August 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 5
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.
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.
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.”
Late on October 9 rain began to fall, just about 26 hours too late. On the fourteenth the Eagle came out with a Fire Extra. It was a single sheet, one quarter the size of the paper’s usual horse-blanket format. It carried the turned rule, the mourning mark of printers. Editor Noyes apologized for the dwarfed Eagle when there was so much news, and explained his regular shipment of paper had not arrived from Chicago; and Chicago, so he heard, had suffered quite a fire of its own. So it had, and because of it, weeks were to pass before Harper’s Weekly , the news magazine of the day, got around to the horror in the Wisconsin backwoods.
By then the name of Chicago was known the world over. Its fire had been a most satisfying disaster—expensive, dramatic, horrifying, and wonderfully publici/ed. It seemed not to matter that 250 lives were lost in Chicago, while nearly 1,200 died in Wisconsin. Chicago, as the saying went, got the wires and held them. Peshtigo didn’t have any wire.
Survivors of the tragedy of October 8 in Wisconsin agreed on many things observed: as the fire passed over swamps and marshlands, gases were generated which seemed to explode and become balls of fire; several reported “a great black balloon-shaped object which whirled over the tops of trees and exploded.” One does not doubt the reports. Physicists describe the phenomenon thus: The fire exhausts the oxygen near the ground. Gases rise in the void until they meet oxygen. Oxygen ignites the gas pockets, which explode in fire. This is one of the dangers to planes flying over burning forests. Occasionally they encounter independent masses of flame hundreds of feet above the tops of the tallest trees.
But more often the incredible speed with which forest fires spread is due to the tall dead old trees called snags, common to all forests. These snags are the first to ignite. The rising wind tears huge splinters of flaming, decaying wood from the snags and sends them ahead, sailing over the forest—five miles, ten miles—to drop at last as torches to start new bla/es called spot fires. Today the danger from snags is so well recognized and feared that timber owners spend a great deal of money to have them removed. Little wonder that fire crossed the wide Menominee River even while Peshtigo was still burning, to ignite the Michigan forest.
It is doubtful, however, that the fire at Peshtigo crossed Green Bay, though men on the schooner C. I. Hutchison saw her deck come alive from falling coals blown two miles, and a flaming board fell on the steamer Atlanta , seven miles out. But the wind direction was not right to have blown fire from Peshtigo to the settlements on the Green Bay peninsula. Those fires surely came from settlers’ clearing fires, just as those on the Peshtigo side were from clearing operations lor the railroad. Only the long drought was needed to turn any sleeping fire into a conflagration. The old saying is true: Fire makes wind; wind makes more fire.
The great tragedy was that the victims died in vain. Not for many years were the American people ready to do anything much to prevent disasters like that at Peshtigo. Peshtigo was merely the greatest fire in regard to loss of life. The forests continued to burn, and 62 years after Peshtigo I was present as a reporter to watch while the Tillamook fire in Oregon killed twelve and a halt billion feet of great old-growth Douglas fir. It is generally conceded to have been the most destructive woods fire of all time. That only one life was lost was due in some small part to radio, telephone, and good roads, but mostly because there happened to be no villages like Peshtigo in the region burned over.