...we visited the site of what was once the beautiful and thriving little village of Peshtigo. It contained about 1500 people, and was one of the busiest, liveliest and one of the most enterprising communities along the Bay shore. Standing amid the charred and blackened embers, with the frightfully mutilated corpses of men, women, children, horses, oxen, cows, dogs, swine and fowls; every house shod, barn, out-house or structure of any kind swept from the earth...

When one thinks of great fire disasters in the United States, the most obvious one is the Great Chicago Fire. Over 250 people died and over 17,000 buildings were destroyed. It's part of the mythology of the Midwest and one of its tragic moments. What is often forgotten is that the very same day—8 October 1871—there was another fire. An immense conflagration that remains to this day the most devastating fire in the history of the country. More than six times as many people died and around three million acres of land destroyed.

The only US disasters that top it are the Johnstown Flood (Pennsylvania) that occurred in 1889 when the Fourth Fork Dam collapsed, resulting in the deaths of 2,200 people and the 1900 hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas, during which an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 lives were lost. Over seven million acres were lost in 2000 due to fires, but they were scattered throughout the western states. The Peshtigo fire took place almost entirely in Wisconsin, though it affected small parts of Michigan (the Upper Peninsula—part of Michigan, though not connected to it by land) .

Peshtigo was a fairly typical town in the area located on the river from whence it got its name. It was full of settlers and people who had been around a few generations, many of recent European descent. Many farmed and there was a thriving timber industry in the thick, dense woods of northeastern Wisconsin (the area around Green Bay). There were numerous sawmills and lumberyards and factories which turned the resource into usable products. While the precise source(s) of the fire is unknown (and unknowable, given the circumstances), the fire is known as the Peshtigo Fire because it was the town that suffered the greatest and most devastating losses. In the 1870 census, the population was estimated around 1,700 people. Of those, at least half lost their lives that October of 1871. It took about an hour.

With the going down of the sun, the wind abated and with it the fire. Timber was felled and wet with the water thrown on it—buildings were covered with wet blankets and all under the scorching heat, and in blinding, suffocating smoke that was enough to strangle one, and thus passed the night of Sunday.

Almost everything that could go wrong to create the conditions for the tragedy did. The previous winter had been mild and the ground wasn't as moist as usual. The last good rain occurred in July with only a light inconsequential sprinkling in September. Accompanied by high summer temperatures, Wisconsin dried up. Marshes and small creeks and streams dried up to trickles of cracked clay. The oldest of the local Indians said it was the driest season in memory. Fruit withered on the vine, crops did poorly. As one letter describes, a farmer who was able to make shallow cuts in his land to get water ankle deep in July, had to dig down six feet to find water for his cow some weeks later.

In addition to the climactic causes, various practices by the people were partly responsible. Farmers clear cut areas, often burning the debris (sometimes using fire, itself, to clear room). Sometimes simply piling it away from their land. Despite that, the forest was never far away. Stumps were commonly removed from fields by burning them. Sometimes Lumber mills had large areas of cast away scraps and sawdust as well as being the perfect fuel source for a fire. The loggers would pile the branches and twigs and less useful tree material ("slash") as they went about cutting down the trees. Sometimes they burned it. The railroad, which was going through at that time, used similar practices to clear the area and usually left piles of trees and brush along the side of the path cleared for the train. As with the wood from the mills or other piled material, the material dried out making it a hazard—it was not unheard of for sparks from a passing train to ignite one of the waste piles along the tracks. Fires were not always well tended.

Perhaps needless to say, construction material were almost solely made of wood.

Fire was a common method and tool for the people in the area—in fact, it was used by settlers throughout the expansion of the US, as burning has a much lower cost in time and resources. So fires burning were not necessarily cause for alarm. Since most fires were small, they were controllable even if they spread a bit and there was little fear.

As the summer went on, more and more fires were scattered throughout the area. Still not a reason to panic, as it was a part of life in areas outside of the big cities. But it was something taken note of. People remarked that they sometimes gave the hills a red glow independent of the sunset. Seeing smoke hanging over the woods was not uncommon. Mill owners began taking precautions in the event any fire got too close. In some places, there were watchers who would look for fires or keep an eye on ones already burning.

But as summer began to turn into fall, concern grew. When the leaves changed multicolor and dropped, drying and curling up on the ground, the potential danger would increase. And there was still no rain in sight. The smoke from the fires was beginning to be more than a nuisance. In some places, lamps burned even during the day. Boats out on Green Bay would use their fog horns. After a few weeks, people did what they often do, they became accustomed to the conditions. Maybe they let their guard down. But there was nothing that could have prepared anyone for what would happen.

