- Historic Sites
Fire Makes Wind: Wind Makes Fire
On the same day that Chicago burned, the Wisconsin woods went up in flames. Peshtigo’s fire missed the headlines hut killed five times as many people.
August 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 5
Cameron and many other people started to flee down the east side of the river. Far too many others ran to the bridge, and there they were met by panicstricken people from the other side. Humans, horses, cows, wagons, they met head-on. The bridge started to burn. Some were trampled underfoot; others went overboard into the water where they might swim, or drown. The sawmill by the east end of the bridge seemed to explode in flames. The logs in the millpond began to smoke, then to light up. Cameron and others running down the east bank saw things they never forgot. Forty years afterward Cameron’s voice choked as he told of watching pretty Helga Rockstad as she ran down a blazing sidewalk, her blond hair streaming, and of seeing the long blond hair leap into flame that stopped Helga in her tracks. Searching the scene next morning, Cameron “found two nickel garter buckles and some gray-white ashes.”
On the west side of town Father Pernin, the Catholic priest, had, like Cameron, been sensing danger. At nightfall he started to dig a trench in his yard. Into it he put his trunks, books, and church ornaments, covering them with earth. Then he paused to look. Out of the southwest was rolling a fire storm that lighted the whole horizon. The priest turned his horse loose. He went into his house to notice that his pet jay was fluttering wildly in its cage, “uttering noises of alarm.” Picking up the tabernacle with its revered objects, he ran into the yard, put them into the buggy, got between the shafts and started for the river. The fiery hurricane struck in full force. The priest was knocked down and got up to find the buggy had been blown over on its side. He ran for the river.
Though the river was being swept by sheets of fire, it was probably the safest place that night. Standing in water to his neck, Father Pernin watched the bright tongues reach out over the stream to set the hair on the heads of men and women to burning. The heads quickly disappeared beneath the water. Some came up again, some didn’t. But down the banks tumbled more humans seeking damp harbor from the storm. With them came cows, pigs, dogs.
Down past the refugees in the river a burning log Moated swiftly. More logs came after it, all afire and hissing from steam, forming a steady procession of danger because they knocked people off their legs, then moved on, still hissing. Then, among these long floating torches came a sight that survivors were to remember—a cow swimming with the current, while hanging to one horn was a woman.
Clinging to logs were little Amelia Slaughter, aged nine, and her mother and sister, dousing their heads when the ribbons of fire reached out, then bobbing up to breathe and watch the drama that surrounded them. They were fairly close to the factory when a mighty gust of wind hit the structure fair. The building seemed to explode and to vomit a torrent of fire in the form of thousands of blazing tubs and buckets and handles and clothespins which tore through the night like small meteors. Refugees in the water now had to duck these missiles, which exploded in clouds of steam. The water was beginning to get warm, but it was still wet. It saved hundreds that night and drowned no more than twenty. Between nine and ten o’clock the entire town was burned clean.
On its way to the village the fire had taken toll in the Sugar Bush neighborhood southwest of town. Next day, “within thirty rods of L. H. Hill’s barn,” were found the bodies of thirteen people, twenty-three horses of the Peshtigo Company, fifteen sheep, two cows, two calves, and one dog. In the Middle Bush the Joseph Diedrick family of five was wiped out, and Mrs. Diedrick was found standing upright and dead, leaning against a tree. In the Lower Bush Mr. and Mrs. Charles Towsley and three children died, but not from fire: their throats had been cut. William Curtis, a lone homesteader, was another who did not want to be burned alive. He was found in his well, the bucket chain wrapped tightly around his neck.
When the fire had swept the Sugar Bush and Peshtigo it raced northeast, straight for the sawmill cities of Marinette and Menominee. The citizens there were digging trenches, hauling water, wetting down roofs. Most of the women and children went to the docks to board steamers, which then put out into the lake to remain until next day. The two towns had seemed doomed, but the long range of sand hills south of Marinette deflected the fire to the west of the city, though it lashed out to destroy a planing mill, a sawmill, and the Catholic church. Menominee suffered little damage. The fire leaped the broad Menominee River, however, and went raging on to strike with deadly iury the settlement of Birch Creek, Michigan.
At almost the same hour Peshtigo was hit, fire that seemed to come from nowhere swept the east shore of Green Bay, laying waste the communities of New Franken, Robinsonville, and Williamsonville. It also took its toll at Brussels and Little Sturgeon, where Belgians settled as early as 1854. Seventy-five died on the east shore.
Dawn on the ninth was little more than twilight. The surl’aceof Green Bay was so obscured that two men were stationed on the dock at Menominee, lifting and dropping heavy planks to serve as a signal of port to smoke-bound steamers bringing relief supplies from Escanaba. The sun was not seen, yet the deep gloom lilted enough to show survivors that both sides of Green Bay were a desolation of charred trees, burning peat bogs, and communities where “the sandy streets glisten with a frightful smoothness and calcined fragments are all that remain of hundreds of peaceful homes.”