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The Peshtigo fire: in 1871, a firestorm struck northeastern Wisconsin, killing more than 1,700 people. With courage and confidence, the survivors forged a new future among the ruins.

There came upon us ... a wave of living fire, completely enveloping us in its embrace.

--Phineas Eames, a survivor

On the night of October 8, 1871, the same date as the Great Chicago Fire, several destructive fires struck Wisconsin's northeastern corridor. The Wisconsin wildfires, fueled by an abundance of lumber waste and aided by a cyclonic storm, burned over large areas of northeastern Wisconsin taking more than 1,700 lives with it. Known as the Peshtigo Fire, it ranks as one of the most devastating natural disasters in United States history, and as one of the most compelling stories of human courage.

A Dry Summer

The summer of 1871 had been a dry one in northeastern Wisconsin. Between June and September, inhabitants surrounding Wisconsin's Green Bay had scarcely seen a drop of rain. The Peshtigo and Menominee Rivers were at their lowest levels in years, and the tinder-dry vegetation literally crunched under the feet of the loggers, farmers, and railroad gangs who labored daily among the thick pine forests and cleared the fields of Oconto and Marinette counties. So dry were the conditions that even the sub-soil vegetation of the cedar-swamp bogs had been reduced to tinder-like conditions.

Despite near-drought conditions and the ever-present threat of fire, inhabitants of the region went about their business as before. Farmers worked their fields and did their best to keep their livestock comfortable. The dry weather even gave them the opportunity to clear more land, and smoldering stumps of white pine, maple, and birch trees littered the newly cleared parched landscape for much of the summer and early fall. Drought or no drought, the slash and burn method was the quickest way to clear land, even if one had to maintain a near-constant vigil against wildfire.

Loggers, too, kept up a blistering pace right through the summer and fall. The vast tracts of immense white pines and fast-moving rivers that had lured lumber and railroad magnates like Chicago millionaire William Butler Ogden to the region continued to provide a way of life for increasing numbers of immigrants. Reverend Peter Pernin, a Catholic priest serving the Peshtigo and Marinette communities, described the region's geography: "Trees, trees everywhere, nothing else but trees as far as you can travel." Not surprisingly, communities like Peshtigo and Marinette, Wisconsin, worked to the rhythm of the saw, and logging camps dotted the landscape for miles around.

But this summer was different. Unusually low water levels prevented the lumberjacks from floating logs downriver to the mills in Peshtigo and Marinette. Increasingly, they were forced to leave much of the fruit of their labor in piles alongside the Peshtigo and Menominee Rivers, providing potential fuel for wildfire. Logging practices of the period also produced a large amount of waste, called slash, made up of unusable tree branches. Tons of this material littered the logged-over land north and west of Peshtigo and Marinette. By the end of the summer, the unusually dry weather had completely sapped the slashings of moisture. In their wake, the lumberjacks had inadvertently left a deadly by-product that would help fuel the coming conflagration.

Where there was logging, there were sawmills. Indeed, they were ubiquitous--more than eight of them could be found in the towns of Marinette and Peshtigo alone. They turned out millions of boards and thousands of finished goods annually. The Peshtigo Company alone shipped up to 60 million board feet per year.

The mills dominated the landscape so much that a fine layer of sawdust blanketed the towns. Absent an adequate disposal method, the waste from the mills was disposed of carelessly, often shoveled into the streets, placed under wooden sidewalks and pine board houses, or simply piled into enormous mounds near the mills. Lumber was king, and sawdust was the by-product of progress. They were inseparable. Residents of Peshtigo, aware of the source of their prosperity, learned to embrace the inconvenience with a sense of grim resignation. But while sawdust may have represented prosperity, it also added another source of fuel to a tinder-dry environment.

Rail gangs formed the third part of the region's economic triumvirate. After the Civil War, railroads had emerged as a national symbol of prosperity. Rail moved man and machinery, linked farms and industry together, facilitated telegraphic communications, and resonated with the rhetoric of progress. It was faster, less expensive, and safer than shipping lumber by barge via Lake Michigan to Milwaukee and Chicago. The lake was notoriously dangerous during the winter months, and gale-force winds could easily sink a cumbersome lumber barge, taking man and product down with it.