Thousands of birds, driven from their roost, flew about as if uncertain which way to go, and made night hideous by their startled cries. Frequently they would fly hither and thither, calling loudly for their mates, then hovering for a moment in the air would suddenly dart downward and disappear in the fiery furnace beneath.

Along with all the other conditions, something happened that turned a problem into an inevitable nightmare. A huge cold front moved in from the West. The difference in temperature between the colliding fronts was as much as 40°, resulting in very strong winds that fanned the flames of the fires, causing them to spread. Instead of scattered burning, a fire that would soon engulf hundreds of thousands of acres began to rage. That fire almost centered in the area when Peshtigo stood. It was Sunday night, 8 October 1871. For many it would be the last night of their lives.

Hundreds crowded into the river, cattle plunged in with them, and being huddled together in the general confusion of the moment, many who had taken to the water to avoid the flames were drowned. A great many were on the blazing bridge when it fell. The debris from the burning town was hurled over and on the heads of those who were in the water, killing many and maiming others so that they gave up in despair and sank to a watery grave.

The collision of the fronts and the fire created small firewhirls, which are like tornados of smoke and flame, that traveled ahead of the blaze at six miles an hour. telegraph lines became victims and communication between towns stilled. The fire grew. Even though the wind was only 15 to 40 miles per hour, within the great firestorm winds were 80 to 100 or more miles per hour. As the intense heat and burning debris heated the air above the town, the fire fed itself, sucking fuel and oxygen toward the base of the monstrous column of flames. This made it burn hotter and higher as it consumed anything in its path.

There was little warning of the magnitude of the impending catastrophe other than the thunderous sound that some described being akin to a thousand cattle stampeding or an artillery barrage. The people of Peshtigo were trapped in the eye of the burning hurricane. Survivors spoke of it being as bright as daylight within the vortex. The temperatures would reach 500° to 600° degrees. Hair and clothes burst into flame. Some tried to find shelter in cellars. Not a few suffocated from smoke and carbon monoxide. Other tried hiding in wells or in streams where they died when the water dried up or boiled away.

Once in water up to our necks, I thought we would, at least be safe from fire, but it was not so; the flames darted over the river as they did over land, the air was full of them, or rather the air itself was on fire. Our heads were in continual danger. It was only by throwing water constantly over them and our faces, and beating the river with our hands that we kept the flames at bay.

Haystacks lifted up, aflame, spreading burning material everywhere; roofs were torn of houses; chimneys leveled; people and even 1000 pound wagons flew through the air. The factory in town that turned the lumber into goods went up along with most of its warehouse. Everything burned. Paper and debris sucked up into the column were found as far north as Canada. Sand that covered roads in the area dispersed its fine grains throughout the surrounding countryside. The only safe place once the firestorm centered on the town was the river. Many were so stunned, they stood agape and petrified on the banks until a Catholic priest, Reverend Peter Pernin, hurried them into the water where they stayed for hours.

Hours spent surrounded by what some felt to be the apocalypse. Burning debris, ashes, cinders, embers, snowing down from the sky like vengeance from a wrathful god. It was like the end of the world. For some it was. One 13-year old girl survived the night by clinging to the horns of a cow that had tried to escape the same way they had. Other people who had tried laying in a stream were stampeded by frightened cattle. Livestock and man both caught in the inferno.

Away from the river, the air was so hot that breathing it caused respiratory damage. Pain, despair. An account of a father slitting the throats of his children to spare them from that death.

The fire having partly spent its fury here, cries of distress were heard down the river in the direction of the mouth. Steam whistles of the mills and tugs in the harbor blew the first alarm, and every man that could be spared went to the scene of the disaster. From the rear of J.S. Dickey's store in the direction of the Bay all was one broad lurid sheet of flame as far as the eye could reach. At this time no hopes were entertained of saving anything. Men worked with the energy of dispair.

Peshtigo was not alone. The fire advanced, a wall of flame, expanding through the area. It could be seen all along the shore of Green Bay, an army of a thousand match heads engulfed in a halo of red and yellow and orange; black, choking smoke everywhere. Eyewitnesses saw the burning debris blown out into the bay and igniting upon an island about half a mile from shore. All plant and animal life was destroyed as flame ate down to the soil. That is how the fire managed to cross the bay and continue burning on the other side.

