original art work by Rita
October 8, 1871
In terms of
In 1871 Peshtigo, on the eastern shore of Wisconsin along Lake Michigan, was a rapidly expanding frontier village. Lumber was the new "King" of industry in the area and people were flocking to the settlement for jobs and new homesteads. Many came from the New England coast of the US and Eastern Canada. Due to the extensive population loss (estimated at 800 people just from Peshtigo village alone) and the absolute, total destruction of the village at nearly the center of the conflagration, the disaster was dubbed "The Great Peshtigo Fire".
HOW DID IT START?
No one knows, even today, with all the sophisticated technology available to go over the data and documents of that time, there was no singular starting point uncovered. The year had been very dry, and the abundant moist wetland areas (cedar swamps) had dried completely, making the usually moist peat bogs into tinder. Also, the hardwoods had shed their sparse leaves early and these leaves had dried completely. The evergreens had suffered much needle loss and this caused a thick carpet of dry needles on the dense forest floor.
Lightning is not considered to have played any part. People were not careful about fire, even with the ominous conditions around them. Formonths before "the Great One", trains' sparks started small fires, hunters and fishermen left campfires smoldering, homesteads had largeoutdoor bonfires to clear dead branches and stumps, sawmill wastes of bark and sawdust were dumped into diminished river and creek beds or at roadsides; even used as winter insulation around the foundations of village homes. None of these actually went so very far, but fires had broken out in the woods and around the villages for months and smoldered as far as 5 feet underground in the abundant dried peat beds. For weeks the air was filled with smoke, that was so thick and extensive, ships on Lake Michigan, miles from the Wisconsin and Michigan shores, had to use their fog horns, or rest at anchor far out in the lake. The smoke was as thick as heavy fog. There had been forest fires of much smaller intensity and all had burned out with limited danger to villages, but the isolated and uncounted homesteads dotting the thick forest were quite aware of the damage.
During this time due to the extended drought, itinerant preachers traveling through the area had preached that the end of the world was upon them all; hellfire and damnation. This was a determining factor in keeping many a person and family from seeking refuge in time. When the great fire came, they thought certainly this was the end of the world and would not move. Those attempting to save them often perished trying.
By October 8, having smoke and smaller fires was so commonplace that still others no longer feared a great holocaust would come before winter snows. Prevailing theory at this time is, that the huge area around the upper great lakes exploded into spontaneous fire all at once because conditions were just right and many smoldering points were handy to ignite the wind blown dryness. A weather front from the west brought high winds. The many fires grew, spread and converged to what is called the Great Peshtigo Fire. No one fire could have covered such an area in that time span or have grown into such a huge holocaust. Weather historians, using archives as a baseline , and adding information from recent decades, now offer a plausible theory. Meteor showers in Autumn are common in the upper great lakes. In recent years these showers have left burning chunks scattered over the entire region, some large enough to break through the roofs of homes and out buildings, starting fires in dry fields and wooded areas. With the tinder dry conditions present throughout the entire region on the night of October 8, 1871, such a meteor shower would easily have started what seemed like spontaneous fires in numerous places of Wisconsin, Michigan (upper and lower), and Illinois (the Great Chicago Fire). With the continuous thick smoke from smoldering smaller blazes already blanketing the land, and the unusually hot weather of that time making residents seek shelter inside their homes early in the evening, the meteors that entered the Earth's atmosphere could not easily be seen. This certainly would account for the sudden eruption of numerous blazes over the vast area at exactly the same time.
HOW DID IT END?
The prevailing winds were from the south at the beginning of the fires, driving them south to north along Wisconsin and Upper Michigan's eastern borders and lower Michigan's western borders. Such vaporizing heat in a large area, at 2,000+ degrees F., created its own environment of tornadoes and super heated hurricane winds, drawing heat upward. This is thought by meteorologists studying present day forest fires, to have created a massive "sucking" of cooler air from Canada and the Western US. That condition created counter winds, first to feed more oxygen to the fire, then strong enough to cause a major change in wind direction and blow the fire eastward, back onto itself. Having no more fresh fuel, it died out. The same is thought to have happened along the Michigan western coast fire, but in the opposite directions, trapping all the fires between the burned out areas and the lake.
- Oconto County WIGenWeb Coordinator
DEATH BY FIRE - There was no single record of those who lost their lives in what remains the worst natural disaster in US history (lives lost). This list has been gathered from newspaper accounts, lists of the recognized dead, first hand accounts found in books and magazines, descendant contributions, cemetery records, census remuneration, obituaries and any other sources available. It will be added to as names are found and sent in by descendants in the future. contact Rita .
THE SURVIVORS - 1871 Peshitgo Fire
They carried the physical and emotional scars of what is still the worst natural disaster in U.S. history (lives lost). contact: Rita .
Due to the intense heat that is estimated to have been between 1500 and 2000 degrees F, followed by tornado force winds and rain, there was often nothing left to identify. So documentation of even death and burial was not possible.
Children who survived were "taken in" by other families and often changed their surnames informally. "Unofficial" adoptions were common, and for a time after the fire, there was no place left standing to make out reports and file certificates. Keeping records took a back seat to survival, healing, helping, and rebuilding.
For more than 60 years after the fire, most survivors bore the massive, disfiguring scars that were so prominent on their heads, arms, legs, faces, hands and feet. They lived among the general population, some trying to hide their inner and outer scars, and others wearing them openly. The great loss that they represented has traveled down the generations of many families, who feel the deep sadness, even though the reason for it is no longer remembered.
