What Caused the Great Peshtigo Fire?

About 250 people died in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The famous, or infamous, Chicago Fire remains a sad and well-known chapter in American history. What many people don’t know is that up to 2,400 people died in a much larger but relatively unknown fire in northeast Wisconsin. The Peshtigo Fire was the deadliest fire in United States history. Both of these fires occurred on the tragic evening of October 8 th , 1871.

The Wisconsin fire started in a small town called Peshtigo, close to the waters of Green Bay. The fire spread to cover 2,400 square miles or 1.5 million acres of northeast Wisconsin and parts of Upper Michigan. The Peshtigo Fire destroyed 17 towns including the town of Peshtigo where the most casualties occurred. The town of Peshtigo was wiped out in less than an hour. Along with the town, about 800 lives were lost.

“The Peshtigo Fire was so horrific,” said Debra Anderson, an archivist for the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Area Research Center. “Many people thought it was the end of the world.”

The Peshtigo Fire occurred during a period of extreme drought. The fire was likely caused by a land-clearing tactic called slash and burn, used by railroad workers clearing land for tracks. Loggers in the area also used slash and burn tactics, a process that left large and very flammable brush piles.

The Peshtigo tragedy started as a brush fire. Combined with strong autumn winds, the raging fire turned an October night into a blazing inferno.

There were many reasons the Peshtigo Fire spread so fast and so far. The types of industry in the region contributed. Logging, construction, sawmills, and farms all harbored flammable material. These materials included logs, bark, pine needles, paper, and sawdust that covered the floors and streets of many villages. On local farms, the fires spread from crops to barns filled with hay. Many of the survivors said the fire moved so fast it was “like a tornado.”

Once Peshtigo’s flames met the waters of Green Bay, they leapt over the bay and onto the Door Peninsula, dying down only after the winds dropped and rain started to fall.

Such a huge fire should have received more attention, yet its existence faded into history while the Great Chicago fire turned the heads of the press. One reason Chicago had all eyes was because of the “myth of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow tipping over a lantern,” says Anderson, referring to the way the Chicago fire allegedly started. “And Chicago was and still is a bigger city.”

Even though the Chicago fire was more colorful and more known, researchers still find the Peshtigo Fire worth studying, Anderson explained. Another reason the Peshtigo Fire faded from memory was because Peshtigo’s only connection to the world at the time was a single telegraph line. That outside link also burned down in the fire.

Wild fires still occur today. Dozens of wild fires have burning every summer in the west and northwest of the United States. Many of these fires force people to evacuate. Skies are often tinted an orange-brown color, the air smells like burned wood. This year’s fires caused a downpour of salt and pepper-colored ash from the sky. Meteorologists say 2017 was an unusually dry summer in some parts of the United States and Canada that are usually known for rain.

In the end, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan all recovered from those terrible fires of 1871. While those tragic incidents are now distant memories, experts wonder how well we learned our lessons. Wildfires remain a significant threat in many parts of the United States.

[Sources: National Weather Service ; The New York Times; Peshtigofire.info ]

This is a great article! I never knew about the Peshtigo Fire and I'm a bit surprised that people don't talk about it much since the incident did occur in Wisconsin. You have very smooth paragraph structure- keep up the good work! – Jacqueline Zuniga Paiz , UW-Madison (2017-10-19 15:17)
Thank you for covering such an important story and sharing it so that people still learn and remember the fire storms of Peshtigo!- The greatest fire in history happened here in WI and yet it is still unknown to many! Very well written and researched! – Camille Sanchez , MMSD- Schenk Elementary (2017-10-24 16:09)
Great article! I really enjoyed reading about the Peshtigo Fire. Keep up the good work. – Camila Cruz , Leopold Elementary (2018-04-12 19:11)
my kid read an I survived on this but this for school and then she searched the great Peshtigo fire, found this, and found out even more – Yasmina Maxwell (2020-11-27 00:03)