Elsewhere, people tried gathering their families and a few possessions and fleeing. Navigation was nearly impossible because of the thick smoke and oppressive heat; glowing red trees crashed to the ground blocking paths and roads. Eye stinging confusion and acrid air. One family barely escaped in their wagon. A wheel came off, halting them. One moment the farmer sees the horse catch fire. He turns to see his family burning. Another family did manage to survive by diving into their thirteen foot well and spending the night in 30 inches of water. Huddled in the cold water while an inferno raged around them; sparks and ashes drifting down upon them. The youngest wore a scab as badge of survival.

Some places were far enough from the worst of it that they were able to wet things down and the people cover themselves with water-soaked quilts. Still, property and possessions, keepsakes and mementos, so much gone forever. A farmer farther north was fortunate enough to be spared—the only one in his area (there was a great deal of cleared land around the farm and roads also served to protect it). His home became a makeshift haven for victims in the region who needed comfort. He did what he could.

When there was little left to burn, the fire subsided. Rain, a day late, did the rest. As many as 2,000 may have died.

The whole country is a scene of devastation and ruin that no language can paint or tongue describe.

Many of those who were able to survive had done so by submerging in whatever water source they could find. Ponds, creeks, rivers, lakes. Anything to escape what paper called the "fire fiend." Of the survivors, quite a few carried the scars of their ordeal. Burst blisters and burns; some crippled. Everyone carried the scars of surviving. To the death bed. Bodies were easy to find and difficult to identify. In Peshtigo, some were nearly incinerated. An article describes what were thought to be the remains of three people. The ashes and scraps fit into a two-quart measure. Some were never found. The Peshtigo newspaper have to move its offices to Marinette (itself partially damaged) in order to publish the first stories of the fire.

The survivors of Peshtigo would later rebuild the town, though for the next 26 years there was no useful forest growth. When the news reached the capital (two days later), the governor and his staff were in Chicago helping victims of that fire (Peshtigo has a street named "Chicago Court" and Chicago has a street named "Peshtigo Court"). He had to issue a proclamation begging people around the country to give some of the gifts and aid intended for Chicago to the victims of the Wisconsin fire.

Later a memorial would be built at the Peshtigo Fire Cemetery—the first official state historical marker authorized by the State Historical Society. In 1963, a museum dedicated to the fire was built and opened.

Fires like the one in Wisconsin and elsewhere would eventually lead to federal programs of forest management that would help prevent similar disasters. Unfortunately it would take time and more fires and more deaths before they would be fully implemented.

The US military also took inspiration from Peshtigo. During World War II, they wanted to learn how to make firestorms and studied the conditions that led to the tragedy. A small model of a similar town was built and they tested ways of dropping bombs to create the same effect. The results were visited upon the citizens of Dresden and Tokyo.

A few notes:
"Disasters." While more people lost their lives in the two terrorist attacks that took place on 11 September 2001, the event doesn't seem to qualify as a "disaster." It would still fall behind the tragedy of Galveston. Also, it seems almost odd that the Great Chicago Fire is remembered so well, while the fire that took place at the Iroquois Theatre in 1903 where 602 people died is not. It seems the size and destruction of the former makes it more memorable than the much higher loss of human life.
There are some who claim the fire was started by a falling meteor or comet. None of the claim stands up to examination and the fire is amply explained by the evidence.

"Firestorms of 1871" www.boisestate.edu/history/ncasner/hy210/peshtigo.htm
"The Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871" www.peshtigofire.info
"Peshtigo Fire Page" www.rootsweb.com/~wioconto/Fire.htm
"Peshtigo: a tornado of fire revisited" news.mpr.org/features/200211/27_hemphills_peshtigofire
"Tales of Heroism and Tragedy Swirl Around the Fire" (originally from the Green Bay Press-Gazette, no date given) http://www.crh.noaa.gov/grb/PeshtigoFire.html
newspaper articles at The Wisconsin Reader site at www.library.wisc.edu

(first, fourth, seventh) Marinette and Peshtigo Eagle 11 October 1871 www.library.wisc.edu/etext/WIReader/WER2001-2.htm
(second, third) The Great Fires of Wisconsin 1871 Frank Tilton (describing the fires leading up to that day) www.rootsweb.com/~wioconto/fireffect.htm
(fifth) excerpted from Rev. Pernin's book The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account news.mpr.org/features/200211/27_hemphills_pernin
(sixth) "Holocaust of Flame" Marinette and Peshtigo Eagle 9 October 1971 www.rootsweb.com/~wioconto/fireeagle.htm