Fire Makes Wind: Wind Makes Fire

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On September 9 the Eagle reported that “Mulligan’s brigade of choppers, axes in hand, armed and equipped as the railroad authorities direct, 32 strong, rank and file, passed this place on Saturday enroule lor the north side of the river, to clear the track for the railroad between Peshtigo and Marinette.” A week later the paper noted “Heavy fires northeast of the village [Peshtigo] in the woods.” Mulligan’s brigade was doing its work. On September 30 the Eagle said, “Last Sunday all hands turned out to fight fire in the woods near the Peshtigo factory.”

A feeling of unease becomes apparent in the newspaper’s columns. The editor reminds readers that the preceding winter had brought so little snow that logging operations were badly hampered. He notes that the streams of the region are abnormally low. He quotes somebody as saying “everything around Green Bay is parched and cracked.” During September several items tell of drowsing fires on the railroad right of way which flared up to burn an isolated sawmill, a lew cabins of settlers, and a logging camp. Another woods fire crept into Peshtigo village during September’s last week and called for considerable effort by the company’s employees to get it under control.

October came in, with a new sharpness oh the early morning air, but hot enough at midday. Here, as elsewhere, the coming of i’all gave notice of plans for the social season. The Eagle announced that the Good Templars of Peshtigo were to give two entertainments in the near future, one being “Ten Nights in a Bar Room,” the other a sidesplitting farce called “The Vermont Wool Grower.” Yet the Eagle ’s weather eye remained clear. Editor Noyes did not like the look of things. On October 7 he remarked that “Fires are still lurking in the woods around Marinette, ready to pounce upon any portion of the village in the event of a favorable wind.” There was further boding in an observation by the Peshtigo correspondent who wrote that “Unless we have rain soon, God only knows how soon a conflagration may sweep this town.” All was ready.

Peshtigo awoke on the eighth of October to find a copper sun in the sky and a village that lay baked and sultry in an autumn heat such as no man, red or white, could recall. The air was deathly still. So were the large flocks of birds, crows, pigeons, and smaller species, which were seen to form and fly away somewhere, making no sound. By noon the copper sun disappeared. A strange yellow half-light, which came from no visible source, reflected eerily from the sawdust streets and plank sidewalks. The swift, silent waters of the river looked bilious.

The villagers attended church services, then sat down to heavy Sabbath dinners. At the Peshtigo Company’s big boardinghouse the unmarried employees got an extra-good meal. The afternoon wore on, hot and still, and smoky enough to make eyes run. By supper time black and white ashes, borne into town on a still leisurely wind, were drifting through screenless windows and getting into the food.

John Cameron, the timber cruiser who wore a beard like General Grant’s, had just returned to town from a trip up the river. He sat now on the steps of the company’s boardinghouse while night closed down on this village in the forest. He could see a sullen red over the tree tops to the southwest. The smoke gradually thickened. At about nine o’clock he thought he could hear a new noise in the night, a low moaning, soft, deep, far-off, as of a distant waterfall. He knew it wasn’t water. Presently it grew into a roar. John Cameron had heard big winds in his time but nothing quite like the sound that was now welling up back in the timber.

There in the village the wind freshened to rustle the few trees that stood along the river. Then it fell, and a moody silence covered everything. Everything, that is, save for that deep roar far off to the southwest. Or was it far off? Cameron was trying to make up his mind about it when a whirling slab of fire came down out of nowhere to fall fair in the sawdust street near the boarding house. He brushed his streaming eyes, but this was no illusion. It was followed by another slab of fire, then another. Cameron got to his feet to shout a warning. “Fire!” he yelled. As if in answer to his cry fire poured down on the village like rain.

In a flash—it seemed to Cameron—the splintered pine sidewalks were blazing. Startled men and women crowded onto doorsteps and into yards. The top of a house leaped with sudden flame, then tore away on the wind. Down the street trotted a legion of house and barn cats, stopping to look back, then trotting again. A deer, wide-eyed and trembling, flitted out of the woods and stood stock still in the midst of town dogs who whimpered and sniffed but made no move to attack the wild creature.

It is a favorite myth of city people that things happen leisurely out in the back country, where life is in no hurry. They should have stood a moment in the smoldering streets of Peshtigo that night, to watch while a searing wind came into the town almost as swiftly as light itself. It came so suddenly that no one could say for certain what happened in the next few moments. It is known, however, that the telegraph wire was destroyed. It is known, too, that the fortyodd people who ran out of the boardinghouse in response to John Cameron’s cry turned immediately and rushed back into the rambling big building, and there they were soon burned to cinders.