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The Forgotten Fire

Article #292 • Written by Dan Gillis

▼ Scroll to Continue ▼

This article was written by Dan Gillis, one of our shiny new Damn Interesting writers!

On October 8th, 1871, the small Wisconsin logging town of Peshtigo was consumed by one of the most severe and woefully under-reported fires in human history.

After a hot and dry year, with a mere two inches of rain falling from July through September, churchgoers were praying for much-needed precipitation. The creeks had dried up, and the Peshtigo River, which many residents relied upon for transportation and water, was dangerously low.

In the midst of that quiet Sunday evening, the tiny township was totally annihilated - charred by a gigantic fire that engulfed the buildings, the countryside, and even the townsfolk themselves. Even today the little-known blaze holds the distinction of being the deadliest fire ever to occur in the US.

More than 2,000 people were in the town on the morning of the fire. The population was swollen by crews of volunteers, enlisted to battle the sporadic wildfires that were scattered throughout the surrounding areas. The smoke from these fires hung in the air, making breathing difficult. Shortly after 8:30 pm, a dull roar caused alarm throughout the town. Flames from scattered wildfires had been whipped up into a blazing inferno by strong winds, placing a fire on a direct path towards Peshtigo. The firefighters and residents rushed to battle it with buckets of water, but quickly realized the gravity of the situation. They threw their buckets aside, headed to their homes to collect their families, and fled toward the relative safety of the Peshtigo River.

Soon a two-thousand degree Fahrenheit surge of flames overtook the small community. The extreme heat agitated the atmosphere into a flurry of superheated tornadoes and hurricane-force winds. A scorching hail of embers, white hot sand, and debris peppered the town. Rooftops were blown off of houses, and chimneys crumbled.

Residents from the town of Peshtigo attempt to escape the inferno.
Residents from the town of Peshtigo attempt to escape the inferno.

As the fire approached the frantic citizens, they did everything they could in their desperate attempt to escape. Many jumped into wells, hoping the water would help protect them, only to be boiled alive. As people inhaled the superheated air, they dropped dead, their lungs charred. Men, women, and children rushed for the bridge that spanned the Peshtigo River, but it had not escaped the fire's indiscriminate carnage. As the townspeople crossed the bridge, it succumbed to the abuse of the flames and collapsed in a deadly heap. Even more had rushed into the river itself, hoping the water would help protect them from the looming inferno; but the fire bombarded the people with burning wreckage. The river was soon littered with lifeless bodies.

The Peshtigo Eagle, a local newspaper, reported on the blaze:

"The frenzy of despair seized on all hearts, strong men bowed like reeds before the fiery blast, women and children, like frightened spectres flitting through the awful gloom, were swept like Autumn leaves. Crowds rushed for the bridge, but the bridge, like all else, was receiving its baptism of fire. Hundreds crowded into the river, cattle plunged in with them, and being huddled together in rise 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."

Superheated winds and tornadoes pulled the heated air upward into the sky, allowing cooler air from Canada and the Western United States to rush in to fill the vacuum. At first these counter winds fed more oxygen to the fire, until ultimately the sucking force was strong enough to cause a major change in wind direction. The fire was blown back onto itself, and it soon starved from a lack of fresh fuel. A mere ninety minutes had passed since the inferno's arrival, but the entire town of Peshtigo had been reduced to smoldering rubble.

The following day, the much-needed rain arrived, soaking the blackened remains of the ruined town.

In the aftermath of the disaster, news of a great fire in the Midwest was splashed in headlines across the nation. Tragically, none of the stories concerned Peshtigo: all attention was focused on one of the region's larger settlements, Chicago, which had suffered its own terrible blaze the same day- killing around 250. More than 1,200 souls had perished in the Peshtigo Fire, although the true total will never be known due to the town records being destroyed in the blaze. It destroyed every building in town, save one newly-erected building with wood too green to burn. More than 1.25 million acres of forest and prairie were scorched before the winds died down and the fire burned itself out, and the fire caused millions of dollars in damage. Over 350 victims of the fire were buried together in a mass grave, their remnants too charred to be identified.

The survivors spoke of their experiences, often recalling the sheer terror of the moment...

"It had been a very dry season, and I recall my mother telling us several times of the fire that for about two weeks before the sun was obscured, the clothes on the line looked so gray, and a kind of foreboding feeling that something was going to happen hung over the city. She said the fire came so suddenly that the only way she could describe it was that the heavens opened up and it rained fire. I think the fact that they were on the outskirts of the city was the only thing that saved them... My father helped pick up the dead and make rough boxes as there were not enough caskets. He put as many as five of a family in one casket- they were just bones. They found people who were not burned at all, just suffocated."

Another account spoke of the horrific deaths experienced by the victims...

"By now the air was literally on fire, scattering its agony throughout the town. Men, women, and children, clad in nightgowns and caps, shrieked with horror when they saw their loved ones burned alive. The entire town was a blazing inferno; there was only one escape; the river! Thousands of people... pressed on with terror in their eyes, going further into the river, where they remained the next day and night. Families were separated; little babies tried desperately to secure footing in the mucky river... yet the river wasn't even safe, for swooping sparks and bits of fire dropped out of the sky burning entire bodies with an instant sweep!"

A mass grave marks the location of over 350 of the fire's victims.
A mass grave marks the location of over 350 of the fire's victims.

News of the tragedy in Wisconsin took days to reach the public, being dwarfed by that of the great Chicago Fire, a mere 240 miles south. With no relief supplies or aid en route to the town, the Governor of Wisconsin issued a special proclamation to divert aid from Chicago to Peshtigo. Relief poured in, and soon, over $150,000 was raised to rebuild the town.

The fire was officially blamed on the severe drought conditions, but no one could be certain what sparked the destruction. The unusually dry year had effectively turned the countryside, and much of the town, into a giant expanse of kindling. The area’s wetlands had completely dried up, leaving no moisture for the land. This provided a perfect condition for a colossal fire.

