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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Great Peshtigo Fire

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As we witness the BP oil hemorrhage devastate communities and ravage a precious natural resource, the past reminds us of a similar scenario that occurred in northeastern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP) 139 years ago—the worst recorded forest fire in North American history.

The year was 1871. Peshtigo, a small frontier town on two sides of a river of the same name in Marinette County, was thriving on the success of the region’s burgeoning lumber industry. Dense forests of oak, maple, beech, ash, elm, cedar, spruce, pine and birch surrounded it, and people exploited the resource to their fullest advantage. Homes, barns, town buildings and boardwalks were constructed from the lumber, and sawdust was used as a floor covering. Peshtigo was also home to the largest woodenware factory in the country, an enterprise owned by Chicago railroad magnate William Ogden.

As valuable as the thick forests were, they hindered some forms of development. To farm crops, a farmer would use the “slash and burn” method to clear land for his homestead. The northern extension of the Chicago and Northwestern Railway was under construction, so workers would cut down and burn the wood that stood in the path of extending the railroad’s right-of-way. Sometimes workers didn’t burn the trees and brush they cleared, and just left it by the wayside, where sparks from steam engines would occasionally ignite the piles in dry weather. The drought that northeastern Wisconsin and the UP experienced in the summer of 1871 had rendered wood as dry as tinder. Add human carelessness to the combustible scene, and small forest fires were breaking out throughout the fall, making the citizenry of Peshtigo, as well as those in other localities, so anxious that many began to bury their most cherished belongings. They had also grown accustomed to the smell of ash in the air, so when they went to sleep the night of Oct. 8, they didn’t realize anything was amiss.

In The Great Peshtigo Fire, a firsthand account written by a survivor of the tragedy and published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Rev. Peter Pernin writes that at around 8:30 p.m. “the menacing crimson reflection on the western sky was rapidly increasing in size and in intensity; in the midst of the unnatural calm and silence reigning around, the strange and terrible noise of fire, strange and unknown thunderous voice of nature.

“The wind was forerunner of the tempest, increasing in violence, sweeping planks, gate and fencing away into space,” Pernin adds.

By 10 p.m., the air was no longer fit to breathe. Everything, from homes to horses, was aflame. The largest group to survive took refuge in a low, marshy piece of ground on the east side of the Peshtigo River. The next morning, Oct. 9, found 1,152 people dead (and another 350 believed dead), the towns of Peshtigo and Brussels obliterated, and a scorched swath of forest 10 miles wide and 40 miles long.

Robert Wells, a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal, and author of Fire at Peshtigo, explains that a “convection column—a whirling chimney of superheated air generated by the fire—suddenly broke through the blanket of heavier, smoke-laden air into the colder air above,” thus creating a huge updraft that led to a fire tornado and whirlwinds of unimaginable proportions and temperatures.

When you ask a person to name the worst fire in American history, most will answer the Great Chicago Fire, which had a human toll of approximately 250 people and destroyed 4 square miles, and occurred on the very same day as the Peshtigo catastrophe. News from the small lumber town 250 miles from Chicago took days to reach the public, and was eclipsed by the sensational headlines of the Chicago conflagration. Regardless, hardly a community in Wisconsin failed to establish some type of relief organization for victims of the Great Peshtigo Fire, and with the supplies and assistance that poured in, villagers rebuilt Peshtigo from the ashes.