Everyone knows about the Great Chicago fire, yet most of us have never heard of the Peshtigo fire. They occurred in the same month. The same drought that afflicted the City of Big Shoulders was felt throughout the upper Midwest. The difference was the news coverage: Chicago was full of reporters to record the fire, while the telegraph lines had been burned out to the the tiny Wisconsin towns early on – ergo, no news.
Imagine, if you will, a forest fire. Now imagine tornadoes of fire sweeping through the forest, obliterating small towns and farms. Now imagine this forest fire sweeping through three times, destroying first as an innocuous, creeping ground fire -- then returning to clear out all the leaf litter and brush -- and again to leap from treetop to treetop in the final catastrophic event of intense heat and convection winds.
“Fire at Peshtigo” is an excellent account of an under-reported historical event by Robert Wells, a long-time reporter at the old Milwaukee Journal.
Oconto County, a sprawling area of over five thousand square miles, was populated by only 415 hardy souls in 1852. The post-Civil War era brought such a boom that the 1870 census found a throng of 14,000 residents. They came for land. Many of them came to cut the forest so that the land could be farmed, but there were also farmers, dry-goods merchants, saloon-keepers. They found out too late that the northern lands were best suited to growing trees. As the forest was cut, the water table dropped, and erosion increased.
As we mentioned, the telegraph had been burned out before October, meaning that the towns of Oconto, Peshtigo, Marinette and the region north of Green Bay was cut off until it could be repaired next spring. Meanwhile the fire continued to claim plank roads, bridges, a few homes, and the woods themselves. A winter with less snowfall than normal had been followed by a summer so dry that crews had to dig ten feet down where there had been swamp to find water. Still people plodded along with their lives the best that they could, perhaps piling up a few valuables in the middle of their cleared fields.
One resident, Fred Scheller of Green Bay, wrote in early October that “big pines were crashing all around, and if he hadn't known he was in Wisconsin and the war was over he would have thought the Confederate artillery was firing again as it had at Chancellorsville.”
A newspaperman named Tilton wrote in the Green Bay paper in early October that, “By day, flakes of white ashes were continually falling in the streets like snow. Now and then, if the wind blew high, partially burned leaves would fall. A settled gloom fell upon the whole community. Scarce a man or woman but who, retiring at night, would go out and gaze ruefully upon the red glare in the heavens to the east, west and south of us, estimate the distance of the flames and take note of the direction and force of the wind. Thus sped the days – fearful days – but they brought no relief. The sky was brass. The earth was ashes.”
The Peshtigo fire is a gripping account not only because of the historical facts, but also because of the personal narratives by survivors. Take for example the narrative given by Carrie Heidenworth, who was five years old at the time of the disaster. She recalls her family dashing to the Peshtigo River to stand in the water while flames licked the shore, as she hung on to the horn of a cow in water too deep for her. You see? A cow can save your life.
Strange and arbitrary phenomena accompanied the fire. Men would be found in the street or in a field with no mark on them, but a watch or pennies in the pants pocket were melted. And 720 brand-new axes in the Peshtigo Company store were melted into a single lump, while a feather bed stuffed into a well survived unscorched.
The Peshtigo Fire burned on and off for most of the autumn of 1871, but the climax came on October 8. It burned the west side of the bay (Oconto County) an area about sixty miles long and ten-fifteen miles wide, or up to 900 square miles. It burned the east side of the bay (Kewaunee and Door Counties) about fifty miles long and maybe five miles wide, adding another 250 square miles. A mapmaker, Filibert Roth, found that 26 years after the disaster, over 80 percent of the burned-over land was still waste land, where nothing but weeds, grasses, fern, and scattered bushes of aspen, scrub oak and white birch. The death toll has been estimated at over 1152 persons, though single hikers and traders could have vanished without anyone to miss them.
The Great Chicago Fire burned from October 8 to October 10, 1871. Loss of life ran into the hundreds, tho no exact figure is given.
Fire & Ice: Fire at Peshtigo, Robert Wells, bound together with Shipwreck on Lake Michigan, Northword, 1983, 245 pages.