Everyone’s heard of the Chicago Fire, back in the 1800’s. According to folklore, it was started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. It incinerated the city in a single night, killing three hundred people. But another fire – on the same night – was much worse. It wiped out the booming mill town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin. About two thousand people died. The Peshtigo Fire was the worst in American history. It happened because people were utterly careless in the way they treated the environment. And even afterward, they didn’t learn their lesson. Two books about the Peshtigo Fire have recently come out. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
Everyone’s heard of the Chicago Fire, back in the 1800s. According to folklore, it was started by
Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. It incinerated the city in a single night, killing three hundred people. But
another fire – on the same night – was much worse. It wiped out the booming mill town of
Peshtigo, Wisconsin. And about two thousand people died. The Peshtigo Fire was the worst in
American history. It happened because people were utterly careless in the way they treated the
environment. And even afterward, they didn’t learn their lesson. Two books about the Peshtigo
Fire have recently come out. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
Peshtigo in 1871 was a small town on the Peshtigo River, that flows into Green Bay. It was just
like other mill towns in the upper Midwest.
Lumberjacks cut the trees and left the branches in huge tangles in the woods. Mill workers sawed
the logs and made great piles of slabs and sawdust. Settlers burned the stumps to clear land for
farming. And the men clearing a route for the new railroad burned whatever was in their way.
1871 was a very dry year.
“There were fires burning all summer and into the fall,” says Peter Leschak, author of Ghosts of
the Fireground, a reflection on the Peshtigo Fire and his own experiences of firefighting.
“Slash and burn agriculture, land clearing, the railroad guys clearing line. And nobody put out
fires in those days,” Leschak adds.
The branches left in huge piles everywhere turned to tinder, ready to burn hot and long. Small
fires were burning all around, but people saw fire as a good thing.
Denise Gess, author of Firestorm at Peshtigo, a detailed history of the disaster, says the farmers
were used to fire.
“Even the immigrants who came from Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Germany – they knew this is
how you clear land. They saw fire as an ally.”
People were used to fires, even when they got out of control. But no one was prepared for what
happened at Peshtigo that day.
“The big trees they were cutting were red pine and white pine,” Peter Leschak says. “And when
that stuff gets to be red slash as it’s called, when it dries out, it’s incredibly volatile.”
On October 8th, a huge cold front swept in from the west.
Furious winds fanned prairie fires all over the region. In the cut-over timberlands, the big brush
piles and the dry conditions combined to create a conflagration.
“Basically at one point or another,” Leschak says, “several small fires join into one huge fire, and
it becomes more or less stationary over Peshtigo.”
The blazes developed into a fire storm. The heat generated by the burning trees and buildings
caused a column of hot air to rise over the town. Cold air rushing in to take its place fanned the
flames. That caused more hot air to rise.
The town was at the center of a tornado of flame. The fire was coming from all directions at
once, and the winds were roaring at a hundred miles an hour.
Some people struggled to the river. They stood in the water for hours while the flames whirled
in a fury over their heads. Some of them survived.
“They are witnessing something that very few people have ever witnessed and lived to tell the
tale,” says Leschak. “They’re at the center of this hurricane of flame. And small wonder their
hair was bursting into flame if they didn’t keep ducking their heads into the water. To have
survived that is just amazing, just amazing.”
Most people weren’t so lucky. Karl Lamp and his wife were German immigrants. Denise Gess
says as she was doing the research for her book, this couple came to represent the fortitude of
immigrant settlers, and the tragedy they faced
“She was pregnant with their fourth child when the fire struck,” Gess explains. They all piled
into their wagon.
“They thought they could run for it, but you can’t run from a fire that’s moving that quickly. The
wagon wheel fell off, Lamp saw the family was still safe, the horse went up in flames, and he
turned around for a second and turned back and there was his whole family, in flames.”
Leschak estimates the ambient air temperature at 500-700 degrees.
“Which means that they weren’t going to live very long anyway,” he says. “If your clothes are
bursting into flame, you are also doing extreme damage to your respiratory tract. I think there
was a lot of intense pain that went on. And I think that’s why for example there’s the account of
the one man who slit the throats of all his children to spare them this death by fire.”
The fire went out when it had burned up everything in Peshtigo. No one knows exactly how
many people died, but it was close to two thousand. More people than in any other fire in
American history. The survivors rebuilt the town, but it wasn’t a booming mill town anymore.
The trees were gone.
But that wasn’t the end of the monstrous fires.
As the lumber camps and railroads and settlers moved west, the fires moved with them. Peter
Leschak says the timber companies were making too much money to quit.
‘It wasn’t worth it to them to treat the slash, to log in a way that would not create such fuel. And
essentially that era ended when all the big timber was gone.”
Forests in the Great Lakes region wouldn’t burn so disastrously today, because the trees aren’t as
big and the forests don’t hold so much fuel. But the real lesson of the Peshtigo Fire might be that
it’s a mistake to ignore signs of disaster just because, at the moment, we’re getting what we want
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.