What the region needed was a rail line connecting it with Chicago. Ogden seized the opportunity and pushed for the completion of a rail linking the lumber rich north woods with Green Bay. By September 1871, the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad was piercing the woods north of Green Bay striving to reach Escanaba, Michigan, with the promise of economic growth and progress for the region's inhabitants.

Rail gangs worked feverishly carving out an iron thoroughfare through the dense north woods. By October, they had advanced from Green Bay to a point just south of Peshtigo. In their haste, however, they left a deadly combination of smoldering logs and vegetation piled along the railroad right-of-way deep into the surrounding forests.

Nineteenth century methods of logging, land clearing, and rail construction, combined with persistent low-level fires and abnormally dry conditions, created an environment favorable for the formation of massive wildfires. Throughout the summer and early fall of 1871, inhabitants of the region went about their daily routines battling the smoke and ashes from the surrounding prairie and forest fires, while nervously scanning the horizon for signs of imminent danger.

The only thing missing from the deadly puzzle was the fight combination of meteorological conditions that would fan the flames of smaller fires into howling tornadoes of destruction. On October 8, 1871, the last piece would fall into place.

Prelude to Destruction

By late September, the air hung thick with acrid smoke and ash, and at night the inhabitants of Peshtigo watched the flames from nearby fires stretch beyond the forest canopy into the black sky. On September 20, Franklin Tilton, editor of Green Bay's Advocate, wrote that the "morning smoke was more dense than at any other time before; the air is suffocating and is filled with flakes of ashes. On the Bay the steamers have to navigate by compass, and blow their fog horns, the shores [of Green Bay] being invisible."

The inhabitants of Peshtigo and surrounding communities like Oconto and Little Suamico began to prepare for the worst. Logging crews dug fire ditches along the forest edge, and in the towns workmen set aside barrels of water in order to wet down the sawmills.

On September 23, a slight shift in the wind from the northeast lifted sparks across the Peshtigo River, setting fire to some sawdust and boards adjacent to the Peshtigo woodenware factory. Logger, lumberman, and shopkeeper alike turned out to fight the fire, passing buckets by way of a human chain running from the Peshtigo River to the fire. Hours earlier, numerous similar fires had erupted south of Peshtigo in Oconto, Little Suamico, and Big Suamico, and north to Marinette, destroying barns, mills, and houses.

Fires now raged north, south, east, and west of Peshtigo--even the west side of Green Bay burned in areas of Door, Kewaunee, and Brown counties. As soon as one fire was extinguished another started in a neighboring community. Lumber, slash, and dried vegetation fed the advancing flames, forcing residents from their homes in a mass flight to the city of Green Bay.

Dazed refugees told of a fire so intense that it burned the very ground beneath their feet, searing the soles of their shoes. Months of drought and extremely low humidity levels had caused sub-surface organic materials to dry out. Not only were the great trees on fire, the very ground beneath them crackled with flame.

Peshtigo's impromptu fire company successfully fought the series of fires over a three-day period, starting on Saturday, September 23. On Monday a southerly wind cleared the smoke away. Miraculously, the town had been saved. By Wednesday, the weary and apprehensive inhabitants of Peshtigo tried to resume their usual activities, knowing that the threat of fire remained just beyond the boundaries of the settlement. Outside of Peshtigo, farmers began to bury their possessions in an attempt to save them from certain destruction, while others wrestled with the decision to evacuate the area for safety in the city of Green Bay.

By late September, residents of Peshtigo and Marinette began to sense that the worst had passed. There was still no rain, but many believed that the burned out trees bordering the settlements now provided a natural fire barrier. But the still-smoldering skeletons of white pine would not act as a barrier. Instead they would act like giant sticks of charcoal in the days ahead.