One theory speculates that a meteor struck the countryside near the town. Weather historians, using records and archives, have offered a plausible theory for this. Meteorite falls in Autumn are fairly common in the upper great lakes region, occasionally sparking fires in dry fields and wooded areas. In recent years these showers have left burning meteorite chunks scattered over the entire region, sometimes large enough to break through the roofs of homes. With such dry weather near Peshtigo, it would have been a perfect location for a fire to build up after one had set the ground ablaze.

Although the true cause of the fire may never be known, it is certain that the 8th of October will never be forgotten. Though the township of Peshtigo survived in spite of the fire, it still bears the scars of one of the most horrific fires in history.

Article written by Dan Gillis, published on 20 September 2007. Dan is a contributing editor for DamnInteresting.com.

Article design and artwork by Alan Bellows. Edited by Alan Bellows.
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77 Comments
ccampin
Posted 20 September 2007 at 05:22 pm

First!


alamosh
Posted 20 September 2007 at 05:34 pm

It's really sad it rained the following day after the fire... DI!


pinksapphire1776
Posted 20 September 2007 at 05:45 pm

Thank you for writeing this article I've lived in WI for years and I haven't herd much of anything on the Peshtigo fire. I have herd a little on the Chicago fire but the most I herd on Peshtigo's fire came from a book in "The Cat Who" series!
I thank you for giving me something I should have read about as a school kid. This history derserves to be remembered, these people deserve to be remembered.


Dan Gillis
Posted 20 September 2007 at 05:48 pm

pinksapphire1776 said: "Thank you for writeing this article I've lived in WI for years and I haven't herd much of anything on the Peshtigo fire. I have herd a little on the Chicago fire but the most I herd on Peshtigo's fire came from a book in "The Cat Who" series!

I thank you for giving me something I should have read about as a school kid. This history derserves to be remembered, these people deserve to be remembered."

You're welcome! Ilived in Madison, WI almost my entire life :] I learned about the fire in a history class in high school, and realized later that not many people knew of it. Thanks for reading!


pinksapphire1776
Posted 20 September 2007 at 06:24 pm

What's also sad is the water way in between the Green Bay Pensula looks so close on the map but I guess with the fire and the transpertation of the day It might as well be a houndered miles away.....

alamosh said: "It's really sad it rained the following day after the fire… DI!"

I think I've herd that sometimes fires can help "make rain" especially with cold air streaming in from Canada and water so close by from the Great lakes.
The hot evaperation of the river, possibuly lake water. Possibuly the cinders going high up into the atmosphere for the water droplets to collect around...... The cold air to condence it all.....
I hope no one has to much fun with my uneducated theorys, But I've herd of how fine silver jewerly throwen in to the fire during the raindance ceromony can help cause rain. There's supposed to be good sceince supporting that. And as for sudden cold spells causeing rain well you just talk a farmer.
But guess as sceince goes the cold air condences moisture in the air and can cause it to rain.

P.S.
Please excuse my spelling!


rev.felix
Posted 20 September 2007 at 07:44 pm

...Damn.


justjim1
Posted 20 September 2007 at 08:19 pm

ccampin #1 September 20th, 2007 5:22 pm
First!

Who really cares if you're first?

A most interesting story, sadly overwhelmed by the Chicago fire. Thanks for bringing it to the fore front where it really belongs.


chris
Posted 20 September 2007 at 08:53 pm

Great reading Dan. I hope you stick with the DI team.


supercalafragalistic
Posted 20 September 2007 at 10:54 pm

Hi Dan, fellow Midwesterner and Chicagoan here. Thanks for a great article. The local PBS station in Chicago, WTTW, is really good about presenting materials that are related to the local history, but I've missed seeing anything they may have presented on this topic. What is part of the great aftermath of the Chicago fire is the Chicago architecture, and Chicago is still trying to out do itself. I wonder what Peshtigo is like now with regard to how they rebuilt? By the way, I think Wisconsin is great and I suggest the Wisconsin Dells and many other places in my neighboring state as vacation spots. Truly, I have to thank anyone who will write about the Midwest on a web site with a name like damn interesting. I grew up in downstate Illinois where watching the corn grow is pretty damn interesting. (I'm not just saying that!) Thanks again for a great article.


boolean
Posted 20 September 2007 at 11:07 pm

Great article. It's amazing that things like this fire and the wall street explosion can be forgotten so easily.


CaptainBagz
Posted 20 September 2007 at 11:48 pm

Tragedy. This is why everyone should come to Rhode Island and live.

Biggest fires we had were caused by the British back in the day and from Great White.

Bastards.

DI Article Dan.


orc_jr
Posted 21 September 2007 at 01:29 am

How is it that the Governor of Wisconsin was able to issue a special proclamation diverting relief funds away from Chicago? Did Chicago belong to Wisconsin in 1871?


wstngtime78
Posted 21 September 2007 at 01:38 am

My father grew up in Peshtigo, and my grandma still lives there, along with several other family members. I visit every summer and am proud to say I have been to the Peshtigo Fire Museum on more than one occasion. Its a crazy-small town, but very cute. Its sad that no one knows about it. Gotta love 19th century media coverage.


CaptainBagz
Posted 21 September 2007 at 02:07 am

orc_jr said: "How is it that the Governor of Wisconsin was able to issue a special proclamation diverting relief funds away from Chicago? Did Chicago belong to Wisconsin in 1871?"

I'm going to assume the Governor diverted aid that Wisconsin was sending to Illinois.


jb
Posted 21 September 2007 at 05:10 am

Recommended for further reading: The standard history of the fire is "Fire at Peshtigo" by Robert W. Wells, published in 1968. A more recent book (which, among other things, relies on more recent science regarding the causes and spread of the fire) is "Firestorm at Peshtigo" by Denise Gess. The Wells book fascinated me as a kid; the Gess book kept me reading far into the night as an adult.


