Natural Disasters The Peshtigo Wisconsin Forest Fire Part 1

About the most devastating fire in American history that happened not in Chicago, but on the same night in Peshtigo, Wisconsin.



Nearly everyone had heard of the great Chicago fire that started one night in 1871, but only 250 mi. north of that city--on the same night--a more devastating fire swept through Wisconsin. Peshtigo, Wis., was a small logging town surrounded by dense forest a few miles from the waters of Green Bay. Its 2,000 inhabitants had a good thing going for them. The railroad would soon unite the town with Milwaukee and Chicago. Their sawmill produced some 150,000 board feet of lumber daily, and the Peshtigo Company employed a good percentage of the population in its manufacture of woodenware. Little farms flourished on the cleared wooded lands, and fishing was good in the Peshtigo River, which bisected the town.

Summers were usually hot, but that year was also dry; there had been no rains, and by October the earth was parched. On the night of the eighth, the normal quiet erupted into the unmistakable hurricane roar of a dreaded forest fire. The river offered the only refuge, but the fire was moving too fast. For Peshtigo and more than half its population, time had run out.

When: Sunday night, Oct. 8, 1871.

Where: Peshtigo, Wis.

The Loss: 1,500 lives in Peshtigo and neighboring communities, 4 million acres of forest and prairie, and the complete destruction of Peshtigo, amounting to $3 million, and the nearby towns of Sugar Bush and Williamsville.

The Disaster: Peshtigo's economy depended on logging and farming. Through the dry spring and summer, therefore, the townspeople were very careful to clear timber from around Peshtigo and to bring every small fire quickly under control.

By September, however, wells and springs were drying up. Drinking water became scarce. Even the most optimistic began to doubt that the hoped-for rains would really come. Oct. 8 dawned cool with an overcast sky. The air was fragrant with wood smoke. At both church services the ministers warned that Judgment Day was approaching. Said one preacher, "I have prophesied that the day would come when God would punish man's wanton destruction of the forests. That day is coming near!" All afternoon residents anxiously scanned the sky for rain, but saw only a thickening pall of smoke.

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