150th Anniversary of Nation’s Deadliest Fire in 2021

Fires in America’s West have been in the news. Dramatic footage of homes reduced to ash heaps and vacant-eyed, stunned survivors fill our media. The degree of devastation has been great. Even so, this nation’s deadliest blaze occurred right here in Wisconsin, 149 years ago. The Peshtigo Fire, which happened on the exact same day as the Chicago Fire, October 8, 1871, claimed at least 1,200 lives. Some historians believe the loss of life in Wisconsin totaled as many as 2,500. Image credit Mel Kishner, “Peshtigo Fire I: Refuge in a Field”, WI Historical Society.

Months before the “fire tornado,” Peshtigo was making the news in the Door County Advocate. Representative Joseph Harris and others were working diligently on planned construction of the Sturgeon Bay ship canal. Lumbering establishments, including those in Peshtigo, were included in many of the meetings. Moving lumber became even more imperative after the October calamity, for Chicago needed to be rebuilt. In fact, the Advocate posted this notice on November 9, 1871:

WANTED 2,000 men, 500 Teams for winter operations in Peshtigo … There is on the two streams at least 300,000,000 feet of pine burned, which must all be in the water next spring …

Peshtigo had another connection to Chicago. Chicago’s first mayor, wealthy railroad executive William Ogden, owned the Peshtigo Company at the time of the fire. His sawmill and woodenware plant employed about 800 people.

Weather and lumbering practices contributed to the Peshtigo Fire. An extended dry spell began in the fall of 1870 and continued through 1871.  In October 1871 a massive low-pressure cell formed across the west (see weather map). Air rose and cooled in the low-pressure system, then warm air rushed in to replace it, causing the air to spin counter-clockwise. The spinning created fierce winds. These winds pushed the many small fires that were burning near Peshtigo and the nearby Sugar Bush (an area of dense hardwoods west of Peshtigo) into massive sheets of flame.

Lumbering practices provided fuel for the fire. Wisconsin’s logging era was in full swing. Lumberjacks felled thousands of 100-foot white pine and hemlock trees from the area’s old-growth forest. Loggers floated the massive trunks down river, but burned leftover branches and debris on site. They often left these fires burning, or barely out. Sometimes flames moved underground, following extensive roots systems. Fire then popped up above ground, away from the original source. In addition, farmers cut and burned stumps as a way to clear land for crops, as did railroad crews for lines. By fall 1871, conditions were extremely dry.  Volunteer crews around Peshtigo were trying to extinguish many small fires. The air was so thick with smoke that schools were closed and lamps lit during the day.

The town itself was a tinderbox, built mostly of wood. Even people’s mattresses were stuffed with sawdust, a convenient and readily available by-product of local sawmills. Logs were stacked up along the riverbanks, too, waiting to be sent south because the extended drought had lowered water levels.  Add to this the rudimentary technology and communication of the time … the end result was a great loss of life and property.

A similar situation existed in Kewaunee County’s New Franken and Door County’s Williamsonville, where 117 lives were lost. Fires on the Door Peninsula occurred on the same day as the Peshtigo Fire “from the same cause – a change in the weather that fanned small woods fires into big ones.”  In Fire and Ice Robert Wells wrote that the peninsula fires on October 8, 1971, “had no direct connection” with the disaster in the Peshtigo area. Burning coals did fall a few miles off shore on the schooner Hutchinson, but wind direction and location of Kewaunee and Door county fires disproved any leap of flames across the bay itself (p. 52-53, Fire and Ice).

There is much more to tell about this amazing Wisconsin story, one that impacted Door County in tragic ways. The coming year marks the sesquicentennial of the disaster. Look for future EHF blogs in 2021. Meanwhile, check out this EHF 2016 History Speaks program about the Peshtigo Fire.

by Kathleen Harris, EHF Educator

Sources

www.peshtigofiremuseum.com

Wells, Robert W. Fire and Ice: Two Deadly Disasters, Northword, Inc., Ashland, WI. 1983.

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