It was on October 8, 1871 that a great fire raged. Not the one legendarily started by a certain Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and a lantern in Chicago, this fire was further north and made the Great Chicago Fire seem like a match flame in comparison.
It had been a dry year. So dry, much of the wetlands had dried to tinder. The trees had dropped their leaves early and those leaves were now crisp. Even the evergreens had dropped their needles.
No one knows exactly what caused the fire started as fires were fairly common. Farmers cleared growth for their crops by burning. Tree limbs, tree tops, and other tree parts the loggers didn’t use, known as slash, were regularly burned. Sparks from steam engines would sometimes ignite grasses and brush along the railway.
In fact, for weeks the smell of smoke and ashes was so common that it aroused no suspicions that night when the residents of Peshtigo, Wisconsin retired for the evening. But this night promised to be different, hellishly different, as a cold front swept in from the west. The air from the front was 40 degrees colder and as it struck the warmer air, it created monstrous winds, winds which took the small fires and fanned them.
The fires grew, pushed quickly along by the 100 mph winds. As trees and brush and dried peat burned, it made the air hotter. More cold air rushed in creating a massive firestorm that blazed in every direction.
The fire raced over a 2400-square-mile area in the upper Great Lakes region burning more than 1.5 million acres. The fire was so great it jumped rivers and even the Green Bay to start parts of Door Peninsula on fire. Many communities were burned, but at the center of it all was Peshtigo.
The people did what they could to escape the fire. The fire was so intense, clothes burst into flames on people’s backs. Many raced to the river, but just as many didn’t make it. Their burnt bodies discovered lying just yards from the water. Others threw themselves into wells or hid in cellars only to suffocate as the fire sucked all available oxygen. A few miraculously survived just throwing themselves on the dirt in clearings.
Reaching the river wasn’t a guarantee of survival. It was a continuous ordeal of dunking heads to keep their hair from burning.
Two and a half hours after the fire hit, the town of Peshtigo was no more. Every building was gone save one and that survived only because it had been newly built and the wood was still to green to burn.
But the fires continued to rage across Wisconsin and parts of Michigan throughout the night. By dawn the fires were mostly extinguished as the winds changed catching the fire between Lake Michigan and the already burned lands.
All told, the loss of life was approximately 1,500, with 800 of those from Peshtigo alone. In comparison, the loss of life in Chicago’s fire was about 300. The Great Peshtigo Fire remains one of the largest natural disasters in United States history and the most devastating forest fire.
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