Calico Mary
Posted 21 September 2007 at 07:52 am

Long time lurker, first time poster... Here's a little bit of family history:

My aunt has a trunk that has been in the family for generations. Though I can't recall the names of the relatives who had it at the time, they lived up there in the surrounding area of Peshtigo. When the fire broke out they were at home but could see all the smoke, and realized seriousness of the fire. The husband took all their unreplacable belongings, put them in the trunk, and then buried the trunk in the yard as deeply and quickly as he could. Then they grabbed the horses and got out of there. When they finally returned, everything was gone. The house, barn, crops - everything had been burned - except the trunk that he had buried.

Now here's the nerd in me: After the Peshtigo fire, farmers in Wisconsin realized that insurance was important. However, none of the major insurance companies were willing to write farm insurance (for the average farmer). So, they gathered into groups and petitioned the state to allow them to basically insure themselves. Thus came the birth of mutual insurance companies.


Apollo
Posted 21 September 2007 at 07:52 am

Great article Dan! Dan-Interesting ... sorry, I couldn't withold the pun.


Nicki the Heinous
Posted 21 September 2007 at 08:05 am

orc_jr said: "How is it that the Governor of Wisconsin was able to issue a special proclamation diverting relief funds away from Chicago? Did Chicago belong to Wisconsin in 1871?"

Wisconsin may have been sending aid to Chicago from it's own fund to be neighborly. Then realizing it was needed more desperately at home, diverted the funding back. This is all speculation of course, because I never heard of this tragic fire before. DI Dan! Bienvenue!


Kao_Valin
Posted 21 September 2007 at 09:16 am

It's too bad that people were boiled alive in those wells. That seemed kind've smart, although running away would've been ideal. Horrific images come to mind just with a glancing thought of what happened that day. I can't imagine trying to burry something of value to me before a firestorm hit my house. I know I'd probably burry or carry mass storage devices of mine, but what would the rest of you keep?


dingopero
Posted 21 September 2007 at 11:50 am

I've gotta assume that CaptainBagz is a newcomer to Rhode Island. Just three short years ago a fire in a popular nightclub killed 100 when pyrotechnics were set off in a room loaded with highly flammable soundproofing material. The lawyers are still having a field day milking this unfortunate event for all it is worth as the lawsuits multiply.
DI's article on the Triangle Shirtwaist fire is also excellent.
Keep it up Dan!


orc_jr
Posted 21 September 2007 at 12:30 pm

CaptainBagz said: "I'm going to assume the Governor diverted aid that Wisconsin was sending to Illinois."

Nicki the Heinous said: "Wisconsin may have been sending aid to Chicago from it's own fund to be neighborly. Then realizing it was needed more desperately at home, diverted the funding back. This is all speculation of course, because I never heard of this tragic fire before. DI Dan! Bienvenue!"

This is a good point and I'm going to claim the time of night as my official excuse for why it never occurred to me. It does, however, cause me to wonder why the Governor of Wisconsin heard about the Chicago fire first, considering they happened on the same day. I accept that the media was not as efficient in 1871 as they are today, but I would certainly hope that the Governor would have some source of information about the events in his state beyond the local newspaper.


Silverhill
Posted 21 September 2007 at 02:52 pm

I suspect that the information from Chicago was soon telegraphed to many locations, including Madison, but that there was no telegraph station near enough to Peshtigo to spread its news quickly.

Calico Mary, please tell us how to pronounce Peshtigo. Is it PESH-ti-go, pesh-TIE-go, pesh-TEE-go, or even something else?


Dan Gillis
Posted 21 September 2007 at 03:15 pm

Silverhill said: "I suspect that the information from Chicago was soon telegraphed to many locations, including Madison, but that there was no telegraph station near enough to Peshtigo to spread its news quickly.

Calico Mary, please tell us how to pronounce Peshtigo. Is it PESH-ti-go, pesh-TIE-go, pesh-TEE-go, or even something else?"

..Being a native of Wisconsin, we always said "PESH-te-go".

:]


raymann
Posted 21 September 2007 at 04:53 pm

About the meteorite theory... that doesn't seem likely. I'm no expert, but here is some commentary on meteorite-caused fires from someone who is: http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/news/salisburymeteor.html
There are plenty of other causes for fires without resorting to something exotic like fire from space... after all, the town's population was temporarily swollen with people in the area to battle already-existing blazes.


Ahuva
Posted 21 September 2007 at 09:52 pm

Great article, Dan. Could you tell us who drew the first two pictures? Were they drawn for this article or for some other text?


Dan Gillis
Posted 21 September 2007 at 10:11 pm

Ahuva said: "Great article, Dan. Could you tell us who drew the first two pictures? Were they drawn for this article or for some other text?"

The images are available on the sites linked at the bottom, along with a multitude of others :]


CaptainBagz
Posted 21 September 2007 at 10:46 pm

dingopero said: "I've gotta assume that CaptainBagz is a newcomer to Rhode Island. Just three short years ago a fire in a popular nightclub killed 100 when pyrotechnics were set off in a room loaded with highly flammable soundproofing material. The lawyers are still having a field day milking this unfortunate event for all it is worth as the lawsuits multiply.
DI's article on the Triangle Shirtwaist fire is also excellent.
Keep it up Dan!"

I've gotta assume DingoPero doesn't read comments carefully, as the two causes of fire I listed were the British and Great White, the band that caused the night club fire.


oneeyechuck
Posted 22 September 2007 at 08:42 am

I've got family in the Peshtigo area, too (Marinette). I've noticed that you can kinda tell where the fire was by looking at the age of the trees, or at least the stands that weren't logged out after the fire. I didn't know that mutual insurance came about because of this. I would assume that there was a drought in most of the mid-west or at least the western Great Lakes region that summer. The meteor strike theory is interesting, but the fire was probably caused by the joining of several smaller fires in the area, aided by high winds and made worse by the "firestorm effect" of super-heating the air and causing a partial vacuum, creating even higher winds.
I really love that the comments to this site are as damn interesting as the articles!


oneeyechuck
Posted 22 September 2007 at 08:47 am

Oops! I forgot to say "You're a welcome addition to the pantheon of Damn Interesting writers, Dan. I'm looking forward to more articles under your byline."
Now, where did my girlfriend hide that apple pie???


tarteauxpommes
Posted 22 September 2007 at 02:43 pm

What a fascinating article! It's weird how some of the biggest tragedies that happen in small towns are overshadowed by smaller tragedies that happen in larger towns, simply because they are larger.


st33med
Posted 22 September 2007 at 07:36 pm

"Although the true cause of the fire may never be known, it is certain that the 8th of October will never be forgotten."
I must have forgotten!


alamosh
Posted 23 September 2007 at 12:37 am

"Many jumped into wells, hoping the water would help protect them, only to be boiled alive."