During the first days of October, thick smoke continued to blanket Peshtigo, forcing the residents to cover their mouths with handkerchiefs. The sun, barely visible through the smoke-stained sky, threw an eerie yellowish pall over the region. It was as if one were looking through a tinted glass. Observing the evening sky from Green Bay, Advocate editor Frank Tilton wrote, "The sky was brass, the earth was ashes."

To make matters worse, portions of Minnesota were ablaze and the smoke from those fires had drifted east to Wisconsin. To the residents of Peshtigo, it must have seemed that the world was burning. For months they had watched nervously as hundreds of fires burned up large tracts of forest and threatened settlements along both sides of the Green Bay. But the nightmare was just beginning.

On October 8, a low-pressure system over southwestern Minnesota, coupled with a slow-moving high-pressure system over the mid-Atlantic states, created moderate southwesterly winds in northeastern Wisconsin. It was the worst possible weather scenario. This cyclonic storm with counterclockwise winds that would eventually reach 60 miles per hour fanned the flames of the persistent smaller forest fires into a larger conflagration.

By the evening of the 8th, two major wildfires moved relentlessly along the west side of the bay, spreading north from the Green Bay city limits to south of Oconto, with another burning north of Oconto into Peshtigo and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. On the east side of the bay, a separate fire spread from south of New Franken northeastward to Sturgeon Bay. Over 2,500,000 acres of land were now enveloped in a hellish inferno that would eventually claim over 1,700 lives.

Anatomy of a Fire

The fires that struck northeastern Wisconsin on the evening of October 8 were unlike the fires that had previously threatened Peshtigo and the surrounding areas. Many survivors reported that winds from the fire whirled about like a tornado and that the fire attained speeds beyond comprehension. Loggers, farmers, and rail gangs were familiar with fires. They understood the propensities of forest and prairie fires. But they had never seen anything like this before. It seemed to feed upon itself, sucking up anything and everything in its path. Even previously burned trees burst into flame.

What they were witnessing was a phenomenon known as a fire vortex. Fire vortices contributed to both the speed and destructiveness of the Peshtigo Fire. The fires of October 8 generated two types of vortices. Fire whirlwinds, the most common type of vortex, consisted of violent updrafts forming over the fire center. When survivors told of "fire tornadoes," they were referring to the vertically and horizontally rotating counterclockwise winds of the fire whirlwind. Fire whirlwinds develop within, and immediately downwind, of the wildfire, making it virtually impossible to escape the oncoming flames. These rapidly moving vortices scattered burning debris well beyond the main body of a fire, torching buildings and people located miles from the edge of the main fire.

The whirlwinds seemed almost alive. A series of self-sustaining events provided the necessary fuel to keep the deadly vortices spinning. The burning ground cover provided heat for the whirlwind air column, destabilizing the air and creating strong updrafts and drawing surface winds inward toward the center of the tornado. Horizontal surface winds fed the insatiable fire by transporting fuel into the whirlwind, heating the air, enhancing its buoyancy, and increasing the whirlwind circulation. The fire was not only feeding itself, it was creating its own weather pattern.

The fire vortex phenomenon accounts for the speed and devastation of the fire. Superheated flames of over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit melted rails and instantly incinerated human beings. The noise was deafening and the persistent roar of the fire was described by one survivor as "the sound of judgement."

Refuge in the River

Those who could make it sought refuge in the river, but the speed of the fire prevented many from reaching safety. Panicking onlookers groping their way to the river watched as waves of fire ignited everything in their path. Men, women, and children burst into flames in an instant. Within five minutes of the first fireball, Peshtigo was a blazing inferno.

Others like Father Peter Pernin were luckier. After burying some church valuables, Father Pernin began to make his way through the streets. Almost immediately, gale-force winds knocked him to the ground, where he landed on a mother and child lying dead in the street. Struggling to his feet, he came upon his trembling horse that he had earlier set free in anticipation of the fire. He called it by name, but it failed to respond and was later found dead on the very spot.

