The Peshtigo Fire

For quite a while, the Peshtigo fire didn’t even cross my mind as an option for a podcast topic. I figured, everyone in northeast Wisconsin knows about it. And it’s always told the same way – it occurred the same day as the Chicago fire, so it was overshadowed, despite being the deadliest fire in American history. But then I thought, maybe some people don’t know the story… and even those who do, maybe they only know that one thing… so let’s talk about the fire in a little more detail.

1871: Dense forests of oak, maple, beech, ash, elm, cedar, spruce, pine and birch surrounded it, and people exploited the resource to their fullest advantage. Homes, barns, town buildings and boardwalks were constructed from the lumber, and sawdust was used as a floor covering. Peshtigo was also home to the largest woodenware factory in the country, a business owned by Chicago railroad baron William Ogden.

The drought that northeastern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula experienced in the summer of 1871 had rendered wood as dry as tinder. Despite this, a common method of farming was “slash and burn,” meaning fields were regularly set on fire at the end of the season on the edge of the woods. Small forest fires were breaking out throughout the fall, making the citizenry of Peshtigo,as well as those in other localities, so anxious that many began to bury their most cherished belongings. They had also grown accustomed to the smell of ash in the air, so when they went to sleep the night of October 8, they didn’t realize anything was wrong.

The fire was ablaze by 8:30pm, with high winds picking it up. By 10pm, the air was no longer fit to breathe. Later writers described it as a firestorm, up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit with winds of 110 miles per hour or stronger. Everything, from homes to horses, was burning. The largest group to survive took refuge in a low, marshy piece of ground on the east side of the Peshtigo River. The next morning, October 9, found at a minimum 1,182 people dead (with some saying it could be as high as 2,400), the towns of Peshtigo and Brussels obliterated, and a scorched swath of forest 10 miles wide and 40 miles long.

The Rev. Peter Pernin, in his eyewitness account, wrote how the fire seemed to jump across the Peshtigo River using the bridges and upward air drafts and burn both sides of the town. Other survivors reported that the firestorm generated a fire whirl (described as a tornado) that threw rail cars and even houses into the air. Many citizens escaped the flames by immersing themselves in the Peshtigo River, wells, or other nearby bodies of water. Some drowned while others succumbed to hypothermia in the frigid river. In one account, a man slit the throats of all his children to spare them from an agonizing death.

Chicago lost 250 people and had 4 square miles destroyed – Peshtigo lost at least five times as many people, and 100 times the square miles. Other cities in the area, particularly Michigan, experienced fires the same day. Property damage in Peshtigo was estimated at $5 million, or approximately $127 million in 2024 dollars. Additionally, 2 million trees burned – in a town that relied on lumber, this would impact recovery for years.

Following the fire, it took days for help to arrive. By the time that word got to Madison, most of the officials and their aid were going to Chicago. Food, clothing, and other aid were quickly sent in order to help survivors, many of whom went to nearby Marinette. All that was left of Peshtigo were a few buildings and ashes with all personal items being destroyed.

William Butler Ogden, a politician and lumber company owner, went to Peshtigo with the goal of rebuilding the town. It never got the lumber business back up and running like it had, and we have to wonder if Peshtigo would be a bigger city today if not for the fire. Regardless, those who remained did not give up and today (2024) the population is around 3,500. Small, but not gone.

Why the discrepancy in death count? The 1,182 is the number that made it into an official report, based off of who they could identify. But there’s no doubt others could not be identified. One mass grave had 350 people burned beyond recognition. For years after the event, more mass graves were found. The 1870 population of Peshtigo was 1,749 people. Perhaps two-thirds of the entire population was killed. (Not everyone in town that day lived there, not everyone who lived there was in town… and businesses like lumber had workmen coming and going frequently, so knowing exactly who and how many on any given day is impossible.)

Speculation since 1883 has suggested that the start of the Peshtigo and Chicago fires on the same day was not coincidental, but that all the major fires in Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin that day were caused by impact of fragments from Biela’s Comet. This hypothesis was revived in a 1985 book, reviewed in a 1997 documentary, and investigated in a 2004 paper published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. It has been dismissed as unlikely by serious researchers – there’s no record of meteorites ever causing a fire, and conditions were such that a fire can easily be explained by normal means. But maybe?

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