What was the worst fire disaster in American history? I'll give you a hint, it happened on October 8, 1871.
If you were to say the Great Chicago Fire, you would be wrong.
While the Chicago fire was a terrible disaster in terms of property loss, it also is proof of what good PR and a sympathetic media can do. There were no fewer than four major fires that fateful night, in Chicago, Wisconsin and Michigan. Some of them would burn out on October 9 and at least one would continue to burn for more than a week. When the conflagrations were over, businesses were ruined, thousands were left homeless, millions of acres of prime forestland was destroyed and more than 3,000 people perished, perhaps even more.
Conditions for disaster were perfect. It was a drought Summer and on the evening of October 8, a low pressure system over the central portion of the United States pushed southerly winds upward over Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. The winds swept the fires northward and acted as bellows, fanning the flames to intense temperatures, in excess of 2,000║ in many places.
Courtesy: Deana C. Hipke. The Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871.
In Chicago, a fire began in the home of Patrick and Catherine O'Leary at 137 DeKoven Street. Popular legend has it that the fire started in O'Leary's barn when a cow kicked over a kerosene lantern, but there is no evidence to support the legend. The fire was contained primarily to the area that would later be known as The Loop, although it did jump the Chicago River and destroyed much of the city. When it was over, the fire consumed 17,450 structures, including homes and businesses, caused $200 million in property loss and caused the ruination of fire insurance providers.
250 souls perished in the fire, the death toll could have been much higher with an intense fire in such a densely populated area. (The first building to be rebuilt in downtown Chicago was a department store, built by Marshall Field who began construction before all the ashes were cool. The store still stands and is still in business, but for some reason that I will never understand, has been renamed "Macy's."
In Eastern Michigan, fires in the "thumb of the mitten" in Huron, Sanilac and Tuscola Counites, destroyed the towns of Grindstone City, Huron City, Port Hope and White Rock. The Huron Fires destroyed over 40 square miles and killed over 50 people.
In Southwestern Michigan, fires raged around the city of Holland and later that night, hurricane force winds that were caused by the fires themselves (see Peshtigo Fire, below) moved into the city. Between 1 and 3 AM on October 9, most of the city of Holland was destroyed. 210 homes, 90 businesses, 5 churches, 3 hotels and boats were lost in the fire. Those who were covered by insurance never collected as most insurance companies were ruined by the weenie roast in Chicago. Miraculously, only one person, an elderly widow, died in the fire.
In Northwestern Michigan, fires surrounding the logging town of Manistee were whipped into firestorms by the same predominantly southern winds that affected the other fires in Michigan's Lower Peninsula and on the west shores of Lake Michigan. Manistee was perfectly prepared for disaster in the drought conditions, with stacks of wood on the docks, awaiting shipment. The town had many huge lumberyards with mountains of sawdust that were a result of sawyer operations. The winds whipped the fires into firestorms that, in turn, were whipped into greater winds caused by the great heat. Over 1,000 citizens were left homeless. Unlike the other fires that were blocked by large bodies of water, the Manistee fire burned out of control and headed east across Michigan, destroying well over 2,000 square miles of forest land. It left hundreds of people homeless and killed over 200 people before it was brought under control and extinguished on October 19.
In Peshtigo, Wisconsin, the worst fire in North American history occurred. When The Peshtigo Fire finally died out, it had destroyed 1.5 million acres (that's 2400 square miles) in northeastern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. All property in the path of the fire was destroyed and it claimed an unknown total of souls, estimated between 1,200 and 2,400. The total death toll will never be known because of uncounted itinerant lumberjacks and native Americans in the area, and numerous homesteaders that were not recorded after the census of 1870.
Conditions were perfect for the disaster, it was a dry summer with drought conditions. The last rain, just a trace, had been recorded on September 5. Because of the dry conditions, crews building the Chicago and Northwestern Railway line to Michigan walked off the job for lack of drinking water. No one is really sure how the fire started, but the area had been logged using a method called "slash and burn" where everything is clear-cut and the remains were burned in bonfires.
However it all started, several small fires were fanned by prevailing winds from the south, pushing the fires northward. Temperatures reached over 2,000║ causing updrafts, literally, fire tornados. Survivors reported seeing funnels of fire carrying debris, structures and even railroad cars into the sky. Hurricane force winds were caused by the intense heat which, in turn, whipped the fire into an even hotter inferno. The firestorm even carried it across Green Bay, starting fires on the Door County peninsula.
Courtesy: Deana C. Hipke. The Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871.
The citizens of Peshtigo and all the other communities in the path of the fire were helpless against the conflagration and it was nature that ultimately fought the fire. The fires quickly burned out the available oxygen in the atmosphere, sucking cool, fresh air down from Canada. The resulting torrents forced the fire back on to itself, driving it eastward toward Lake Michigan. Since the fire had already consumed everything, there was nothing left for fuel. When the fire reached the shores of Lake Michigan, it just died out.
Those who survived did so by climbing into the Peshtigo River or other bodies of water. Not everyone survived, many drowned and others suffocated because the fire consumed all available oxygen. Located remains were buried in a mass grave in the church cemetery. Bodies were either burned beyond recognition or there wasn't anyone left to make identifications.
The incredible heat left several strange scenes. The brass firehouse bell melted. Railroad cars were completely destroyed, leaving only iron trucks that were partially melted. Peshtigo's largest structure was wooden spoon factory. It was a five story affair, built with stone and masonry, said to be fireproof but it was reduced to rubble. At the hardware store, spoons were melted together into one solid mass.
It was the largest fire in American history, causing the greatest death toll and destroying the most property. Why is Chicago remembered but not Peshitgo? Chicago had newspaper reporters and access to telegraph lines to spread the story. Peshtigo had one telegraph line, and it was an early victim of the fire. The fire was forgotten for decades but the Peshtigo Fire is experiencing renewed interest as scholars are using modern technology to determine how it started and why it was so devastating.
The Marinette Eagle commemorated the fire on October 4, 1895:
On swept the tornado, with maddening rush, As years roll along and the ages have sped
Uprooting the trees o'er the plain, thro' the brush,
And the sky-leaping flames, with hot, scorching breath,
Gathered parents and children to the harvest of death.
O'er the charred, blackened bones of the Peshtigo dead,
And the story is told by the pen of the sage,
In letter's immortal on history's page.
No fancy can compass the horror and fright,
The anguish and woe of that terrible night.
As years roll along and the ages have sped
The fire is commemorated at the Peshitgo Fire
Museum in Peshitgo, Wisconsin, in the first
church rebuilt after the fire. A mass grave is
located in the adjacent cemetery, which is the subject of this NRHP listing.
For more about the Peshtigo Fire, see The Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871.