October 8, 1948
Anniversary Of Big Peshtigo Fire Stirs Memories Of Local Survivor
Know what the worst fire in American history was, measured from the standpoint of loss of life?
If you don't, you aren't very different from the majority of other Americans, but since next week October 8 to 15 is National Fire Prevention week, and since the worst fire in our history actually took place in Wisconsin, you might he interested in hearing about it.
An even more interesting reason for people of the Wisconsin Rapids area knowing about that "worst fire" is that a survivor of it hast been living here for the past 39 years. His name is Frank Leland and he is now almost 88 years old. But he will tell you his story after relating: the tale of the fire which reputedly claimed more lives than any other, in American history.Today is Anniversary
The fire occured on a tinder-dry day just 78 years ago today. It was Sunday, October 8, a scorching day in Little Peshtigo, which is located about seven miles south of Marinette in Marinette county. There had been no rain in the area for three months, and the heat seemed worse front the trees and brush which the railroad crews were burning. Without impending tragedy, life for the 2,000 people in Peshtigo was tiring and unpleasant in the hot dryness which pervaded the town.
Then suddenly, without warning and before very many conld weigh the danger, the conflagration swept in on a high twisting wind from the many smaller brush fires around the area engulfing the town.
What had been a dull red, glow south of Peshtigo suddenly became a greenish twilight, a wall of flame, and then an explosion whoch brought down trees and burning debris from the sky and sent nboth wild animals and humans into panic from whoch few were to escape alive.
Seeks Refuge in River
Out of the woods fled wild animals seeking protection in the river. Out of houses and into that same river surged panicked humans -- those who were lucky. At that, only some of those who reached the river were to escape alive - and those suffering from severe burns exposure and shock.
Many died quickly with the first rush of flames, later behind to be the explosion and burning of trees, then gas produced from super heated woods and marshes. Then following the explosion, the high wind whipped the flames into a frenzy that leaped the river and fired the section of town on the opposite side.Those in the river, though immersed as completely as possible, suffered severely from the fiery debris showered down upon them. Those who didn't reach the river were far worse off. In town the shrieks and prayers went unheard and unanswered in the roar and rumble of the esploding buildings and whirling flames. Buildings ignited like massive oil-covered pyres and fire leaped out in a dozen places at once.
A volunteer fire crew saw their hose turned to ashes before they died at their post under what suddenly became a roof of flame. Over the river, humans and animals rushing from either side, met in the middle of the burning bridge, then fell together amid burning timbers in the stream. At the brick boarding house 50 persons vainly sought to escape destruction. White ashes marked the failure of their attempt.
Boulders Split by HeatSome failed, trying to escape in the clearings where boulders half a mile from the forest were split and tree stumps and roots were burned out from the intensity of the heat. No human lived there. The results of the explosion, fire and wind were often times fantastic, always macabre. Where the fire volunteers had made their stand the iron tip of the tongue on I the fire wagon was melted, but the wooden tongue wasn't even scorched.
At another point where a heroic group of men had been seen digging a trench, nothing remained except the melted tips of the shovels. And Frank Leland while all of this was taking place? Well, nine years old at the time, he was at the small village of Stiles, some eight miles south of Peshtigo, with his parents, brother and sister.
Even today he obviously remembers the peculiar terror of the situation very well. With all of the surrounding area engulfed by fire, with roads ablaze so that thought of escape to a safer area was impossible-, Frank and his family spent the day right where they were. Animals, some burned terribly— the hair gone from their legs and other parts of their bodies—rushed into Stiles that fateful day to mingle with humans. "We surely though that we were going to burn up," Frank says. "And we buried our clothes and took precautions with food so that if we did escape, we might come out of the disaster with some of our possessions."
The next day, Monday, when the merciful though ironic deluge of rain fell on the area, Frank Leland and the rest of his family journeyed by stage to Duck Creek (just south of Green Bay) where they remained with relatives for several weeks.
But not many in the area were that fortunate. Estimates of the number who died have placed the figure anywhere from 600 to 1,500. What is amazing about the Peshtigo fire is not that these hundreds were burned to death, but that some escaped, although very few escaped unscarred. Among the few were 150 persons who had laid face down in a marshy area east of town. They were the inhabitants in all Peshtigo who entirely escaped physical torture from the fire.
How is it, you may ask, that so few people are aware of this terrible disaster in our own state of Wisconsin? Well, the most ironic touch of the entire incident is that the great Chicago fire occurred the very next day, Monday, October 9, and even Wisconsin newspapers devoted so much space to it that the governor of Wisconsin was forced to issue a special pleading with the people of this state to divert their gifts and aid from Chicago to Peshtigo, where the suffering was three times as great.
Could such a disaster occur today? Well, a great portion of the timber of 1871 is gone—a million and a quarter acres were burned out that day at Peshtigo alone—so that at least one factor that made the disaster is missing today.
And fire prevention habits, equipment and personnel have been greatly improved since that fateful day.