Vintage: The Great Peshtigo Fire, the deadliest fire in American history
The Peshtigo fire was a very large forest fire that took place on 8 October 1871, in northeastern Wisconsin, including much of the Door Peninsula and adjacent parts of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The largest community in the affected area was Peshtigo, Wisconsin. It burned approximately 1 200 000 acres (490 000ha) and was the deadliest wildfire in American history, with the estimated deaths of around 1 500 people and possibly as many as 2 500.
Occurring on the same day as the more famous Great Chicago Fire, the Peshtigo fire has been largely forgotten. On the same day as the Peshtigo and Chicago fires, Holland and Manistee, Michigan (across Lake Michigan from Peshtigo) and Port Huron at the southern end of Lake Huron also had major fires, leading to various theories by contemporaries and later historians that they had a common cause.
The setting of small fires was a common way to clear forest land for farming and railroad construction. On the day of the Peshtigo fire, a cold front moved in from the west, bringing strong winds that fanned the fires out of control and escalated them to massive proportions. A firestorm ensued. In the words of Gess and Lutz, in a firestorm "superheated flames of at least 2 000 degrees Fahrenheit ... advance on winds of 110 miles per hour or stronger. The diameter of such a fire ranges from one thousand to ten thousand feet ... When a firestorm erupts in a forest, it is a blowup, nature's nuclear explosion ..."
By the time it was over, 1 875 square miles (4 860 km2 or 1,2 million acres) of forest had been consumed, an area fifty percent larger than the US state of Rhode Island. Twelve communities were destroyed.
An accurate death toll has never been determined because all local records were destroyed in the fire. It's estimated that anywhere between 1 200 to 2 500 people lost their lives. The 1873 Report to the Wisconsin Legislature listed 1 182 names of dead or missing residents. In 1870, the Town of Peshtigo had 1 749 residents. More than 350 bodies were buried in a mass grave, primarily because so many people had died, that there was no one who remained alive that could identify them.
Making for the river
The fire jumped across the Peshtigo River and burned both sides of the town. Survivors reported that the firestorm generated a fire whirl (described as a tornado) that threw rail cars and houses into the air. Many escaped the flames by immersing themselves in the Peshtigo River, wells or other nearby bodies of water. Some drowned while others succumbed to hypothermia in the frigid river. The Green Island Light was kept lit during the day because of the obscuring smoke but the three-masted schooner George L Newman was wrecked offshore, although the crew was rescued.
At the same time, another fire burned parts of the Door Peninsula; because of the coincidence, some incorrectly assumed that the fire had jumped across the waters of Green Bay. In Robinsonville (now Champion) on the Door Peninsula, Sister Adele Brise and other nuns, farmers and families fled to a local chapel for protection. Although the chapel was surrounded by flames, it survived.
In this video, The History Guy remembers the victims of the great 1871 Peshtigo fire in Wisconsin, America's deadliest fire.
Source: The History Guy