That must've been terrible. I'm fairly sure it was a slow death.


Gigs
Posted 23 September 2007 at 01:49 am

I'm skeptical on the boiled alive assertion. It's probable that all the oxygen was displaced from wells as things like carbon dioxide sank into it, making it not a very smart place to hide from a fire, but because of suffocation, not boiling.

It would be easy for a lay person to mistake a person who suffocated at the bottom of a well for being boiled alive, especially if the person was burned before he jumped in.


StangFiveL
Posted 23 September 2007 at 02:42 am

Thank you for doing the research and writing a fine article about the Peshigo Fire. I had heard of Pestigo Fire from my mother when I was looking into our family history. Some relatives on her side of the family were at the time farming in the area. Some survived and some didn't. At least one died later from the effects of the fire.


nona
Posted 23 September 2007 at 05:34 am

Silverhill said: "I suspect that the information from Chicago was soon telegraphed to many locations, including Madison, but that there was no telegraph station near enough to Peshtigo to spread its news quickly.

Whn Galveston was hit by a massive earthquake and tidal wave in 18 something, no-one else knew about it because all the telegraph lines were destroyed in the disaster, and I suppose this situation is the same - all possible means of communication were destroyed, and no-one could call for help. It's a bit humbling to think that almost a whole town could be wiped out and no-one would know.

I've got a fascination for disasters (sick, I know) and of course I knew about the Chicago fire, but I'd never heard about this one before - odd how the Chicago fire, despite being less deadly, got so much more publicity - and money.

One thing - raymann, from what I understand from the article 'fire from space' isn't that exotic, that it's a usual cause of wildfires out there - perhaps metorites also started the original fires? Any metorite that reached us would be tiny, barely more than a piece of coal, but white hot. Back then, it's a more likely cause of fire then now, when we have lighters, and cigerette smokers, and glasses lens around.


Veritee
Posted 23 September 2007 at 10:35 am

Hello all from another Long-Time-Reader-First-Time-Poster...
Thank you Dan for a very well-written article about such a horrible tragedy. My family has a cabin right outside of Peshtigo and I have been vacationing there since I was a child. It's such a beautiful area and such good people... it's a shame that so few people know about the area's history! Even growing up in Wisconsin, this terrible fire was merely a secondary mention in history class while discussing the Chicago Fire. It's nice to see someone trying to get the word out so that these people can be remembered. Thanks Dan!


lip_ring
Posted 23 September 2007 at 08:42 pm

Wow, it's crazy to see so many people reading DI from WI. Being originally from Green Bay, we were told about the fire in history class. We even took a field trip to go see the museum. It's kinda funny though, because everyone who lives in Peshtigo seems to still be upset about the undereporting, as they mention it every single time you meet them!


Rebecca Adams
Posted 24 September 2007 at 05:34 am

DI indeed. I asked my mother, who lived in WI for many years if she had ever heard about this fire, but she hadn't. It's sad that such a loss of life has gone unnoticed by the rest of the country.

A quick favor to ask. Can someone tell me how to suggest a topic for an article?


J.K.
Posted 24 September 2007 at 06:46 am

#37 -- And shouldn't they be somewhat still offended about it? The only and really ONLY reason the Chicago Fire gets so much more press and info spread on it is simply because it was and is a very large and well known massive city that took a roasting and a part of the population died. Fact is Chicago recovered fast and the death toll was microscopic in comparison to this small WI town. Right around 60% of the population was suffocated, drowned, burned up, or boiled alive and yet it gets basically no press outside of the region and of that it's a lame footnote. I being from CA have NEVER heard of it until this very day and find the entire thing very 'DI' but also very DIsgusting that news of it when the books cover the Chicago blaze so much gets buried. I totally sympathize with the residents in the area of Peshtigo and would be fairly pissed and bitter about it too.


Nicki the Heinous
Posted 24 September 2007 at 08:33 am

Rebecca Adams said: "DI indeed. I asked my mother, who lived in WI for many years if she had ever heard about this fire, but she hadn't. It's sad that such a loss of life has gone unnoticed by the rest of the country.

A quick favor to ask. Can someone tell me how to suggest a topic for an article?"

http://www.damninteresting.com/?page_id=350

Go to this link. Next time just go to the About menu and select Suggest a Story. Welcome to DI :)


another viewpoint
Posted 24 September 2007 at 02:22 pm

...and the Peshtigo River is also known for white-water rafting! You just have to be careful if you fall out of the raft and 'member (3) things...1) hold on to your paddle, 2) point your feet downstream and 3) keep you butt up. Otherwise, your fellow rafters are gonna yell and ask you..."Hertz donut?" (hurts don't it).


supercalafragalistic
Posted 24 September 2007 at 07:22 pm

Dear lip_ ring,

Cool handle by the way! I am originally from the Midwest, specifically downstate IL. I grew up on a farm. There are a lot of stereotypes about people who grow up on farms. As an adult living in Chicago you have no idea how many red neck white trash jokes I have to endure without anyone knowing that I grew up eating rabbits, and squirrels, and my father really did have a gun rack on the back of his pick up truck etc. It's painful sometimes because I am far from uneducated, in fact I'm crazy educated, and a very successful well respected professional who doesn't look like I just stepped off the stage of Hee Haw. Major publications even endorse this stereotyping. The August 2007 edition of Psychology Today has an article in it called "Urban Edge: How Cities Make You Smarter." Horse feathers@!! Hard work, a solid work ethic, and being 100% sincere and accountable to the few people around you in a rural area can also make a person smart, and damned interesting as well. Most people in cities don't know anything about how raise chickens, feed cows, or how to grow a field of corn so it's doubtful they are any more or less intelligent. I'm not saying that you are- but just in case you are shy about saying you are from WI-- Be Midwestern! Be proud! I salute you, respect you, and honor you! I am not surprised to see WI readers of DI. You have my unwavering respect.


