Some nights are impossible to forget—like the night of October 8, 1871, when women snatched their children from their beds, men formed ad hoc fire brigades, and the terrified residents of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, fled what would become the deadliest wildfire in American history. So why has the Peshtigo wildfire faded from national memory?
The story starts in a booming logging town surrounded by dense forests. The seemingly endless trees in close range of Lake Michigan sparked a brisk trade in logging that attracted immigrants from all over Europe, beginning in the 1780s. Thanks to its prime location near Chicago—the world’s largest lumber trade market at the time—Peshtigo prospered, felling trees for a rapidly expanding country that needed timber for its houses and new cities.
But Peshtigo’s trees proved to be its downfall.
The confluence of events that led to the devastating blaze started “a low rumbling noise, like the distant approach of a train,” witnesses to the chaos later recalled. Soon, it became clear the town itself was being consumed by flames. Before townspeople had a chance to react, it was already too late. Survivors describe a cyclone-like firestorm—a whirlwind that consumed everything around it.
The conditions were so extreme that people wondered whether they had been incited by a comet (that theory has never been proven). A staggering 1.2 million acres—the size of the state of Connecticut—burned that night.
Building after building ignited, and many burned before anyone could find their way out. Those who did make it to the river watched helplessly as their entire town burned to the ground. Cows and horses rushed into the river, too, creating a scene of anguish and chaos. Some who ran to the river drowned or died of hypothermia.
Those who made it to the next morning found only “a bleak, desolate prairie, the very location of the streets almost a matter of doubt.” A newspaper reporter wrote that “no vestige of human habitation remained, and the steaming, freezing, wretched group, crazed by their unutterable terror and despair…could but vaguely recognize one another in the murky light of day.”
That summer, in 1871, was one of the driest on record. A 20th-century reconstruction conducted by the National Weather Service showed that after a long period of higher-than-usual temperatures and drought, a low-pressure front with cooler temperatures produced winds across the region. This whipped smaller fires into a giant conflagration.
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Hundred-mile-per-hour winds stoked the fire even more, with cool air fanning the flames and causing a gigantic column of hot air to rise. This produced even more wind—a vicious cycle that turned a routine wildfire into an inferno.
Peshtigo’s logging industry was partially to blame for the disaster. In an era before responsible forest management practices, loggers simply stripped the land without any regard for the potential fire hazards they created. They dumped refuse from logging operations in large piles of tinder that were the perfect fuel for the October 8 fire. And railroad operations cleared land using small fires, leaving piles of leftover wood behind them, without recognizing they were a serious fire hazard.
The town itself was a tinderbox waiting to ignite. Most of its structures were made of wood, as were its sidewalks. Even the streets were paved in wood chips.
Weather was the match that turned those dangerous conditions into an unprecedented fire. Smaller wildfires had raged in the area for days, but on the night of the 8th, winds whipped up and the flames reached Peshtigo. Between 500 and 800 people died in Peshtigo—half the town’s population—and at least 1,200 people died in the overall area. However, since the records of most of the communities ravaged by fire burned, too, it will never be possible to identify the victims.
VIDEO: The Chicago Fire of 1871 Find out what a cow has to do with the Chicago fire of 1871 in this animated tale of disaster and destruction in the windy city.
But something else happened the night of October 8—another fire, fueled by the same conditions, in nearby Chicago. The Great Chicago Fire left 100,000 people homeless, destroyed over 17,000 wooden structures and killed 300. Though it wasn’t as severe as the Peshtigo fire, it dominated headlines and history books.
Ironically, the Chicago fire overshadowed the much worse Peshtigo fire. But though the Wisconsin fire has faded from the public’s memory, it is still studied by forest managers and firefighters, who still use it as an example of bad forestry practices and the power of unpredictable wildfires.
Another group hasn’t forgotten the fire, either: the residents of Peshtigo. The town was rebuilt after the fire and placed the remains of over 300 of its residents—many too charred to identify as men or women—in a mass grave.