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Peshtigo Fire

October 8, 1871
Full Fire Extent on Wisconsin and Upper Michigan
from
The Sheboygan Press
October 8, 1929

 

Today is the fifty-eighth anniversary of the terrible and unparalleled conflagration that desolated the Northeastern counties of Wisconsin, killing more than a thousand men, women and children, rendered tthousands of others homeless and utterly destitute and afflicting others with wounds and injuries .....The Peshtigo Fire.

The entire northeastern portion of Wisconsin was swept by the devastating and relentless flames rising out of Peshtigo and threatening the country for miles around with total annihilation. The territory included Brown, Oconto, Door, Kewaunee and Shawano counties.

The summer of 1871, memorable for its numerous catastrophes on sea and land, presented no horror as great as the Peshtigo fire which scared entire counties and left black, unsightly scars and a host of dead and destitute in its wake, where once had been pros­perity and primitive beauty.   A drought preceded the fire, parching the entire countryside and drying swamp lands which usually were covered by several feet of water.

The fires broke out suddenly in dry timberlands, insidiously working their way into the arid swamps and developing almost a furnace heat.  No  attempt  was made to definitely establish the origin as the entire area of timberland around Peshtigo had bro­ken into flames almost at once with a dense, suffocating smoke pall which obscured vision and render­ed the fire fighting even more dif­ficult than under ordinary condi­tions. The fires burned for weeks, raging at first only in the woodlands but later spreading to marshes and often encircle entire villages.

The scourge of the fire increas­ed,licking up miles of parched vegetation and consuming proper­ty while owners looked on, often helpless to save even themselves.

An intensified feeling of dread increased to a state of general calamity. The morning of October 8 dawned through the thick pail of smoke and without promise of the cherished downfall of rain. An unusual solemnity had settled almost as thick as the smoke from which it was born, in the village of Peshtigo and surrounding vicinity. A carnival of death ragging  about and stalked the flaming timberland, but there was nothing save an occasional hot puff of air to warn the villagers that the danger was more impending than it had been for the previous days.

Word of the roaring fire had, by this time reached Green Bay and with the dread of the possible spreading of flames to that community, the city was almost immediately panic stricken.

New Franklin, at sunset a thriv­ing village, was at midnight a blackened and desolate waste, its inhabitants either cremated in the burning debris of its business and residence buildings or fleeing half naked and without shelter. The fate of New Franklin was the fate of a large portion of the settlements on the peninsula, shown in the accompanying map of the fire.


About
this time word was re­ceived that Chicago was also aflame. It was as if to portend the horrible fate of the village of Peshtigo.

The village of  Peshtigo,  fire center of the raging furnace, lay on both sides of the Peshtigo river. The village was about fifty miles north of Green Bay. It was composed of an immense fac­tory of wooden ware, several smaller factories, four hotels, sev­eral grocery and general stores, two churches, several saloons, and residential buildings.

The wind had been very light the afternoon of the fatal fire. The calm was a trump of doom and keen fear rose in the hearts of the villagers. Suddenly, like a fiery tornado, the flames broke from their timber confines and descended upon the village, burn­ing the buildings before it and mocking the futile efforts of a small band of fire fighters who were soon forced to either flee for their lives or perish in the flames. Some chose the latter course; others were scarcely more fortun­ate in escaping without clothing, food or shelter.

The resulting cold and horror which was evident for days after the flames had partially subsided, was nearly as appalling as the fire itself. Foul gases rose from territories, almost un­bearable, and were carried far on the crest of a wind which had risen to the verocity of a tornado. The smoke was suffocating and the inflammable gas noxious to human life.

Out of the charred ruins of the once prosperous country rose heroic tales of hero dead. But the fire swept northward to the doom of Menekaune and other villages in its way. Marinette rallied against the flames, and only after days of frantic fighting was the fire frustrated in its attempt to add this city to the list of the devastated villages. A shifting of the wind filially worked to the sal­vation of the city, although it did not escape unscathed from the fire. Menominee was partly vic­timized, and Birch Creek—a small farming settlement nearby—was completely destroyed and all of its inhabitants burned. The entire peninsula was aflame, with the awful destruction of life and pro­perty continuing through days of endless horror and nights of un­defined fear and dread. 

The story of the final days of the fire, the relief to the sufferers and the generosity of the people in aiding the afflicted is a tale as touching as the story of the fire is appalling. Relief was rush­ed from all nearby quarters, hos­pitals were hastily thrown open and the sick and dying cared for. Provisions were showered from all sides to aid in the relief work, and a tale of sacrifice rivalling any in history was written as the terrorized fire victims, homeless and ill, were given aid.


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