people thought it resembled the surface of the moon.
Lumber and nails were sent from Peshtigo Harbor to begin the process of burying the dead. Peshtigo also received aid from Menominee, even though they were dealing with their own array of problems. The citizens of Peshtigo vowed to rebuild their once booming city and now nearly 150 years later, the only remnants of the fire is the Peshtigo Fire Museum and the river that saved so many lives.
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