Arriving at the river, Pernin encountered a scene of utter disorder. Houses along the bank were on fire, and the wind blew hot coals and ash into the gathering crowds. Considering his position unsafe, he decided to cross to the other side. The Peshtigo bridge, however, was "a scene of indescribable and awful confusion." Inhabitants from the east and west banks of the river, encumbered with children, vehicles, and animals, tried to cross over to the opposite sides. The crush of bodies and baggage made any progress nearly impossible, but Pernin was able to make his way to the other side, and at about 10:00 p.m. he secured a spot in the water.

Upon arrival, he was surprised to see some individuals standing on the banks, apparently unaware of the safety that the water afforded. Taking note of the danger, he dragged a few persons into the water despite some objections. The intense heat eventually drove others into the water, and for the next five hours they would watch in horror as their city burned to the ground.

Pernin and others thought that they would be safe in the water, but even the river could not provide complete protection from the superheated air and flaming embers. Only by constantly throwing water upon their heads did the waterlogged survivors manage to avoid injury from the flames. But fire was not the only danger. The cool waters of the Peshtigo River began to chill the refugees and despite the superheated air around them, many were in danger of succumbing to hypothermia.

Five and one-half hours later, after the fire had passed, Father Pernin and the others emerged from the river. They were greeted with a scene of unimaginable horror. As if by magic, the fire had destroyed virtually everything. The heat and tornadic winds of the firestorm had melted railroad car wheels, leveled buildings, and uprooted the charred remains of trees. Left in the firestorm's wake were the charred remains of hundreds of their neighbors. The devastation was complete.

Peshtigo was not the only community that suffered from the cyclonic fire storms. The very same weather pattern that turned portions of northeastern Wisconsin into a raging inferno had done the same in Chicago and parts of Michigan, although with considerably less loss of life. The eastern shore of Green Bay suffered a similar fate, too. Williamsonville, a small mill-town community of 76 persons, was destroyed by a firestorm that ignited every building within the settlement. In an attempt to save themselves, several residents wrapped themselves in wet blankets or sought shelter in a well, but by the time it was over, the fire had claimed 59 souls. The settlement was never rebuilt.

Relief Efforts

Communications between the burned-over areas and the outside world were hampered by the destruction of telegraph lines. It would be days before officials in Madison became aware of the disaster. To further complicate matters, Governor Lucius Fairchild had left Madison for Chicago with a trainload of supplies for the fire victims of that city.

It was not until October 10 that Fairchild's young wife, Frances. received a telegram informing her of the devastation. She immediately took charge of the situation and began to organize a relief effort to provide material goods to meet the needs of Wisconsin's fire victims. She even commandeered a supply train headed for Chicago. In a matter of hours, Mrs. Fairchild had gathered enough blankets to fill a train car, and it was soon on its way to Green Bay.

Over the following days, Mrs. Fairchild continued her efforts to acquire more supplies, and with the return of her husband from Chicago, the state began a massive relief effort for the survivors. A number of private agencies and communities throughout the state offered their assistance, and support eventually came from every state in the Union as well as from foreign countries.

The Aftermath

Specific meteorological conditions, an abundance of fuel, and negligence associated with the dominant local economies, combined to create the series of tornado-like fires that swept through Wisconsin's northeastern corridor. As a result, the landscape of northeastern Wisconsin was dramatically altered. Entire settlements were destroyed, but for the most part the survivors wasted little time in rebuilding their lives.

Rather than wallowing in self-pity, the inhabitants assumed a mantle of optimism. William Ogden vowed to rebuild Peshtigo "and do a larger winter's logging than ever before." His positive outlook infected others, and Peshtigo became a beehive of activity in the aftermath of the fire. The loggers and lumbermen resumed their efforts and a new Peshtigo Company sawmill rose phoenix-like from the ashes. Businessmen rebuilt their shops, and farmers returned to the land.

With courage and confidence, the survivors of our nation's greatest fire disaster forged a new future among the ruins of the Peshtigo Fire.

Michael E. Telzrow is a historian/museum professional living in De Pere, Wisconsin.
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Article Details
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Author:Telzrow, Michael E.
Publication:The New American
Geographic Code:1U3WI
Date:Mar 6, 2006
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