I used to fish the Peshtigo River in Wisconsin. Generally alone. Only scary thing was a periodic release of water from upstream that could cause a massive increase in depth in a few minutes. Lucky to get out of the river alive on one occasion. Didn’t mention that to Jo Ann.
Driving through the town of Peshtigo, I was always aware of a big fire that had wiped the town out many years before. More than that bit of history I didn’t know.
It was with more than a little awe that I read the following in Garrison Keillor’s blog this morning.
It was on this day in 1871 that two deadly fires broke out in the Midwest: the Great Chicago Fire and the Peshtigo fire. Chicago was such a well-known city, and the myth that the fire was started by a cow made for such a good story, that the Chicago fire eclipsed the Peshtigo fire in national legend. But the Peshtigo fire was the deadliest fire in American history. At least 1,200 people died, maybe twice as many. And at least 1.2 million acres of forest were burned. Sixteen towns, including Peshtigo, were burned.
Peshtigo, Wisconsin, was a prosperous logging town in the North Woods. It centered on the Peshtigo Company, which had a woodenware factory and a sawmill and employed about 800 loggers. It had a population of 1,700 — more than 2,000, including the surrounding farmers. There were two churches, four hotels, several general stores, a few saloons, and a lot of houses. Every building burned to the ground except one house that had just been built — the wood was too green to burn.
October 8th was a Sunday, and plenty of people were praying for rain, because that part of the North Woods had been in a drought since May; some accounts say that only a half-inch of rain had fallen since June. A lot of what we know about the Peshtigo fire comes from the detailed account of one of its survivors, Father Peter Pernin, the parish priest for Peshtigo and the nearby town called Marinette. He reported that small intense brush fires had been breaking out for weeks. He attributed those fires to the fact that many farmers had been taking advantage of the dry weather to burn tracts of land to clear the forest, and that hunters and travelers were in the practice of lighting fires at night to keep away animals and then not bothering to extinguish them the next morning. Pernin wrote, “In this way the woods, particularly in the fall, are gleaming everywhere with fires lighted by man, and which, fed on every side by dry leaves and branches, spread more or less. If fanned by a brisk gale of wind they are liable to assume most formidable proportions.” Also, logging practices of the time made it easy for forest fires to take hold — the tops of trees were left behind, and when they dried out they made perfect kindling all through the forest. And on top of the farmers and loggers clearing land, railroad workers were doing the same, clearing land for tracks.
And sure enough, at about 8:30 p.m. on October 8th, the wind picked up and residents of Peshtigo saw fire on the horizon. It swept through the town, a fire described as a tornado or a hurricane because it was such a huge force, propelled by intense winds that came in on a cold front from the west. The entire town was gone by 10 p.m.
One grieving woman wrote in a letter to her sister-in-law: “There was a tornado of fire swept over the farming district and on the Peshtigo village, it came on us very suddenly […] Oh Mary, it was truly a night of horror, it rained fire; the air was on fire; some thought the last day had come, Mary — my father, four brothers, two sisters-in-law and five of their children, two of Grace’s, and three of brother Walter’s, ah dear Mary, we are almost crazy, one can hardly keep one’s senses together to write you anything.”
Father Pernin wrote: “The air was no longer fit to breathe, full as it was of sand, dust, ashes, cinders, sparks, smoke, and fire. It was almost impossible to keep one’s eyes unclosed, to distinguish the road, or to recognize people, though the way was crowded with pedestrians, as well as vehicles crossing and crashing against each other in the general flight. Some were hastening towards the river, others from it, whilst all were struggling alike in the grasp of the hurricane. A thousand discordant deafening noises rose on the air together. The neighing of horses, falling of chimneys, crashing of uprooted trees, roaring and whistling of the wind, crackling of fire as it ran with lightning-like rapidity from house to house — all sounds were there save that of the human voice. People seemed stricken dumb by terror. They jostled each other without exchanging look, word, or counsel.”
To save themselves, everyone ran for the river. Many people died not by being burned, but from suffocation, or from heart attacks as they ran for water. More people died from the Peshtigo fire than from the two next-deadliest fires combined. Of the more than a thousand dead, at least 350 were dumped in a mass grave.
Peshtigo has a museum commemorating the fire, although there’s not that much to put in it because almost nothing in the town survived the fire. There is a perfectly preserved tabernacle that Father Pernin saved by putting it in the river. There is a can of blueberries that melted and then petrified. There are also a few dishes, a piece of wood from the only house that survived, and a Bible that was found just about 15 years ago buried underneath a parking lot, slightly charred and opened to the Book of Psalms.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®