by CRAIG JAMES
Peshtigo is a small town in northeastern Wisconsin about 50 miles north of Green Bay. Most people have likely not heard of Peshtigo, but on the night of October 8, 1871, it was in the middle of the deadliest fire in United States history. Very little news of this horrible event spread across the nation because, at almost exactly the same time, the Great Chicago Fire was destroying much of that city, capturing most of the attention. Almost unbelievably, that same night saw fires destroy much of Holland, Manistee and Port Huron, Mich. as well as a good bit of forested area in the central part of our state.
The exact cause of the Chicago fire is unknown, but the blaze started at about 9 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 8, in or around a small shed that bordered the alley behind 137 DeKoven Street. The traditional account of the origin of the fire is that it was started by a cow kicking over a lantern in the barn owned by Patrick and Catherine O’Leary. Michael Ahern, the Chicago Republican reporter who created the cow story, admitted in 1893 that he had made it up because he thought it would make colorful copy. Would news reporters just make up facts? But I digress.
The fire encompassed almost 2,000 acres of the city. More than 73 miles of roads were destroyed, 120 miles of sidewalks, 2,000 lampposts, 17,500 buildings, and two to three million books. The death toll was between 200 and 300. The Chicago Water Tower is one of the few structures still standing that survived the fire.
The Chicago fire was small compared to what happened in northeastern Wisconsin that same evening. The fire in this area consumed over 1.2 million acres of land, which is approximately twice the size of Rhode Island. At least 12 communities were completely destroyed with death toll numbers ranging between 1,200 and 2,500 people. The following account gives a vivid description of what happened in Peshtigo, Wis. that night beginning around 9 p.m.
“A sound resembling a thousand stampeding cows or the ‘heavy discharge of artillery’ preceded the horrors that followed. The thick smoke made it difficult to see even a few feet ahead. Out of the darkness leapt large fire whirls that twisted off treetops while they burst into flame. Flames shot into the sky like lightning as the wind showered the landscape with firebrands, cinders and hot sand. One man recalled how ‘great volumes of fire would rise up, fifty feet from the top of the trees, leap over thirty acres of clearing and, in an instant, flame up in the forests beyond.’ As the fire continued it grew exponentially. Exploding marsh gases hovered over the ground like black balloons until they exploded above the ground throwing fire like shrapnel. Houses and people literally burst into flame. ‘The fire arrived… not as a wave or a surge of flame but as though it suddenly dropped from the sky.’”
Details of the fires in Michigan are somewhat contradictory, but it appears as if most of the business district of Holland was destroyed by fire that night. In Lansing, flames threatened the agricultural college, now Michigan State University. In the “thumb,” farmers fled an inferno that some newspapers dubbed “The Fiery Fiend.” Reports say that fires also threatened parts of Muskegon, South Haven, Grand Rapids, Wayland and Big Rapids. A steamship passing the Manitou Islands reported they were on fire.
Communications were so poor at the time it is difficult to reconcile many of the stories that have emerged about that infamous night. The cause of these nearly simultaneous blazes remains unknown other than the fact that conditions were extremely dry across the entire region from July up until the October fires, and much of the area was covered with dried-out woodchips, sawdust and brush from extensive logging going on at the time.
Theories have been proposed that pieces of a disintegrating meteorite ignited the inferno. Descriptions of fire falling from the sky may lend credence to this theory. Others believe perhaps the Earth passed through the tail of a comet, which provided additional methane to produce the fires. We may never know the cause, but we do indeed know it was a night of unimaginable horror followed by years of recovery. It is part of Great Lakes history we should never forget.
Craig James has been retired since July 1, 2008, after 40 years of broadcasting television weather. He was chief meteorologist at WZZM-TV for 12 years and chief meteorologist at WOOD-TV for 24 years. He is a graduate of Penn State University, where he received a Centennial Fellowship Award. He was also honored as a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.