- Historic Sites
A Long-ago Calamity May Shed Light on a Current Impasse
April/May 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 2
There was nowhere to go but to the river that ran through the town. Soon it was filled with people, dogs, horses, and cows, while a steady rain of sparks and cinders descended on those huddling in the cold water. The local Catholic priest remembered that “the river was brighter than by day, and the spectacle presented by those heads rising above the level of the water—some covered, some uncovered—the countless hands employed in beating the waves, was singular and painful in the extreme… . When turning my gaze from the river, I saw nothing but flames; houses, trees and the air itself were on fire. Above my head, as far as the eye could reach into space … I saw nothing but immense volumes of flames covering the firmament, rolling one over the other with stormy violence as we see masses of clouds driven wildly hither and thither by the fierce power of the tempest.”
By 10:00 P.M. the town of Peshtigo was gone. But the fire was far larger than just the town. Indeed, it was two separate fires, one on each side of Green Bay. By the time the advancing low-pressure system brought rain the next day and extinguished them, the fires had burned nearly 2,000 square miles, about 1.28 million acres. Although the exact death toll can never be known for sure, the best estimate is that about 1,125 lives were lost.
In the Sugar Bush area on the east side of Green Bay alone, every member of 20 families died, and 267 bodies were found. Many people who had climbed down their wells to escape the flames were suffocated when the fire sucked up all the oxygen.
Peshtigo was, by a considerable margin, the largest and most lethal fire in American history. And yet, unlike its equals in natural calamities such as the Galveston hurricane of 1900 and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, it is almost entirely forgotten. Why?
The answer, once again, is simple: On the same day as the Peshtigo fire, October 8, 1871, one-third of the city of Chicago burned, taking 250 lives. And Clio, or, more properly, her minions in the media, are city folk.