The Night America Burned - Fires in History: Peshtigo, WI Fire

Peshtigo, Wisconsin fire.jpg

What does the ancient city of Pompeii and a small lumber town in Wisconsin have in common?

Warning Signs.  Time to evacuate.  Fast moving disaster.

Read our fire in history feature on the Peshtigo, WI fire and learn how this small town is reminiscent of the 79AD tourist town of Pompeii.

The Scene

On Sunday, October 8, 1871 - the same day as the Great Chicago Fire - a control burn was taking place in Peshtigo, WI.  At the time, Peshtigo was a logging town near Green Bay with a small population of less than 1,200 people.

A terrible drought was plaguing the Midwest the entire summer and into the fall in 1871.  The day of the fire, winds were high with an incoming storm.  While the rain was much needed, the wind was the catalyst in this disaster.  

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The Fire

When the winds (110 MPH) came in, the control burn was no longer being controlled.  It immediately swept through the town of wood buildings, forest, and wooden sidewalks.  Witnesses were recorded as saying that when the fire swept through, it sounded like a train.

The fire traveled through the forest, burning 1.5 million acres of land through Wisconsin and Michigan.  It became the worst forest fire in North American history. 

The fire became a fire whirl (fire tornado), throwing rail cars and houses into the air.


While Peshtigo wasn't the only town affected by the fire, it was the only one that was nearly destroyed.

Reverend Peter Pernin recounted that during the fire the survivors flocked to the bodies of water nearby.  Pernin waded in a river all night with several other people.

Pernin explains his experience in the river:

"The flames darted over the river as they did over land.  The air was full of [flames], or, rather, the air itself was on fire.  Our heads were in continual danger.  It was only by throwing water constantly over them and our faces, and beating the river with our hands that we kept the flames at bay.  Not far from me, a woman was supporting herself in the water with a log.  After a time, a cow swam past.  There was more than a dozen animals in the river, impelled by instinct, and they succeeded in saving their lives.  The [cow] overturned the log to which the woman was clinging and she disappeared into the water.  I thought her lost, but soon saw her emerge from [the river] holding on with one hand to the horns of the cow, and throwing water on herself with the other [hand]."

The next morning, the townspeople emerged from the river, looking like zombies, searching for family.   

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The Aftermath

In the end, the fire killed between 1,500 and 2,500 people through Wisconsin and Michigan.  However, 1,000 of the victims were from Peshtigo, which was hit the worst.

The fire overtook the town and the only means of communication available - a telegraph line.  No one could communicate.  The town had no fire crews, only a single horse-drawn fire cart.  No one knew of the fire for days.  Once the media learned of the fire, doctors started to come to the town to treat survivors.

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The Victims

This fire was a true tragedy in the town.  Families were found bound together by the fire.  A single tavern had 200 victims in it.  Some people couldn't take the thought of dying by fire and took action for themselves and their family.  Most of the people who flocked to the river, other bodies of water, and wells survived, but some died from hypothermia or drowning.  There were so many dead in Peshtigo that 350 people were buried in a mass grave because no one was alive to identify them.  

The End

The fire concluded when it reached the waters of Green Bay.  At that time, the winds died down and rain started to fall, ending the fire.

At the same time as the Peshtigo fire, other fires were destroying towns.  The Great Chicago fire and a fire in Door Peninsula happened on the same day.  The theory is that the drought, several control burns taking place, and high winds caused all of the fires.

This fire was one of the worst in American history, yet, not too many people know about it.  The Great Chicago Fire took over the media, even though the death toll was 350 versus 1,500-2,500.

Writer's note:  As I researched the Peshtigo fire, it reminded me of Pompeii.  Like Pompeii, the people of Peshtigo had signs that they should evacuate.  Peshtigo looked like it had snowed with ash for days before the fire grew out of control.  In Pompeii, the skies grew dark from the eruption and ash fell throughout the town, but it took a full day for the disaster to hit, giving citizens time to evacuate.  Just like Peshtigo's 110MPH wind storm causing the disaster, Pompeii had a 100MPH surge of superheated poison gas and pulverized rock.  Like the Peshtigo fire, the Mount Vesuvius volcano swallowed everything in its path - people and buildings alike.  


What fire in history interests you most?  Maybe we'll feature it on our next Fire in History blog.  Comment below.