Natural Disasters The Peshtigo Wisconsin Forest Fire Part 2

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



When the church bells announced evening services, ashes were falling fom a darkening sky. The ministers again prophesied doom. People hurried home to close their doors against the threatening smoke. At 9:00 P. M. the church bells rang out once more, this time to warn of a common danger. Falling sparks were starting numerous small fires. The hand-drawn fire wagon and bucket brigades went into action, but there were too many fires. Then from out of the southwest came the dreadful roar of a forest fire, pushing before it intense heat with gale force.

Stunned, the people of Peshtigo panicked. Some ran for the river, others for their homes or the churches. Some men sought refuge in the sawmill. One group started across the bridge, thinking safety lay on the other side. From the opposite side came another group with the same idea. In the middle, a clawing, senseless battle raged until the bridge collapsed.

When the full force of the fire storm hit Peshtigo, it was so hot that running people burst into flame and fell as charred cinders. Buildings exploded. The whole forest was exploding! Logs burned that were half-submerged in water. Everywhere the scorched earth was littered with blackened embers that once were people. Those in the river stayed submerged until their lungs rebelled and they had to surface briefly. In that fraction of a second, the exposed heads of many of them turned to cinders. Those who survived waded ashore Monday morning into a macabre scene of desolation. Peshtigo was ashes, and more than half of its population were burned corpses.

Aftermath: The Peshtigo fire didn't stop with the little logging town. It raced on to destroy other towns and 4 million acres of prime forest. Chicago, with its modern communication system, obtained immediate worldwide publicity and relief. Peshtigo? Well, no one heard about Peshtigo. It is doubtful if the full story would ever have come to light had it not been for Luther B. Noyes, editor and publisher of the Marinette and Peshtigo Eagle, a three-month-old newspaper, and the Fire Extra he published Oct. 14, 1871. In it he said: "According to rumor, Chicago also had a fire on October the 8th."

By 1874 Peshtigo had been completely rebuilt. Not so the surrounding forest. Dairy farms dotted the landscape once covered with trees.

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