Worst fire largely unknown

SUN JOURNAL

Disaster: In 1871, a firestorm in Wisconsin killed an estimated 2,500 people and scorched an area twice the size of Rhode Island.

October 10, 2003|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PESHTIGO, Wisconsin - Every school boy and girl knows the tale of how Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern in a Chicago barn, igniting one of the most famous fires in American history.

But few outside Wisconsin, it seems, are familiar with the story of another, more horrific fire that occurred on the same warm autumn night in October 1871.

While Chicago's business district burned, a firestorm raged in the northern Wisconsin woods, killing eight times as many people and destroying 2,400 square miles - about 1.5 million acres of woods, farms and villages, including the booming lumbering town of Peshtigo, just northwest of Green Bay. The area that burned was twice the size of Rhode Island.

"Everybody's heard about the Chicago fire, and that got all the publicity at the time," says Ruth Wiltzius, a volunteer at the Peshtigo Fire Museum whose great-grandfather perished while trying to escape. "Peshtigo was a backwards lumber town then - who had ever heard of it? Chicago was the big city. Which one was going to get more attention?"

More than 130 years later, Peshtigo (pronounced PESH-ti-go) remains the worst forest fire in the nation's history and one of its worst natural disasters.

The death toll - perhaps up to 2,500 people - was higher than either the 1906 San Francisco earthquake or the 1889 Johnstown flood, two disasters far more familiar to most students of American history.

And although recent books, including Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People and the Deadliest Fire in American History, lure the curious to the Peshtigo Fire Museum, the episode remains a historical footnote.

"I think Peshtigo is cursed. The fire's not widely known and the town doesn't publicize it," says Bill Lutz, a co-author of Firestorm at Peshtigo. "Why is this story not known? You see endless stories about Johnstown. What happened at Peshtigo makes Johnstown look like a birdbath."

Lutz, an English professor at Rutgers University, says the magnitude of suffering and terror that began on the night of Oct. 8 might be too much for the public to embrace. In the inferno, temperatures reached as high as 1,800 degrees; survivors recounted watching family, friends and strangers burst into flames.

"Fires are normally very fascinating to people, but people seem resistant to Peshtigo. Maybe Peshtigo is on such a large scale that people can't comprehend it," says Lutz, who, with co-author Denise Gess, used diaries, newspaper accounts and weather reports to re-create the catastrophe in Firestorm at Peshtigo.

The same elements that fanned the Chicago fire created the Peshtigo firestorm. The winter and summer of 1871 had been unusually dry. Fires burned across the Upper Midwest as farmers cleared land for crops and grazing. Lumbermen burned brush and debris as they felled white and red pines, "one tree so big it could provide enough lumber to build one or one and one-half houses," Lutz says.

In northern Wisconsin, workers were clearing a path for a railroad line from Milwaukee to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Debris was left to burn by the wayside. Days before the fire, the smoke on Green Bay was so dense that fog horns blew steadily and ships had to navigate by compass during the day.

"Forest fires were very common then," Lutz says. "People had the attitude at the time that they could conquer nature. Forests were to be cut down, cleared and used. Fires were part of that process."

All the elements needed to create a disaster came together on Oct. 8. A cold front had moved in from the West, bringing ferocious winds that fanned small prairie fires across the region. These small fires combined into one huge blaze until a blowup occurred.

And then a tornado of fire burst from the forest upon Peshtigo, a community of wood-frame buildings and at least 1,700 residents on the Peshtigo River. The firestorm swept through town, tossing houses more than 100 feet in the air, throwing railroad cars around and uprooting trees. Fires burned everywhere. Smoke darkened the skies as far away as Ohio and Baltimore.

"For all intents and purposes, those people must have thought the world was on fire that night," says Peggy Harrand, a volunteer at the fire museum, which is housed in a church, the first building constructed after the blaze.

The stories of survivors and witnesses are grim, indeed.

"The fire turned sand into glass," Lutz says. "The air burned hotter than a crematorium and the fire traveled at 90 mph. I read an account of a Civil War veteran who had been through some of the worst battles of the war. He described the sound - the roar - during the fire as 100 times greater than any artillery bombardment.

"The fire melted a train. You couldn't run away from it. And like any fire or tornado, it did bizarre things."

He recounts the story a man who, after watching his wife burn, slit the throats of his three children and then himself. In the end, the fire skipped over the family.

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