Falos
Posted 25 September 2007 at 06:43 am

I guess it's been passed over and faded into the past because it's the sort of thing you don't want to remember, which doesn't make a lot of sense seeing as that's exactly what we do with a lot of other history.


Anonymousx2
Posted 25 September 2007 at 07:31 am

I first read about Peshtigo a little while ago on Failure Magazine. Go to http://www.failuremag.com.

Check out the archives of Failure for stories about other fires that didn't make the history books as big as the Chicago fire.


Radiatidon
Posted 25 September 2007 at 09:31 am

Gigs said: "I'm skeptical on the boiled alive assertion."

I would have to agree here. Lets assume that the well water is around 40 gallons, about the basic fill for the average bathtub. Since 1 gallon of water is around 8.3 pounds, and let us assume the well water was around 68 degrees Fahrenheit, and water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Math time. Raise temperature from 68 to 212: 212 – 68 = 144 degree rise. Convert 40 gallons to pounds: 40 x 8.3 = 332 lbs. Bring water to boil in one hour: 332 x 144 = 47,808 BTUs.

Now for the air to raise the water to boiling, let us assume 10 lbs of air in the well at 78 degrees Fahrenheit. Now the BTU to raise an average air content is around 0.238. That can be as high as 10.16 BTU for dry air. Since air is an excellent insulator, it is actually the impurities in the air that conduct heat. We know that the weather was very dry since no rainfall, but the well would have some vapor in the air. To make it easy lets round to 1 BTU of energy to heat 1 pound of air. That means (assuming perfect world conditions otherwise the BTU of air could have been 40 to 50 % higher to achieve the final result) the air temperature would have to have been 356 degrees Fahrenheit in order to raise the well water to 212 degrees Fahrenheit.

Now 125 degrees Fahrenheit will cause a 1st degree burn whereas 190 degrees Fahrenheit will cause 3rd degree burns. Hair will free burn less than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Human fat will liquefy less than 240 degrees Fahrenheit and free burns at around 250 degrees Fahrenheit.

These numbers are not exact but do fall within acceptable measurements. So the people in the wells would have baked to death like a Christmas ham, long before the water could have reached boiling temperature. Assuming that they did not suffocate first from superheated air searing the tender lung tissue. Oxygen being replace by carbon dioxide is less likely because it is a lighter gas, so it would rise.

In most fires it is better to be closer to the ground, since there is more breathable air located there.


Gigs
Posted 25 September 2007 at 09:44 am

Radiatidon said: Oxygen being replace by carbon dioxide is less likely because it is a lighter gas, so it would rise.

In most fires it is better to be closer to the ground, since there is more breathable air located there."

I was with you up till this point. :) CO2 is heavier than air (N mixed with O), as are most combustion byproducts. If you doubt this, light a short candle, mix some bicarb with vinegar and then "pour" the CO2 onto it.

Your last statement is true, when you are talking about house fires, due to stratification in the air, and the biggest threat being smoke instead of other combustion products like CO2.


Radiatidon
Posted 25 September 2007 at 10:59 am

Gigs said: "I was with you up till this point. :) CO2 is heavier than air (N mixed with O), as are most combustion byproducts. If you doubt this, light a short candle, mix some bicarb with vinegar and then "pour" the CO2 onto it."

Oops, you got me there. I was thinking of Carbon Monoxide, which is about 3% lighter than air. Just shows what happens when you don’t pay attention to your gasses. Chemistry set go boom…

Thanks for the correction Gigs.


Kao_Valin
Posted 26 September 2007 at 08:43 am

I like that don knows at what temperature fat will free burn.


another viewpoint
Posted 26 September 2007 at 10:31 am

...when there's a fire, I would prefer to be "someplace else" other than close to the ground. More commonly referred to as...get the he$# out of there!


Silverhill
Posted 26 September 2007 at 02:07 pm

Flee when you can, of course. But if there is fire in all directions that might have offered escape, or if the wind sweeps the fire ahead more quickly than you can run, your options become severely limited.


junebee
Posted 26 September 2007 at 05:32 pm

Damn Tragic! :(


Im-postle-able
Posted 26 September 2007 at 06:33 pm

Dan, great article!

There are a few things in there which i don't think add up (probably due to Chinese whispers factor)

1. A fire boiling a sub-terrainian Wells water? Never gona happen (thanks for better explanation Radiatidon)

2. The one building left standing was too "green" to burn? doesn't sound likely, if the air was so hot that peoples lungs were burnt and there were firestorms, i can't imagine how "green" a building would have to be to survive.

3. It says the fire lasted 90 minutes before being sucked back on itself.. why then would the people spend a day and a night in a river? Fires of this intensity don't hang around for a day and a night before moving on. In addition... it says that it rained the next day... staying in a river (to hide from fire) seems an odd choice when it's raining.. and the fire had moved on a couple of hours after it started.

4. A witness said "yet the river wasn't even safe, for swooping sparks and bits of fire dropped out of the sky burning entire bodies with an instant sweep!" How can a freshly build house (with still green wood) in the MIDDLE of the fire remain standing, yet people AWAY from the fire and standing in water (or wet mud) spontaneously burst into flames when struck by burning debris.

Not trolling, just interested in the details of the article...


meKrystle
Posted 27 September 2007 at 02:24 am

Well, hello! I just happened upon this site late last night while I was googling decapitation... I'm odd, I know. I ended up reading an article here called Lucid Decapitation, which I found really interesting. This is the second article that I've read, and I have a feeling I'm going to love it here. I'm fascinated by little known history and bits of random information I can pick up.

