Thursday, October 4, 2007


With National Fire Prevention Week upon us, you might like to learn about the great fire of October 8, 1871, which led the nation to devote this week to fire safety. The fire was the most destructive one in history in terms of lives lost--the Great Peshtigo Fire (you thought I was referring to the Chicago Fire?). The local natives pronounce it "PESH-ti-go", not "pesh-TI-go" as I did.

Every Wisconsin school kid is required in fourth grade to learn Wisconsin history, and they're told about the great forest fire, in Northeast Wisconsin, which claimed about 2000 lives. The best account we have of that fire was that of Rev. Peter Pernin, the parish priest for the small towns of Peshtigo and Marinette, who published his account in 1874.

It started about the same time as the Chicago Fire, but there was no smoking cow or lantern or anything else--the cause was uncertain. Experts have speculated on possible causes, ranging from meteor showers to lightning, to careless campfires. There had been severe drought conditions throughout the Midwest; and apparently the "slash and burn" land clearing practices of the time caused many small fires to combine into one large conflagration when a cool front blew in with strong winds to fan the flames. For days before, there had been small fires which created dense smoke throughout the area, darkening the air on Green Bay so much that daylight navigation had to be done by compass.

Over the years the Peshtigo Fire remained largely unknown except to the few survivors and scholars, while the Chicago Fire was covered extensively in the print media and history books. Obviously, the great city of Chicago, with its major railroad hub and media center grabbed the headlines. The small village of Peshtigo, with a population of only 1700, had one telegraph station and that was desroyed in the fire.

The outside world didn't learn of the Peshtigo Fire for several days because the little logging town was leveled and more than half the inhabitants were killed. Even then, when news of the tragedy reached the state capitol in Madison, the governor and other state officials were away in Chicago, helping out with disaster relief.

After destroying Peshtigo, the fire didn't stop there. It continued to burn on through nearby Marinette, WI, burning down its churches and homes. The fire ultimately burned through around 2000 square miles (almost 1.5 million acres) of forest, destroying many millions of trees along with 12 towns. It even jumped over the waters of Green Bay, fanned by strong winds, and it then burned a large portion of Door County, on the other side.

Incidentally, on the same day, across Lake Michigan, the towns of Holland and Manistee, Michigan, were also burned in what was called the Port Huron Fire of 1871.

Many of the people who survived did so by jumping into the Peshtigo River or in wells and nearby lakes. Even that didn't save many people who either drowned or were burned in the intense firestorm when they came up for air. They could not flee the town, which had wooden buildings and sidewalks, sawdust (from logging) in the streets and a burning forest surrounding the town. It was reported that the firestorm generated infernal tornadoes which literally threw rail cars and houses into the air.

Within 3 years, the town of Peshtigo was completely rebuilt, but the surrounding forest did not recover. Today, dairy farms abound where the land was once covered by trees.

If you ever get the opportunity, visit the Peshtigo Fire Museum, just off U.S. 41, which has artifacts, pictures and first person descriptions of the event. The curators are friendly and helpful, pointing out that Chicago also had a fire that day.

Remember, it's called "PESH-ti-go", as in Peshtigo Court, the street next to the Prudential Building in Chicago. In case you were wondering, Peshtigo has a street called Chicago Court. I'm not sure how the Peshtigans pronounce that.




Anonymous Erma said...

Well written article.

November 10, 2008 at 12:50 PM  

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