Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871

Dear George,

On our last drive up to Menominee, we stopped at the Peshtigo Fire Museum.  We’d been there before, but it’s always worth a visit.  Most people have never hear of the Peshtigo fire, mainly because it occurred on the same date as Mrs. O'Leary's great Chicago fire, and the latter got all of the attention at the time and thereafter.  However, loss of life was five times as high in the Peshtigo fire and property damage was far greater than in the Chicago catastrophe.  I was particularly interested this last visit because I looked at a map which detailed the boundaries of the fire, and I discovered, to my surprise, that our family homestead in Birch Creek fell smack within the northern section of the devastation.


The Peshtigo Fire began on the evening of Oct. 8, 1871.  It’s generally regarded as the most horrendous fire in U.S. history, having destroyed 12 communities and 1.2 million acres of timberland in northeastern Wisconsin and upper peninsula Michigan.  Precise estimates are not available because the fire destroyed all records, but between 1200 and 2400 persons died, and tens of thousands were terribly maimed and left homeless.  It’s called the Peshtigo Fire because the most concentrated loss of life occurred in that community, but, in fact, the fire covered an immense range from the very edge of the city of Green Bay, Wisconsin, past Marinette and Menominee which are fifty miles to the north and well into Menominee County, Michigan.  Overall, the fire covered an area of over 2400 square miles (twice the size of Rhode Island).


Causes of the fire included a mix of weather conditions – extreme drought, high temperatures, cyclonic winds – and byproducts of human activities.  Logging operations, sawmills, and factories left piles of dry tinder throughout the area; farmers set fires to clear hardwood growths for their fields; and sparks from railroad steam engines regularly ignited grass and brush.  Numerous fires were burning in woods and around villages for months prior to the conflagration.  Just after 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 8 Peshtigo residents were startled by a dull roar.  Flames from the scattered forest fires had been whipped into an inferno by the intense winds.  Within minutes the entire town was burning, and everything except one structure newly built from green wood had been reduced to ashes by 10 p.m.  The rains finally arrived the next day.


The Peshtigo fire has been described by experts as a firestorm. Temperatures reached as high as 2,000 degrees at its core and created tornadoes and hurricane force winds which propelled the fire across the land at speeds of up to ninety miles per hour.  Witnesses reported that the fire winds threw railway cars and houses through the air.  A minority of people in Peshtigo survived by immersing themselves in the Peshtigo River, wells, or other bodies of water, though many who tried to do so drowned or were boiled alive.  Years later U.S. and British military experts studied the Peshtigo fire in an effort to recreate firestorm conditions in their bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan. 


The loss of life was magnified because, during the period of extended drought, traveling preachers in the area had prophesied the end of the world through hellfire and damnation.  When the great fire did erupt, many believers concluded that the prophesies had come true and declined to seek refuge.  Others died in the flames as they tried unsuccessfully to rescue their recalcitrant family members or friends.  


As the fires raged, the flames moved northward and threatened Marinette and Menominee.  Most of the women and children in Menominee boarded three steamers that had been docked in the harbor and escaped out into Green Bay.  Remaining citizens dug trenches, hauled water, and wetted down roofs.  The towns appeared to be doomed, but a sudden shift in wind direction and deflection of the flames by a long range of sandhills south of Marinette led the fire to shift to the west of the cities.  The Catholic Church, a sawmill, and a planing mill were destroyed, but residential areas were largely spared.  The fire lept over the Menominee River and sped northward into Menominee County.  A painted sign that had become airborne in Peshtigo was discovered 15 miles away in Birch Creek.  That small settlement was totally destroyed, and as many as 40 people died there.


Our family, of course, were not Birch Creek-ites back then.  It would be three decades or so before my paternal grandparents emigrated from Sweden and nearly a century before my parents bought their Birch Creek Farm.  It is interesting, though, to contemplate this bit of history of which our family property is a tiny part.  We’ll keep an eye out for Peshtigo artifacts on our next trip.












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