At first I couldn't believe that a disaster of this magnitude, the worst in U.S. history, was not widely known. I think it's funny how events can get overshadowed or forgotten in our history books... probably on purpose. But now I can see how it's plausible that Peshtigo got overlooked; after realizing that I live about 40 miles away from Los Angles, in a town that is 95% less populated, I know more money/volunteers/press would be sent to L.A. if two major disasters occurred on the same day. Not to say that we wouldn't receive relief, but I know the major concern would more than likely be with the metropolitan city for economical reasons.


Radiatidon
Posted 27 September 2007 at 08:19 am

Im-postle-able said: "Dan, great article!

There are a few things in there which i don't think add up (probably due to Chinese whispers factor)

1. A fire boiling a sub-terrainian Wells water? Never gona happen (thanks for better explanation Radiatidon)

No problem, glad to share.

2. The one building left standing was too "green" to burn? doesn't sound likely, if the air was so hot that peoples lungs were burnt and there were firestorms, i can't imagine how "green" a building would have to be to survive.

Actually this is very possible. Various factors come into play with a fire. One is moisture content of the “fuel”. Before anything can burn, it must reach its Flash Point, for instance wood must reach 572 degrees before it can burn. At this temperature the material emits hydrocarbon gases, which is the fuel fire needs. If there is a large amount of moisture in the wood, it must first evaporate. Remember water turns into steam above 212 degrees Fahrenheit (of course atmospheric pressure can affect this value, but lets not get too deep into the math/physics). As the moisture evaporates from the green wood it also cools the surface of the material. This keeps the wood below its flash point.

Next is how much available fuel was around the new building to help keep the fire alive. Remember that green wood will not burn as long as it has moisture. The fire has a limited window depending on the available fuel index, to keep the heat up to dry out potential fuel. Scrub grasses and twigs are fast burners due to their small size. The larger the item, the harder it is to begin to burn. Grasses will only help a fire if they start larger items on fire, such as dead wood. This in turn must be in sufficient quantity to dry out the green wood so that it too can combust.

Finally is terrain. Unlike animals, fire loves running up hills and loathes climbing down them. Usually it takes a good wind to get fire to run downhill, otherwise the hot stuff will meander slowly until it can find another joyful climb or will slowly burn itself out. If the new building was in a depression, this would help slow the approach of the fire, increasing the structure’s chance of survival.

3. It says the fire lasted 90 minutes before being sucked back on itself.. why then would the people spend a day and a night in a river? Fires of this intensity don't hang around for a day and a night before moving on. In addition… it says that it rained the next day… staying in a river (to hide from fire) seems an odd choice when it's raining.. and the fire had moved on a couple of hours after it started.

If you have ever been where a wildfire has burned, you would understand. In the Yellowstone fire, the ground was extremely hot for sometime after the fire. Also there was fine soot that hid hot coals beneath it, and also made it hard to breathe when disturbed by someone walking through. Remember War of the Worlds with Tom Cruise. The people killed by the heat ray covered him in a fine ash. That stuff gets in your nose and mouth causing some killer coughing fits.

Also even though the main fire had consumed the majority of the fuel, there were still smaller fires burning. Having survived the ordeal of the wildfire, they may have been in shock and were seeking refuge in the comforting water.

4. A witness said "yet the river wasn't even safe, for swooping sparks and bits of fire dropped out of the sky burning entire bodies with an instant sweep!" How can a freshly build house (with still green wood) in the MIDDLE of the fire remain standing, yet people AWAY from the fire and standing in water (or wet mud) spontaneously burst into flames when struck by burning debris.

Research by Dr. Terry Clark of the National Center for Atmospheric Research has discovered some interesting facts about wildfires.

A wildfire can create its own weather patterns. Called a firestorm, it can whip-up immense winds that can be 10 times stronger than the ambient wind. This can create Vortices which react like tornadoes on steroids. These can turn into Fire Whirls which travel sideways instead of vertical like a tornado, they can whip flaming debris, even logs considerable distances. Or it can create Hairpin Vortices or Forward Bursts, these create crown fires in trees. Otherwise you see the fire burning in the treetops, while small devilish fire tornadoes move from the tops to the ground. Looking like a flaming Dixie straw allowing the fire to suck the life from the ground.

This also creates Forward Bursts which can reach 66 feet in width and travel 328 feet like a flame-thrower reaching speeds of up to 100 mph. Easily reaching people standing waist-deep in water. These bursts will leave a scorch region and spread fire even further.

At the Yellowstone fire, they were fighting to protect the Old Faithful Inn. Backfires had been set to burn the fuel closer to the Inn. Fire brakes were dug looking like trenches from WWI. The various buildings where showered with water in hopes of keeping the well aged and tempered wood from looking too inviting to the voracious hell-beast encroaching upon this majestic area. When the main blaze reached the Inn, we all felt that the historic building and we were safe. That is until the fire leaped in an amazing fireball over the Inn. Many stood amazed as the sky above them erupted into flame as the fire traveled over 600 feet bypassing the firebreak and the inn. Setting the forest afire on the far side. This also cut off the only escape as the inn was completely surrounded by flames in under five minutes. Everyone thought that this was it, trust in a fire blanket that nothing more than a flimsy piece of foil was hard to swallow. “Wrap yourself in it and it may protect you from the fire if you get surrounded.” Yeah right, thoughts of a baked-potato wrapped in tinfoil come to mind.

One, a devout atheist, told me that he had second thoughts that day on his non-beliefs, for he had a taste of hell and had met the beast.

No, I can understand what those people feared and why they stayed in the river. I really do…


joshuats
Posted 27 September 2007 at 08:30 am

I find it very interesting that the great Chicago Fire and the Peshtigo fire both occurred on the same day, and the air had been 'unusually' dry the whole summer, and they had been fighting brush fires in different areas that started for apparantly no reason at all. The meteorite theory mentioned earlier may not be entirely off base. I personally think that our planet earth caught up with some trailing gas clouds from a comet or whatnot, and that the primarily methane gases from this, began to gently and unevenly float down into earths atmosphere. Once these gases reached any spark or ignition, a very unusualy fire storm would flash across the ground and up into the sky, following the trail of 'unearthly' methane gases as far as the .

