When most people think of notorious or deadly fires in US history, they immediately think of the Great Chicago Fire. You know, the one where Mrs. O’Leary’s cow tipped over the lantern in the barn, igniting an inferno and devastating the residents of one of the largest cities in the country. Between 150 and 300 people died in the Chicago fire. But few are aware that a much deadlier fire tragedy occurred that same evening, October 8, 1871, in a small, forgotten town in eastern Wisconsin, a town called Peshtigo.
I married a mid-westerner. I didn’t know many mid-westerners well before I met Tim. I don’t like to characterize entire regions with a broad bush, but in the years since I’ve become acquainted with Tim’s friends and family back home in Wisconsin, I’ve decided that Midwesterners embody the most likeable and helpful characteristics of all the various regions of the US. They have the hospitality of Southerners, the truthfulness of New Englanders, and the strong work ethic of the pioneering Western frontier folks.
There was a lot about the mid-west, particularly Wisconsin that I didn’t know. I had no clue what a cheese curd was. I was unaware that a “bubbler” is another name for a water fountain. I also didn’t know that it was even legal for a 10 year old kid to be employed to deliver papers in negative 15 degree temperatures (delivering papers was Tim’s first job). Midwesterners are hardy. They are kind. They don’t come off as assuming or entitled. I’m happy to be married to one.
Another thing I was unfamiliar with was the great Peshtigo firestorm and the fact that it was one of the deadliest natural disasters of its time. Shortly before we were married, Tim took me on a date to the Neville Public Museum to learn about Wisconsin history (a mid-westerners idea of a romantic night out). I’ll never forget seeing the exhibit about the Peshtigo fire. So little was left of the town, that there were few items to exhibit. But pictures from the time period, maps showing the devastation, and artist’s rendering of the events of that night left a lasting impression on me. How was it that I’d never heard of an event in the US that had cost so many people their lives? It was all I could talk about on our way home.
Later, after we were married, Tim and I did a grand tour of the entire of state of Wisconsin, visiting extended family and seeing all the sites and attractions Wisconsin has to offer. Our first stop, at my insistence, was Peshtigo, located just an hour north of his home town of Green Bay.
As was the case at the Neville history museum, there was little to see in Peshtigo. A small museum with the few remaining relics from that time was housed in a tiny church. There was a monument memorializing the lives lost. And most notably, there was a mass grave where victims, many of them unidentified, were buried. In all my travels, to various difficult and troubled places around the world, I’d never seen a mass grave before. It was sobering to see something like that in US soil.
There are many theories as to how such a massive firestorm could have started. Some believe it was the result of fragments of a comet striking the earth and igniting into flame. Some say it was a lightening storm. But it’s more likely that the fire was started by a deadly combination of dry weather, wind, and careless interactions between man and mother nature.
Naturalist Aldo Leopold perhaps said it best when he said the Peshtigo Fire was “evidence of the march of an empire.”
In 1871, Peshtigo was a growing community deep in the “big woods” of northeast Wisconsin, built on the industry of logging. It was growing by the day, as many as 50 to 100 new residents each week. And while churches, schools, and saloons were built, no fire station was built. Poor farmers in the area cleared their land, setting fire to felled trees and stumps. Numerous sawmills dotted the landscape and when river levels were too low to float logs downstream (as was the case in 1871) piles of timber would sit on the banks, a tinderbox, waiting to ignite. Unusable waste from forestry was burned by timber companies. And the railroad was being built; its laborers were encouraged to work quickly by wealthy financiers, eager to get their goods to market. Cleared logs were haphazardly piled on either side of the tracks and burned with little or no oversight.
Peshtigo was a town full of immigrants and poor laborers, and the deep desire to create a place of your own, a spot of earth you can call home, was palpable in the streets of the bustling town, where hardworking, determined men and women moved from mill to homestead, from church to general store. And as is often the case, that deep desire was exploited by the leaders of industry. It’s a dark part of American history. In the past we’ve seen it in the coal towns of West Virginia and the sweatshops of New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. The rush towards profit, progress, and industry often results in prudence and safety being left behind in the dust, most often at the expense of the powerless and underprivileged.
Fires had been popping up in the region in the weeks prior, and peat bogs beneath the soil were said to be burning underground. By the time the fire had churned up to the level of fury it reached the night it hit Peshtigo, it was described as a tornado of fire. Superheated flames as hot as 2000 degrees Fahrenheit raced towards the town at 110 miles an hour. The residents fled to rivers, creeks and water wells, but many did not make it; many who did died of hypothermia in the frigid waters. The town was in complete chaos, and many chose suicide over being consumed by the flames. The air was so hot, it melted the coins in the pockets some of its victims. It was as if the landscape had been transformed into the fiery furnace of hell itself.
By the time it was over, as many as 2500 victims were lost and 1875 square miles of forest were consumed. It remains the deadliest fire in US history.
Years after the fire, the incident was studied by those intent on harnessing the destruction of fire for wartime gain. A concept known as the Peshtigo Paradigm is the study of how topography, wind and ignition combine to create a deadly firestorm. The American and British military took these findings and used it to wreak havoc on many German and Japanese cities, Dresden being perhaps the most notable.
Fire is a funny thing. It’s a life source for so many. The harnessing of fire moved human society forward by leaps and bounds. Fire creates warmth in the cold, enables us to cook food, allows us to melt and shape metal, and provides light in the darkness. And yet, its capacity to destroy is formidable and fierce.
For some reason, it feels important to me to remember these lives lost. It’s important to remember that our history is fraught with thousands of tiny bad decisions which lead to one enormously destructive consequence. Unfortunately, few American history books cover this tragedy, and it’s not like Midwesterners to clamor for the spotlight. The surviving residents of Peshtigo at the time picked themselves up and quietly moved on, rebuilding their lives in the ash and embers of their forgotten community. The citizens that remains there today quietly mourn the dead every year on this date. I wrote the song Peshtigo, because I wanted to mourn with them.
In early October, you fell in love and boy he told her
She let her hair down on her shoulders and she lay down, oh she lay down
No more cold, no longer tired, the hope of home my best desire
Grace and greed the deepest fires burn underground, they burn underground
Carry my soul, gonna carry my soul, she gonna take my soul away
Carry my soul, gonna carry my soul, she gonna take my soul away
The church man came to warn us, from the rich man to the poorest
From the bar room girls to the virgin forest, we all believe, we all believe
To the river we run, to the river we run
To the river we run and weep
Oh the river my soul, oh the river my soul
Oh the river my soul to keep
A nameless face, still they ignore us; a faceless song, a raging chorus
A crowded bed beneath the forest, we all lie down, we all lie down