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The Forgotten Peshtigo Fire

By Edited Jun 1, 2014 1 1

The October 8th, 1871 Fire

On October 8th, 1871, devastating fires erupted in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois.  These disasters claimed many lives, destroyed millions of dollars worth of property, and left thousands of people injured and without a home.  

Most people are well aware of the tragic Great Chicago fire.  However, in terms of number of lives lost, it was not the worst to have occurred in the United States.  The Peshtigo fire, which happened in Wisconsin on the same day as the Chicago blaze,  claimed more lives than any other in the US.   

No one knows exactly how many people died that terrible night, but it is estimated to be between 1500 and 2500 people.   This includes about 800 in Peshtigo itself, as well as many nearby villages.  

Exact location of the town

The Peshtigo Fire Museum

The Peshtigo Fire Museum
Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/32693718@N07/5875222508/in/photolist-9Xb3XN-fc4QEc-dvMyQM

Why Was the Tragedy at Peshtigo Forgotten?

The tragic events in Peshtigo resulted in far more deaths than any other that happened in the United States.  To this day, it remains the worst ever fire disaster in the country.  There was significantly more property loss in Chicago due to a much larger population, and many more people were left homeless.

The newspaper coverage following these tragedies focused mostly on Chicago.  At the time, Peshtigo only had one telegraph line which was destroyed in the blaze.  Meanwhile, in Chicago, they were still able to communicate to the rest of the world.  There were over 300,000 people living in that city in 1871, compared to an estimated 1700 in Peshtigo.  

Since the news of the tragedy was not reaching the outside world, the Governor of Wisconsin had no other choice than to release  a proclamation in order for Peshtigo to receive desperately needed help and supplies.  Eventually more than $100,000 was raised to rebuild the town.  

There was a third enormous fire that occured at the same time in Michigan.  When it was over, two million acres were destroyed.  In Wisconsin, it was over a million acres. 

Background and Cause of the Disaster

Peshtigo had about 1700 residents, according to a census done the year before the tragedy.  The area was experiencing rapid population growth, due to the jobs that were available  in the lumber industry.   Peshtigo had one of the busiest factories in the country for making wood products.  This encouraged people to travel there from other states and also from  Canada.  

The town was at a high risk for fires, yet precautions were not taken to try to prevent one.  Campfires and bonfires were not forbidden.   Creeks that had dried up due to drought conditions were filled with bark and waste from the saw mill.   Small fires would ignite spontaneously at times, and the air frequently was filled with smoke.    

Homes and buildings in the 19th century were made of wood, which would burn very rapidly during the inferno.  Adding to the town's vulnerability was their bridge, which was also made of wood.  It was their only means of escape during a natural disaster, and proved to be tragically useless the night of October 8th. 

1871 was a year of severe drought in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois.  Evergreens lost a lot of their needles, and most of the leaves had fallen from the trees by early October.  The lack of rain had dried up the wetlands, and the river level was much lower than usual.  It was also very windy on October 8th, which created perfect conditions for a raging blaze.

It is not believed that lightening played any role in the fire.  There was some speculation that a meteorite may have contributed to the disaster, but most experts think  the inferno was the result of a long drought and very windy conditions on the night it took place.

The fire spread so rapidly that some victims didn't have an opportunity to even try to escape.  For those who did flee, their only choice was to jump into the river.  The bridge caught fire and quickly collapsed.  

Some people who made it to the river ended up drowning, or were struck by falling debris.  Those who did survive were left with nothing.  The horror of that evening would be with them forever.  It also deeply affected people who came from elsewhere to help in the aftermath.  

Peshtigo was completely destroyed, along with many villages that were close by.  No one knew how many were in the area that night, as the area attracted travelling lumberjacks, homesteaders, and outsiders who came looking for work.   Many of the bodies could not be identified.  This is why estimates vary so widely as to how many died in the fire.  

 

Gravesite Where Unidentified Victims Were Laid To Rest

The Peshtigo Fire Cemetary
Credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PeshtigoFireCemetery.jpg

The Aftermath

It's impossible to comprehend what life was like for the survivors.  They would have to live with the memories of that night for  the rest of their lives.  In addition to witnessing such unimaginable horror, many lost loved ones.   A lot of the survivors suffered physical injuries, some of them severe.

There were no goverment programs to turn to for help, and all the churches in the area were destroyed.  It also took some time before others arrived with food and other assistance.  

Since so many of the dead could not be identified, a decision was made to bury hundreds of them in a mass grave.  The gravesite has a stone monument and plaque indicating it is the final resting place of many of the victims of October 8th, 1871.

Today, there is a  Peshtigo Fire Museum, which is adjacent to the cemetery.  It is open from spring until fall, and contains artifacts from the fire.  Included in the artifacts is a church tabernacle which surprisingly escaped the flames.  Thousands of people visit the museum each year, which is run by a staff of  volunteers.

Almost 50 years would pass before the first National Fire Prevention Day, which was proclaimed by President Wilson.   Five years later, President Coolidge changed this from a single day to a full week.  Since that time, the Fire Prevention Week is held annually in October, and always includes the 8th day,  which is the anniversary of the Great Chicago and Peshtigo fires.  

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Bibliography

  1. Deana Hipke "The Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871." Peshtigo Fire. 1/10/2013 <Web >

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