I have read accounts of many strange fires that same year, and a few years just before and after, (sorry no citations) and survivors accounts, just don't add up to your normal 'run of the mill' fire.
I just wonder if anyone else had considered this as a possible cause of the fire.


sulkykid
Posted 27 September 2007 at 08:44 am

Methane gas from outer space! PLEASE search for a more down to Earth explanation.


Radiatidon
Posted 27 September 2007 at 09:58 am

sulkykid said: "Methane gas from outer space! PLEASE search for a more down to Earth explanation."

Hmm, don’t be so hasty Sulkykid. That could explain a lot of things. For instance, those Anal Probes used by bigheaded, small-bodied aliens in UFOs. You know, perhaps animal life on Earth produces unique types of methane that advance alien civilizations have discovered creates the emission effect, similar to Star Trek’s warp effect. Now I am just pulling this from my mind since I can’t quite put my finger on it. Using an Deadly Emissions Drive, the methane is squeezed through a cheese cloth like material to cut out larger impurities to help keep scorched or skid type marks from damaging the finer molecular fabric of the rear drive. Once passed the highly enriched methane could squeak out in a bubbly emission effect to combine with a rumble, to the very fabric of space/time continuum creating a violent blast in the Silent But Deadly void of space. These eye searing vapors would cause that region of space to violently move away from the starcraft in a breath taking flash. Now isolated in a impenetrable bubble called the Red Faced Giggle Effect, so named since those involved have a tendency to snicker uncontrollably as their face changes color, the ship will have seemed to move to another section of space. When in reality it is space that has moved around the ship.

This unique methane may be very rare in the cosmos, yet seemingly in unlimited supply here on Earth. That could explain why any advanced aliens would even want to come to such a backwater mud ball as Earth.

Oh… where is my tin-foil hat. I better get it on before those mind-suckers find out that I have learned their secret, and come after me with their vile anal probes.

Mentally deranged and slightly weird

The Don


Chitown Huslter
Posted 27 September 2007 at 12:09 pm

Ain't saying its true but Google: Chicago fire and comet.


Im-postle-able
Posted 27 September 2007 at 04:29 pm

Thanks for the reply Radiatidon! As soon as you mentioned the " At this temperature the material emits hydrocarbon gases" bit you reminded me of some research done recently into the forward burst phenomenon in Australia (where i'm from) Firefighters have apparently been reporting witnessing these bursts of flame with no fuel (i.e. a football fields being on fire 1-2meters from the ground) And the main theory is that under special conditions with just the right wind etc, large quantities of these gasses escape the main fire & settle into an area. Then all it takes s for the fire to come near the clearing and bingo you've got a floating fire.

Interesting stuff!

I still doubt the green wood building not burning while being in the middle of a fire of unusual intensity for 90 minuets. Especially since the wood would have to be VERY green to hold up to those temperatures for that long. I thought "really green" wood would be completely inappropriate for building? Doesn't wood have to "cure" or whatever the word for it is so it doesn't bow, bend and break appart as it shrinks when drying?

And the Forward busts being responsible for people in a river spontaneously combusting? I doubt it.. and it doesn't fit with the witness description. A ball of flame is very different to "swooping sparks and bits of fire dropped out of the sky burning entire bodies with an instant sweep!"

Maybe i'm wrong but this equation doesn't really sit right with me...
Green wooded building in middle of intense fire which destroys every single other building in town = Invulnerable building
People in river (i.e. WET) struck by burning debris = people instantly set on fire

And yes i can accept that a fire is scary, and there might be secondary fires and the ground might be hot.. but people aren't THAT stupid to stay in a river after it starts raining.. especially after the fire has passed a potential 20hrs ago. Not even animals would be that irrational! Especially since a decent number of people would have been injured.. after a few hrs SOMEONE would have had the idea to search for medical supplies etc... The description just sets alarm bells ringing in my head...


Bewildered
Posted 27 September 2007 at 08:05 pm

Im-postle-able: Seeing 100 people dead and souldering, the smell of flesh in the air, your neighbour in the river crying and holding her suffocated and dead baby to her chest, might make you just paranoid enough to sit in the river a little while longer... And besides, with everything else burned, where do you suppose they go to? The nearest service station to get a medkit? Staying in the water would definately sooth the burns they have, and provide them with life saving water to drink. The house that didn't burn was lucky, anything could have caused it to be missed, wind at the time might have curled around it etc... It's not uncommon for some houses to be spared whilst others be burned to a crisp. Green wood will burn after awhile, otherwise forest fires wouldn't be so bad, I'd say there wasn't enough fuel around the newly built stucture to heat the green wood long enough. (I see there's another first poster - time to write a script to end the argument :-)


supercalafragalistic
Posted 27 September 2007 at 08:06 pm

............................................The Red Faced Giggle Effect........................................

..............................................!!!!!!!!!!!!!funny!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!....................................


sulkykid
Posted 27 September 2007 at 08:09 pm

It does seem that there was a building that survived the fire, for whatever reason. Things like that happen. We just don't have enough evidence to do more than speculate.


Im-postle-able
Posted 27 September 2007 at 10:44 pm

Bewildered : yeah i understand all the psychological factors which may have played on the poor people this tragedy happened too, and yeah, all i'm doing is speculating.. But in the area they were in it doesn't seem like bush fires were uncommon. I would assume they would have been USED to the hardships of battling fires etc etc.. I'm simply skeptical that the time the spent in the river was grossly over exaggerated (and the report of fire falling from the sky onto WET people & instantly setting them ablaze). Just my pragmatic self shining through. I would say that the people of this era were made of tougher stuff than the soft city types of today, and when have you ever heard of a tragedy happening which affects an entire population into quite literal inaction for 20+hrs?

Meh.. as you say the details i'm picking at are quite moot. Great article! keep 'em coming!


joshuats
Posted 29 September 2007 at 07:50 am

Radiation, LOL, I could not stop laughing.
A new stinky source of energy to power, faster than light travel!
No wonder those green men are probing us.
OH and keep that tin-foil hat handy!

