The Peshtigo Fire: In 1871, a Firestorm Struck Northeastern Wisconsin, Killing More Than 1,700 People. with Courage and Confidence, the Survivors Forged a New Future among the Ruins

By Telzrow, Michael E. | The New American, March 6, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Peshtigo Fire: In 1871, a Firestorm Struck Northeastern Wisconsin, Killing More Than 1,700 People. with Courage and Confidence, the Survivors Forged a New Future among the Ruins


Telzrow, Michael E., The New American


There came upon us ... a wave of living fire, completely enveloping us in its embrace.

--Phineas Eames, a survivor

On the night of October 8, 1871, the same date as the Great Chicago Fire, several destructive fires struck Wisconsin's northeastern corridor. The Wisconsin wildfires, fueled by an abundance of lumber waste and aided by a cyclonic storm, burned over large areas of northeastern Wisconsin taking more than 1,700 lives with it. Known as the Peshtigo Fire, it ranks as one of the most devastating natural disasters in United States history, and as one of the most compelling stories of human courage.

A Dry Summer

The summer of 1871 had been a dry one in northeastern Wisconsin. Between June and September, inhabitants surrounding Wisconsin's Green Bay had scarcely seen a drop of rain. The Peshtigo and Menominee Rivers were at their lowest levels in years, and the tinder-dry vegetation literally crunched under the feet of the loggers, farmers, and railroad gangs who labored daily among the thick pine forests and cleared the fields of Oconto and Marinette counties. So dry were the conditions that even the sub-soil vegetation of the cedar-swamp bogs had been reduced to tinder-like conditions.

Despite near-drought conditions and the ever-present threat of fire, inhabitants of the region went about their business as before. Farmers worked their fields and did their best to keep their livestock comfortable. The dry weather even gave them the opportunity to clear more land, and smoldering stumps of white pine, maple, and birch trees littered the newly cleared parched landscape for much of the summer and early fall. Drought or no drought, the slash and burn method was the quickest way to clear land, even if one had to maintain a near-constant vigil against wildfire.

Loggers, too, kept up a blistering pace right through the summer and fall. The vast tracts of immense white pines and fast-moving rivers that had lured lumber and railroad magnates like Chicago millionaire William Butler Ogden to the region continued to provide a way of life for increasing numbers of immigrants. Reverend Peter Pernin, a Catholic priest serving the Peshtigo and Marinette communities, described the region's geography: "Trees, trees everywhere, nothing else but trees as far as you can travel." Not surprisingly, communities like Peshtigo and Marinette, Wisconsin, worked to the rhythm of the saw, and logging camps dotted the landscape for miles around.

But this summer was different. Unusually low water levels prevented the lumberjacks from floating logs downriver to the mills in Peshtigo and Marinette. Increasingly, they were forced to leave much of the fruit of their labor in piles alongside the Peshtigo and Menominee Rivers, providing potential fuel for wildfire. Logging practices of the period also produced a large amount of waste, called slash, made up of unusable tree branches. Tons of this material littered the logged-over land north and west of Peshtigo and Marinette. By the end of the summer, the unusually dry weather had completely sapped the slashings of moisture. In their wake, the lumberjacks had inadvertently left a deadly by-product that would help fuel the coming conflagration.

Where there was logging, there were sawmills. Indeed, they were ubiquitous--more than eight of them could be found in the towns of Marinette and Peshtigo alone. They turned out millions of boards and thousands of finished goods annually. The Peshtigo Company alone shipped up to 60 million board feet per year.

The mills dominated the landscape so much that a fine layer of sawdust blanketed the towns. Absent an adequate disposal method, the waste from the mills was disposed of carelessly, often shoveled into the streets, placed under wooden sidewalks and pine board houses, or simply piled into enormous mounds near the mills. Lumber was king, and sawdust was the by-product of progress. …

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