October 8, 1871 is best known as the start date of the Great Chicago Fire, which leveled three square miles of property and claimed 300 lives. Yet the very same night the Windy City went up in flames, an even bigger and more devastating blaze tore through tiny Peshtigo, Wisconsin, a frontier boomtown located a few miles north of Green Bay. In just 90 minutes, the inferno torched an area twice the size of Rhode Island and killed somewhere between 1,200 and 2,500 people—more than in any fire in American history.

It is still not known how the Peshtigo blaze began, but many of the classic conditions for a wildfire were present. The town was in the midst of a dry spell, and its thriving lumber industry had rendered the surrounding woodlands a tinderbox of sawdust and burned brush. On October 8, a cold front brought heavy winds to the region, feeding smoldering forest fires and creating a firestorm that struck Peshtigo like an exploding bomb. Witnesses later described a roaring column of flames 1,000 feet high. Clothing, trees and buildings were instantly set alight, and whole houses were lifted off the ground in tornadoes of fire. Dozens of residents were killed when a wooden bridge became engulfed in flames and collapsed. Others instinctively fled to the nearby Peshtigo River, but the air was heated to such a high temperature that even those who immersed themselves in the icy waters found it difficult to breathe.

By the following morning, when a long overdue rain helped extinguish the last of the flames, the entire town of Peshtigo and much of the surrounding forest had burned to the ground. The firestorm knocked out the town’s telegraph line and melted its rail station, so word of the disaster didn’t reach the outside world for several days. By then the Great Chicago Fire had already staked a claim on newspaper headlines. Despite being far more destructive, the Peshtigo inferno got very little media coverage outside of Wisconsin.