April/May 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 2
A Long-ago Calamity May Shed Light on a Current Impasse
Clio, the muse of history, can be quite fickle in bestowing her favors. Consider Aldous Huxley. It seems that nearly everyone who has ever been 14 years old has read his most famous novel, Brave New World . It has been in print for 70 years, and dozens of his other novels.
And yet, although he was world-famous, hardly anyone noticed when Aldous Huxley died. The reason is simple enough: He died on November 22, 1963, and another death that day—a far more violent, tragic, and unexpected one—seized the attention of the world.
A similar fate befell the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin. In 1871 it suffered one of the great natural calamities in American history, but hardly anyone outside Wisconsin even noticed.
The tragedy was a forest fire, a type of calamity much in the news these days. Last year forest fires consumed more than 7 million acres in the United States. That’s over 11,000 square miles, about equal to New Jersey and Delaware combined.
Part of the reason for the devastation, to be sure, was a near-nationwide drought. But something else may have contributed greatly to the problem. Increasingly, two powerful constituencies in American politics have been at loggerheads over how to manage the country’s forests: the environmental movement and the timber industry.
They are so antagonistic that whatever one side favors, the other seems to automatically oppose. Roads into national forests, for instance, would make it easier to fight dangerous forest fires. But environmental organizations oppose them because they would also make logging easier. The result has been a semiparalysis of forest management policy and, it is argued, far more damaging fires as the forests age unmanaged and dead wood builds up. What would be small fires—a natural part of the ecosystem—turn into devastating conflagrations.
One could say that timber was the very first American industry. After all, when settlers began arriving on the Atlantic seaboard, they were confronted with a forest larger than all Europe. Trees needed to be felled in order to build houses and to clear fields for agriculture. The resulting lumber supplied other early American enterprises, and the developing Industrial Revolution made timber one of the first industries to achieve national scope. Nearly uninhabited as late as 1820, by 1 896 the state of Michigan had shipped 160 billion board feet of white pine, leaving only 6 billion still standing.
Wisconsin, too, was covered with deep forest before settlement began. With Lake Michigan available to provide easy transport to burgeoning Chicago, a ready market for its lumber was nearby.
One of the main shipping points was Green Bay, the 40-mile-long finger of Lake Michigan that pokes into the Wisconsin coastline. A few miles inland from where the Peshtigo River flows into the bay was the town of Peshtigo. With about 2,000 permanent residents, it had 60 lumber companies operating nearby.
Virgin forest came up close to the edge of the town, and the white pines that were the dominant tree often stood 120 feet tall. Three of them would supply enough lumber to build a house.
Between January and mid-September of 1871, the mills in Peshtigo sawed 5,690,384 board feet of lumber. In the surrounding forests, piles of felled trunks waited for the next spring’s runoff to be floated down to the mills. Slashings and brush lay everywhere, as did vast mounds of sawdust. It was a world made of wood.
It was also a world teetering on the edge of disaster. Except for a sprinkle on September 5, there had been no rain since July 8, and the air was so dry that one resident said, “If a man touched a match to it, it would burn.”
Many separate fires smoldered in the humus of the forest floor. Smoke sometimes obscured the sun, which was often visible only at midday. On September 30 flames came within three miles of the town of Green Bay, consuming 1,200 cords of wood stored at a charcoal kiln.
The settlements in the area were becoming increasingly isolated from both the outside world and one another as railroad and telegraph lines burned. The fires seemed to wax and wane, depending on the wind and chance. On September 30 the Marinette and Peshtigo Eagle reported hopefully that “the fires have nearly died out now in this vicinity.”
But the paper was wrong, and the fires were growing. By October 4 the smoke was so thick on Green Bay that ships had to use their foghorns and navigate by compass. On October 7 the paper, reduced to looking for any scrap of good news, noted that at least the smoke had greatly reduced the mosquito population and that “a certain establishment clown on the bay shore that has been obnoxious to the respectable citizens” had burned.
The paper’s editor, cut off by the burning of the telegraph line, could not know it, but a large, deep low-pressure area was moving in from the west. The winds circling it would turn the smoldering forest of northeastern Wisconsin into hell on earth.
About 8:30 P.M. on October 8 the residents of Peshtigo heard a roar and saw a solid wall of flame advancing on them. The firefighters and the town’s only fire engine went to meet it, but it was almost instantly obvious that they could do nothing but run for their lives.
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.