Fire Makes Wind: Wind Makes Fire


One of America’s great disasters might just as well have happened in a void so far as public knowledge of it is concerned. This was the tragedy of the Peshtigo Iorest fire in Wisconsin, during which some twelve hundred people lost their lives on the evening of October 8, 1871. By an incomparable irony of l’a te, this happened also to be the night when, in the barn of a Mrs. O’Leary, a cow supposedly kicked over a lantern that set Chicago on fire and burned it down to the edge of the lake.

Seventy years later, when I was in I’eshtigo to talk with five survivors, they were still bitter. One aged man pounded the table. “Who,” he demanded, “ever heard ol Peshtigo?” An old lady explained matters. “Chicago got all ol the publicity,” she said.

They could not have been lighter. The fire in the great city at the loot of Lake Michigan took its place among our classic disasters, along with the later Johnstown Flood and the earthquake and fire in San Francisco, while the little backwoods village near the head of Lake Michigan remains virtually unknown to this day. It is worth mention, I think, that the single telegraph wire which connected Peshtigo with the rest of the world was destroyed before the local operator could tap out a message to say hell had arrived on the back of a rising tornado.

I first heard of Peshtigo years ago when I worked in a logging camp where the sealer was John Cameron, an Old Nestor of the timber, tanned, seamed, grizzled, durable—a lignum vitae man. Perhaps because he had fought at Cold Harbor, in ’64, he still wore a beard like General Grant’s. That he also had survived at Peshtigo in ’71 made him doubly a man of mark. His story of what happened there haunted me for years.

In 1871 Peshtigo was a typical lumber town of die pineries. It stood along both sides of the small, swift Peshtigo River which flowed six miles southeast to enter Lake Michigan’s Green May. A narrow-gauge railroad connected the town with its port ol Peshtigo Harbor. The town was new and booming. A fragrant blanket of sawdust already lay in its streets, filled its eavespouts, and silted into its houses. Jt had been built quickly around the sawmill and factory ol the Peshtigo Company, a well-heeled concern headed by William Rutler Ogden, Chicago’s first mayor.

The factory was a forward step to refine the raw product at the point of production. Each working day the Peshtigo plant turned out 1,050 pails, 170 tubs, 250 fish kits, 5,000 broom handles, 50 boxes of clothespins, 8 dozen barrel heads, and other items, including 45,000 shingles. The two sawmills made lumber. All told, the company employed 800 men.

If anything more were needed to guarantee the town’s future, it was of course a railroad. Jn that period of extremely free enterprise it was not a practice of men of affairs to leave much to chance. The boon of rail connection was already assured by the fart that the Peshtigo Company s president, Mr. Ogden, was also an official of the Chicago and North Western Railroad which even then, in the summer of 1871, was extending its line from Kort Howard, on Green Ray, northward through Peshtigo to the twin sawmill cities of Marinette, Wisconsin, and Menominee, Michigan.

No proposition in Holy Writ was more devoutly believed in the Seventies than that Destiny followed the railroad. As the gangs of the Chicago and Xorth Western cut their way through the dense timber along the west shore of Green Bay, they laid the magic iron that “assured” Peshtigo’s future, and also laid the immense rows of slash (wood debris) which they set on fire and which were to help with Peshtigo’s destruction.

Then, to cap the pride ol the new industrial town, came Luther B. Noyes, to found the Marinette and Peshtigo Eagle . The weekly, true enough, was printed in nearby Marinette, but it carried the news of both towns. Peshtigo folks considered it their own. Editor Noyes started his newspaper in June, with three months to spare before the biggest story he was ever to print blew into town.

The town was lively in June with newly arrived settlers, with loggers and mill hands and drummers. They were cared for at the Peshtigo House, the Forest Mouse, the Hotel de France, and four saloons. On the west side were several stores and other places of business. Social life was not left wholly to the hotels and drinking places. There was a lodge of Good Templars in whose hall the Episcopalians held services. A Congregational church with spire stood on the east side. On the west side of the river Catholics had almost completed a fine church under the guidance of Father Pernin.

The immense forest, dominated by pine and spruce, began at the town’s edge and ran west and north, beyond the knowing of men save for a few timber cruisers. It was broken by several openings near Peshtigo where homesteaders had settled. Because of the fine old maples these openings were known as the Upper, the Middle and the Lower Sugar Bush.

Though Editor Noyes was alert to chronicle every step toward Destiny made by the railroad construction crews, he kept one eye of his Eagle on the weather, noting more than once that “the woods are terribly dry,” and he hailed with joy “a smart shower” on July 8, which he said was the first rain in more than two months. The rest of July and all of August and September were rainless.