The “Forgotten” Peshtigo Fire

Illustration of the Peshtigo Fire from the November 25, 1871 edition of Harper’s Weekly Magazine.  Image used courtesy of the Wisconsin Electronic Reader.
Illustration of the Peshtigo Fire from the November 25, 1871 edition of Harper’s Weekly Magazine. Image used courtesy of the Wisconsin Electronic Reader.

On the evening of October 8, 1871 two of the worst fires in history raged through the Midwest. The first being the Great Chicago Fire, the other, North America’s most devastating forest fire to date: the Great Peshtigo Fire. The disaster known as “America’s Forgotten Fire” would go on to destroy millions of dollars worth of property in Northeastern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, and take between 1,200 and 2,400 lives.

The origin of the fire is unknown, but the coupling of a widespread drought in the Midwest, and dangerous industrial practices like the “slash and burn” method of clearing land, provided the perfect conditions for such a disaster to take place. Once the fire began, roads covered in sawdust from the many sawmills and factories nearby ensured that the blaze would reach the town.

Aerial view of Peshtigo, circa 1871.  Image used courtesy of the Wisconsin Electronic Reader.
Aerial view of Peshtigo, circa 1871. Image used courtesy of the Wisconsin Electronic Reader.

A small industrial town in Northeastern Wisconsin, Peshtigo was, like many Midwestern towns, extremely vulnerable to fire. Once the flames reached the town, the many timber-framed buildings proved prime fuel for the fire. Temperatures would reach up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit – enough to cause nearby trees to literally explode from the heat. Worse still, the only way to cross the river that bisected the town was by way of an entirely wooden bridge that would be quickly engulfed.

The fire would kill upwards of 2,400 people, nearly 10 times the death toll of the Great Chicago Fire. Flames continued to burn for days, ravaging 1.5 million acres of land in Wisconsin and Michigan, only beginning to die out once the high winds ceased and rain began to fall.

Today, 3,502 people reside in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, where the Peshtigo Fire Museum is open from May to October, closing its doors on October 8 with a candlelight service marking the fire’s anniversary.

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