It was the largest natural fire in the history of the United States. By some estimates, nearly two thousand people were killed, and tens of thousands were left injured and homeless. The total destruction included entire cites, factories, mills, farms and hundreds of thousands of acres of timberland in two states. Yet, because it happened on the same day as a terrible, but far less devastating fire in a well publicized city to the south, little is known of this tragic disaster. But the scars of that October 8th night in 1871 are painfully visible nearly 130 years later, both on the land, and in the families who were there.
RITA - Oconto County WIGenWeb Coordinator
Margaret WoodPESHTIGO FIRE MUSEUM AND CEMETERY - Photos and information on both to help you plan a visit. You are greeted with life as it was, just prior to the 1871 fire, through home, school and display rooms filled with actual items used in that time. Volunteers are ready to answer your questions. Admission is free. The cemetery is immediately adjacent to the museum building. Donations are welcomed by this local volunteer organization that lovingly cares for both.
Secretary of the Peshtigo Historical Society and Museum Volunteer
MAP OF THE PESHTIGO FIRE CEMETERY - with transcriptions and photographs of gravestones - an ongoing project
"BIRDS EYE VIEW" PLAT DRAWING OF PESHTIGO - This rendering was completed in September 1871, one month before the fire destroyed all that is seen. It had not been published yet, and was done so after the fire.
LIST OF FIRE VICTIMS AT THE DUNLOP HOSPITAL - Jacob May was the Steward at the Dunlop Hotel/Hospital during the time immediately following the fire and these are some of his notes.
FIRE POEM - The only known poem published at the time of the Fire
These pages are dedicated to the people who lived to tell of their survival and stories of the Peshtigo Fire.
All contributions are welcome for posting.
The Glass Family of Peshtigo - Albert Glass was 9 years old when he, his father, 2 brothers and sister faced that terrible night. contributed by:
Great Grand Daughter Yvonne Cinquepalmi
and Great Great Grand Daughter Gina Nelson
Big John and Jennie Mulligan - A new couple face life together and survive to help others.
The Helnore Family At Peshtigo - They came from Sweden for a new start in Peshtigo Contributed by descendant:
The Schmidt (Smith) Family Survives the Fire and Fred Smith's Obituary - Contributed by descendant: Pat Drees
Frank Olive and His Family At Peshtigo - Contributed by descendant: Carl Bennett
Couillardville Settlers Live In Fear Of The Peshtigo Fire - Oconto County Reporter November 11, 1971
Green Bay Advocate Fire Stories - The first reports printed about the Peshtigo Fire.
Stitt Family of Peshtigo and the Fire - Follow this family through 5 generations and the Peshtigo Fire.
Young John Kramer and His Family Survive - The Family had started homesteading less than a year when the fire struck. contributed by family descendant: Jeff Redding
Christian Felch and Family, the Bernardy, Hattenberg and Rawn Families Face The Peshtigo Fire - Civil War Veteran Christian Felch, his family and his neighbors spend years building lives in what is now town of Porterfield only to struggle together through that momentous night.
Anniversary Of Big Peshtigo Fire Stirs Memories Of Local Survivor - Frank Leland remembers the fire as a child, for news reports, 78 years later.
The Place Sanctuary - Taken from two early publications, it tells of the Place Family kindness and survival.
Forest Fire - Peshtigo Fire painting and brief biography of Artist Robert Schafe
The Forest Fires of Wisconsin and Michigan, 1871- APPENDIX page 475 of Great Conflagerations is the compelling tour of the burned after-fire areas and first hand descriptions of and by survivors, including several families from Oconto County. This book entry was originally written immediately after the fires and published for the newspapers in 1871.
The George Foreman Fire Letter - George Foreman wrote the FIRE LETTER on January 17, 1872 in Blue Earth City, Minnesota, to his mother and father. He and his family had struggled to survived the Peshtigo Fire October 8, 1871, but now face the brutal reality of that survival's aftermath. contributed by Peggy Oberbeck
Peshtigo Fire - 1871
by Mrs. J. C. (Catherine
McDonnell) Schweers. Written by: Jeanette Frank
Keepers of the Light - 1871 account - Account of the Lighthouse Keeper and his family on Green Island in the Green Bay of Lake Michigan during the "Great One".
Edward J. Hall Remembers - A native of Oconto reports his memories as a child at the time of the "Great Fire".
Fire Letter- A letter from Oconto County farmer, George Foreman, to his parents describing the first-hand experience of his wife Loo, infant son Linnie, and himself in miraculously surviving that terrifying night. It paints a vivid picture of the days leading up to the fire, the inferno, and the time immediately following the blaze. Just six years before the fire, George had survived the Civil War.
WRITTEN ACCOUNTS -
PLEASE NOTE: The following contain first-hand accounts that can be graphic and unsettling.
The Marinette and Peshtigo Eagle - Monday, October 9th, 1871.This is the first report the of the fire to reach the public, coming out on the following afternoon, and written by staff from Marinette; the newly opened Peshtigo office having been totally destroyed the night before.
THE FIRE FIEND - First report of the fire in the "Oconto Lumberman" on Monday, October 9, 1871.
The Marinette and Peshtigo Eagle - Wednesday, October 11th, 1871. First hand reports describing the total devastation that met the people who came to help..
Effects of the Fire On Oconto - Written in "The Great Fires of Wisconsin", published 1871.
HISTORY OF THE GREAT FIRES - written in 1871THE GREAT CONFLAGRATION- written in 1872
Frank Hammes - Old-Time Sheriff - contributed by:Clifford J Von Beek
following have been collected
Thomas W. GODDARD Photo included
Secretary of the Peshtigo Historical Society and Museum Volunteer
and Newspapers To Read On The Fire
- A bibliography
of old and newer selections that concentrate on the Peshitgo Fire.