October 8, 1871
It seems almost impossible that two of the worse fires in American history happened on the very same day on October 8, 1871. Did the same factors cause them? But there was a distance of 250 miles, so it would seem impossible for that to happen.
Peshtigo was a small, prosperous, rural town with a population of about 1700. Many were transients working for the lumber yards and railroads. Before the night was over, half of the town would be dead. The whole town would be burned to the ground. The town had the largest sawmills in the nation. Trees that were hundreds of years old, pine trees standing over 120 ft tall and three feet across.
Lumber was everywhere, sidewalks made of wood planks, sawdust covering the road to keep dust and mud down. Houses had wooden tubs, barrels, and pails and sawdust stuffed in mattresses.
Smoke was always in the air as lumbermen would clear an area, set fires to the debris and move on. At the same time, farmers felled trees then set fire to the stumps, so fires were almost always burning.
Toward evening off to the west, an orange, eerie glow filled the air. There had been no rain for over 11 weeks, and the winds were picking up
Peshtigo Engulfed in Fire
On the fateful night of October 8, 1871, a low-pressure cell with high winds covered the area in and around Peshtigo, and combined with a severe drought and lumber stacked all around was a tinder box waiting to happen. All of a sudden, the forest seemed to blow up, creating an inferno. The Peshtigo River ran directly through the town, and everyone that could ran to the river trying to get away from the flames. Smoke was so harmful they couldn't see even in front of them. Families got lost in the woods, and they would succumb to the fire, leaving nothing but bones.
The river was able to save many by keeping water splashed continually on themselves, but some drowned. It had to be horrifying, and some thought the end of the world was here. Many could never be identified, and a mass grave was created. A Historical Marker was dedicated in 2012, and the Peshtigo Museum has the town's history and some survivor's stories.
Because the town was so isolated, after the fire, there was no food, no shelter, and the sun was not seen for days. Many residents would relocate after losing everything, those with nothing left, wound up in poor homes.
The financial loss was $160 million, and over four million acres burned. Animals and birds were unable to flee out of harm's way. It is estimated the loss of life in the Peshtigo Fire was 1200-2500.
Some believed a comet; namely, a Biela's Comet might have been the cause, but scientists have disproved it was bot the case.
Although the Chicago Fire is remembered by most, mainly because it was a more substantial city of 300,000 and communication was better, and the town had more resources to fight the fire. The loss of life was estimated to be 250-300.
During this time, lumbermen would use the "slash and burn" job, unaware that land clearing could be so deadly. And, wounded nature will always fight back.
In the end, the cause was the prolonged drought, low-pressure cell that fueled the flames, and the logging and careless clearing of land.
fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on June 30, 2020:
Yes, and thank goodness. Thanks for your comment.
Liz Westwood from UK on June 29, 2020:
I noticed recently, when I was researching an article on Amsterdam that, due to fires, building wooden houses was banned in the city.
fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on June 29, 2020:
fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on June 28, 2020:
Thanks for reading. And thanks for your comment.
Rosina S Khan on June 27, 2020:
Good to know about The Peshtigo and Chicago Fires on the same date all those centuries back. It is strange, interesting and hazardous. So many lives were lost. Thank you, Fran, for another nice article.