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.
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!”
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.