Peshtigo, WI

The Deadliest Wildfire in U.S. History

Samuel Sullivan

The Peshtigo fire happened on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire but was far more deadly. There was less economic damage, but four times as many people died in the Peshtigo blaze.

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(Chicago in Flames by Currier & Ives, 1871 — Source: Chicago Historical Society on Wikimedia Commons)

“Heartrending accounts, combined with the fearful desolation that met my gaze wherever it turned, froze my veins with horror!” —Reverend Peter Pernin

Reverend Peter Pernin survived the Peshtigo fire by taking refuge in the waters of the Peshtigo River. He was the parish priest of Peshtigo and nearby Marinette, and during the blaze, both his churches burned to the ground. In his book, The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account, published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Pernin recounts the catastrophe in chilling detail.

The Peshtigo Fire

The Peshtigo fire burned through the night of October 8, 1871. The natural disaster is estimated to have killed at least 1,200 people making it the deadliest wildfire in American history by a wide margin.

Estimates vary to the number of people who actually died in the Peshtigo fire. According to Sarah Biondich in the Shepherd Express, on October 9, 1,152 people were found dead, while around 350 people were missing.

According to the Peshtigo Historical Society in Peshtigo Village alone, a town of 1700 people, it is estimated that 800 people lost their lives. Most of those who died were burned so badly they were unrecognizable.

The fire was so powerful it reached temperatures of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It was likely a firestorm with wind speeds reaching 110 miles per hour. The fire burned with such ferocity and speed that the air was unbreathable, and it burned through in one night. The immense power made the fire able to jump across Green Bay, which is ten miles wide.

Those who thought they were safe in their homes or buildings found themselves inside their tombs as primarily wooden structures were no match for the flames. Even if you could escape the flames, the heat and the smoke were harder pursuers to evade.

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(The Peshtigo Fire showing people seeking refuge in the Peshtigo River, 1871 — Credit: Peshtigo Fire Museum on Wikimedia Commons)

Humans and animals alike had to let instinct take over to survive. Those that rushed to the river and submerged themselves in the waters, holding on to cow horns and each other, had the best chance of survival.

Not all waters were safe. Three people were found boiled to death in a water tank. They thought they would be safe from the blaze within the waters, but the small body of water raised to extreme temperatures cooking to death the people who sought refuge inside.

Only the lucky ones were able to survive. Reverend Pernin acted quickly but is still fortunate not to have drowned, succumbed to hypothermia, suffocated, or burned to death.

The Great Chicago Fire vs. the Peshtigo fire

The drought across the Midwestern United States in 1871 made conditions ripe for devastating fires. According to History.com Editors, significant fires burned from Canada to Iowa in September and October due to the conditions.

On October 8, 1871, both the Great Chicago Fire and the Peshtigo fire tragedies started as night fell.

The Great Chicago Fire is the most well-known fire and was certainly a devastating tragedy. According to History.com Editors, an estimated 300 people died. About four square miles of the city were destroyed, which resulted in about $200 million in economic damage.

250 miles away from Chicago, the Peshtigo fire blazed. According to the History.com Editors, it killed at least 1,200 and 1,875 square miles burned, including some two billion trees.

Because Chicago is such an iconic American city, it seems to me that the Great Chicago Fire overshadowed the devastation of the much less populated northeastern Wisconsin region impacted by the Peshtigo fire. In truth, both fires were products of the same weather conditions that created a perfect environment for catastrophic fires.

Takeaways

According to Reverend Pernin’s account, as the fire still raged, he waited with the livestock and other survivors in the Peshtigo River. A woman asked him if he thought it was the end of the world, and he responded,

"I do not think so, but if other countries are burned as ours seems to have been, the end of the world, at least for us, must be at hand.”

I am in awe of the might of Mother Nature, and I shiver when I think of those who experienced the Peshtigo fire. The disaster wasn’t over when the flames died out. Survivors had to search for lost loved ones to bury them. Their homes were destroyed, so they needed to rebuild. Adverse health conditions plagued survivors, and they were forced to build an entirely new life. It is overwhelming to think about, but Peshtigo was rebuilt, and the town survives to this day.

I remember learning about the Great Chicago Fire in school, but there was no mention of the Peshtigo fire. I only discovered it while searching for information on my ancestors; I found out one of my ancestors Antione Moises Martineau was a survivor of the tragic natural disaster. He survived the Peshtigo fire, but one year later, he died from a condition resulting from his exposure that day.

Fires burn across the United States every year but, I hope the Peshtigo fire is never matched. It is a lesson that shows how dangerous and devastating wildfires are. Natural disasters of all kinds can not be ignored. Prevention and response need to be taken seriously to prevent loss of life and property.

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