Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Peshtigo Fire: You never heard of it?

By Lyn Horner


While living near Chicago years ago I became fascinated by the history of the Great Fire of 1871, which leveled most of the city. Prior to the fire, Chicago’s buildings, even the fine hotels and mercantile district, were built out of wood. That summer was hot and deadly dry. The city’s fire crews had their hands full fighting one fire after another, even managing to tame a vicious blaze the day before Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over her lantern (so the legend goes.) But there was no stopping the wind-driven monster that sent Chicagoans running for their lives on the night of Sunday, October 8, 1871.
Chicago in Flames -- The Rush for Lives Over Randolph Street Bridge
Originally from Harper's Weekly, 1871 – in the Public Domain

What most people probably don’t know is that a forest fire driven by the same brutal winds that destroyed Chicago occurred on the very same night some 250 miles north in Peshtigo, Wisconsin. In those days small fires were often set to clear forest land for farming and railroad construction. On that day in 1871, a cold front swept in from the west, bringing strong winds that fanned the fires out of control, creating a massive firestorm. Flames of at least 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit swept on winds of 110 miles per hour or stronger obliterated Peshtigo and burned across 1,875 square miles (4,860 km² or 1.2 million acres) of forest – an area about twice the size of Rhode Island.
Extent of the Peshtigo Fire
GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
 
The Peshtigo Fire is the deadliest in American history. An accurate death toll could not be determined because local records were destroyed in the fire. Between 1,200 and 2,500 people are believed to have died. A later report to the Wisconsin Legislature listed 1,182 deceased or missing residents. More than 350 unidentified bodies were buried in a mass grave, in what is now the Peshtigo Fire Cemetery.
Peshtigo Fire Cemetery -- Mass Grave
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic
 

Survivors reported that the firestorm produced a fire whirl (like a tornado) that tossed rail cars and houses into the air. Some survived by immersing themselves in the Peshtigo River, wells, or other nearby bodies of water. Some drowned while others died of hypothermia in the frigid waters.

At the same time, another fire burned parts of the Door Peninsula, leading to the incorrect assumption that the fire had jumped across the waters of Green Bay. In Robinsonville (now Champion) on the Peninsula, Sister Adele Brise and other nuns and residents fled to a local chapel. There they prayed to the Virgin Mary. Although surrounded by flames, the chapel did not burn. Those gathered inside called their survival a miracle.

On the same day as the Peshtigo and Chicago fires, other towns across Lake Michigan also burned, as did Port Huron at the southern end of Lake Huron.

The Peshtigo Fire Museum houses several items that survived the fire.
Charred wood from Peshtigo Fire
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If you would like to read a FREE fictional account of the Chicago Fire, based firmly on history, I invite you to try my novella, White Witch (Texas Devlins, Book One.) An introduction to the Texas Devlins series, it spotlights the heroine's ability to look into the future and sets up her adventures in search of the man of her dreams. For that story you'll need to read Darlin' Irish (Texas Devlins, Book Two.)

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Find all of my books on my Amazon Author Page:
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12 comments:

  1. Wonderful post and research, Lyn. No, I hadn't heard of this fire. The Chicago Fire is well-documented--whether how it started is true or not...as you say...and probably everyone knows of it. But no, I had never heard of this Peshtigo Fire, and if you hadn't explained the location, I would not know to this day.
    I wonder how this fire compares to some of today's fires in, say, California. The description is absolutely horrendous. Imagine trying to find a way to escape the flames. For so many to perish in the flames is bone-chilling.
    Thank you! (P.S. I purchased The White Witch some time ago...now I need to find it in my Kindle Archives and read it again.)

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  2. Celia, I'm glad you liked learning about the Peshtigo Fire. I was a little nervous about posting this because Wisconsin isn't exactly in the Old West, although much of the state was still pretty "wild" in the 1870s. However, I read about the Peshtigo Fire years ago while researching the Chicago Fire, and it has haunted me ever since. Americans need to know about this most deadly fire in our history.

    You raise a good point. I can't say how the Peshtigo Fire compares in size with today's fire, but I'm pretty sure it was just as ferocious, or more so than the worst California fires.

    One point I didn't mention in my post is that there was a theory that all the fires on that deadly October day in 1871 were caused by a meteorite entering the atmosphere and breaking up as it fell to earth, thereby hitting in many places and starting the fires. I'm no scientist so I don't know if that's possible.

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    1. I've heard of that theory about the meteorite,also, Lyn, and I tend to believe it is possible. At least it would make a good story....

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    2. Zina, it certainly would make a good story. I take you have heard of the Peshtigo Fire before. That's good to know. I wish more people knew about it.

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  3. Although I had certainly heard of the famous Chicago fire, I knew nothing about the fire in Wisconsin. Such a tremendous loss of life. I can see where the lack of rapid transportation hindered the escape of many victims. Quite an interesting post, Lyn.

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    1. Thanks for stopping in, Sarah. The loss of so many lives is what haunted me about the Peshtigo fire. If I recall correctly it was estimated that around 500 lost their lives in the Chicago blaze. A miracle the toll wasn't higher, but Peshtigo took three or four times that many lives. Chicago, being a big city, got all the outside attention. Contributions of food, clothing and money poured in from all over, even Europe. I suspect the Wisconsin survivors didn't receive nearly as much help.

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  4. Count me among the people who'd heard of the Chicago fire but not the Peshtigo fire. I understand how a crowded city like Chicago could burst into flame, but who could've anticipated such a monster in the wilds of Wisconsin? The fire whirl must've been absolutely terrifying. Mass graves for the unidentified victims are always so sad.

    Thanks for sharing your research with us Lyn!

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    1. Glad to share, Kathleen. Yes, when I read about the fire whirl I cringed. The poor people in its path never had a chance to escape. Nature can be brutal at times.

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  5. Thank you. Wonderful post, and so well researched. Love learning new things.

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    1. Hi Gini. I'm so glad you enjoyed my post -- not sure that's the right word for such a horrible topic. I love researching, especially historical events. That's what drew me to study the Chicago Fire before I ever had my idea to write about it. I hope you'll give White Witch a read. The historical details are as accurate as I could make them.

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  6. The Peshtigo fire sounds horrible, Lyn. I hadn't heard of it, but it reminds me of the Washington state fires early in 2015 and some of the California fires.

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  7. Yup, it's similar to those, Caroline. The major difference is we have good fire fighting equipment now. Back in 1871 it was pretty primitive even in a city like Chicago, and probably non-existent in small, isolated towns like Peshtigo.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

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