Now back to my earlier proposed theory of extra-terrestrial gasses causing fires on earth.
At least we know it wasn't this comet: http://www.thunderbolts.info/tpod/2004/arch/041122comets-tail.htm
"When comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 broke apart, astronomers reasoned that the fractured nucleus would expose fresh ices that would sublimate furiously. So several ground-based telescopes and the Hubble Space Telescope trained their spectroscopes on the tails of the fragments of SL-9, looking for traces of volatile gases. None of the gases were found."

But that does not mean that all comets are the same.
and occasionally, every astronomers knows, earth runs into the path of wide spread tiny particles/debris, if the pieces are larger we get meteor showers :
http://www.thunderbolts.info/tpod/2004/arch/041122comets-tail.htm

And, on even rarer occasions, earth plows into large, very thin clouds of gas left behind by comets. A comet like this one, at least has flammable gas:
http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/hotshots/2001_05_17/
"Hydrogen cloud around Comet LINEAR as observed by the SWAN instrument, almost a month before the comet disintegrated. The field of view is 21 million kilometres wide."

Now, I know Hydrogen, would be to light to reach the surface to he earth in any large pocket of gas, but what about all the other gasses out there. Most of the gas giants in our solar system have some methane, where did it come from?. And please no more flatulence jokes.


Im-postle-able
Posted 01 October 2007 at 09:11 pm

And you're proposing that the very sparse particles of a comets tail, drifted ALLLLL the way down from the atmosphere, through all the winds etc, into one location and had enough density of flammable gas to cause a huge fire upon ignition?

Think about it... seriously...


Anonymousx2
Posted 18 October 2007 at 04:06 am

Last.


oddharmonic
Posted 15 November 2007 at 07:06 am

Yesterday at Making Light there was a discussion of the Hinckley, Minnesota fire of 1894. Came back to Peshtigo in the comments, where a few other Peshtigo books were mentioned (see comment #19): http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/009586.html


RogueBroadcaster
Posted 19 December 2007 at 07:12 pm

A hellish nightmare indeed. The fire at Peshtigo also ignited the extreme drought stricken area of Southern Door County, that being the area lying 15 or so miles across the Green Bay waters to the East. We have a well known park here in Door County, Wi. that has an old well as it's centerpiece. This well was used by 6 residents as shelter from the firestorm, however they all perished in the well. Old timers in this area say the violent winds carried debris across the bay setting this area ablaze. These events are written of extensively in history of Door County books.


OmegaMan
Posted 23 April 2008 at 01:26 pm

Unlike most of the articles on DI, I do remember reading about this tragedy way back in the 60's or 70's (I think Reader's Digest) and the coincidence of a passing comet and fires about the same time in other parts of the world was brought up.


xstarsunskyx
Posted 12 May 2008 at 04:43 pm

I have lived in Wisconsin my whole life and until today never heard about this fire. Sad that we don't even get taught this and we live here.
Thank you Dan for this History lesson on my home state :)


xstarsunskyx
Posted 12 May 2008 at 04:52 pm

Radiatidon said:
At the Yellowstone fire, they were fighting to protect the Old Faithful Inn. Backfires had been set to burn the fuel closer to the Inn. Fire brakes were dug looking like trenches from WWI. The various buildings where showered with water in hopes of keeping the well aged and tempered wood from looking too inviting to the voracious hell-beast encroaching upon this majestic area. When the main blaze reached the Inn, we all felt that the historic building and we were safe. That is until the fire leaped in an amazing fireball over the Inn. Many stood amazed as the sky above them erupted into flame as the fire traveled over 600 feet bypassing the firebreak and the inn. Setting the forest afire on the far side. This also cut off the only escape as the inn was completely surrounded by flames in under five minutes. Everyone thought that this was it, trust in a fire blanket that nothing more than a flimsy piece of foil was hard to swallow. “Wrap yourself in it and it may protect you from the fire if you get surrounded.” Yeah right, thoughts of a baked-potato wrapped in tinfoil come to mind.

No, I can understand what those people feared and why they stayed in the river. I really do…"

This is true I worked out in Yellowstone National Park and they talk about the fire that missed the Old Faithful Inn. As for the people staying in the river if your scared and know that water keeps you safe anyone would stay to make sure that t hey were safe even if they weren't really safe. People do stupid things out of fear sometimes seeming smart at the time but later finding out was dumb.


oldbogeydog
Posted 17 June 2008 at 02:17 pm

Here's another very interesting article on the comet connection: http://www.sott.net/articles/show/148414-Comet-Biela-and-Mrs-O-Leary-s-Cow


Mirage_GSM
Posted 18 March 2009 at 06:19 am

nona said: "One thing - raymann, from what I understand from the article 'fire from space' isn't that exotic, that it's a usual cause of wildfires out there - perhaps metorites also started the original fires? Any metorite that reached us would be tiny, barely more than a piece of coal, but white hot. Back then, it's a more likely cause of fire then now, when we have lighters, and cigerette smokers, and glasses lens around."

Repeating the link Raymann posted:
http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/news/salisburymeteor.html
Curious, the way I read this, the meteorite theory is extremely unlikely, as any meteorite that is still hot enough on impact to cause a fire would also have to be fast enough to leave a good-sized crater. Most meteorites are actually covered with frost when they are found on the ground. (Detailed explanation in the link)


SilverWolf
Posted 23 January 2014 at 08:15 am

I like how much detail the writer put into it! The story is very interseting and sad at the same time! :) :(


SilverWolf
Posted 23 January 2014 at 08:17 am

ccampin said: "First!"

lol


Sheelamay76
Posted 20 February 2014 at 09:45 pm

I live and grew up in a small town between Wisconsin Dells and Madison, and I have always been fascinated by the Peshtigo fire. We learned about it way back in elementary school social studies classes. Every year we had a small study on it - sad that it was so unknown to most!


Michelle
Posted 09 October 2014 at 08:01 pm

Very interesting!

Sadly, I saw a news link on Facebook about this today. I have lived about an hour from Peshtigo for all my 37 years, and I had not heard about it.

Such a tragedy, but I am grateful to learn this part of Wisconsin history.


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