Fire, Peshtigo, WI
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Tucked away in the forests of eastern Wisconsin is a town with a story that is horrific beyond belief. Peshtigo is five miles upriver from the western shore of Lake Michigan's Green Bay and 40 miles north of Lambeau Field. The history books have largely forgotten what happened here on October 8, 1871. Many of the references will note that Peshtigo was destroyed by fire and a lot of people died and isn't it strange how it happened the same night as the Great Chicago Fire?
Peshtigo wasn't destroyed. It was incinerated by a fire of biblical proportions. A perfect storm of wind, drought, terrain and combustion stirred up a witch's brew for weeks that finally exploded into a cataclysmic firestorm very much like those that destroyed Dresden and Tokyo in World War II. For several hours, it created its own weather, including fire tornadoes that picked up railroad cars and turned burning trees into unguided missiles larger than telephone poles. Survivors later remarked that "...this must be what Hell looks like." When it was done, there was nothing left but ashes. There was no way to fight it and nowhere to run from it.
People didn't just die in Peshtigo. They spontaneously combusted and were cremated by heat that reached 2000 degrees. They succumbed instantly from breathing in poisoned, superheated air. They died of smoke inhalation, were run over by panicked livestock and drowned in the river where they sought refuge. Others were crushed in collapsing buildings, impaled by flying debris and pulverized by all kinds of things dropping out of the sky on top of them. Still others committed suicide rather than face death by fire. There is one known case where a father killed his three daughters and then himself to avoid that fate.
The Peshtigo River was the scene of gruesome irony. People flocked to its frigid waters for protection, but the only way to avoid the heat was to stay underwater. To have a bare head above the water at the height of the fire was deadly. People wet their heads and covered them with wet material to survive. In the process, some died of hypothermia.
Dozens more died from burns and injuries in the days that followed. It was hard to get word out about the disaster and the local medical services were totally overwhelmed.
The Peshtigo Fire actually burned up and down both sides of the Green Bay and into the upper peninsula of Michigan. It is called the Peshtigo Fire because they got the worst of it. When it was all over, more than 2500 people were dead. More than one million acres of virgin old growth forest were turned to ashes as were over a dozen communities. Some never re-built and the ones that did were never the same. It was the deadliest fire in American history and remains so to this day.
The name Peshtigo is a Native American word from the Chippewa and Menominee tribes that lived in the area. Depending on who you talk to, it might mean "snapping turtle" or "wild goose." For the first 20 years of its existence, it was called Clarksville. Fertile farm land was up for grabs. The soil was good and there was lots of water, but the short growing season and heavily timbered terrain made farming a challenge.
Then came the lumbermen.
The first sawmill opened in 1836. The early ones were small family-owned operations. Farming, trapping, hunting and exploring shared the woods with them. There was plenty to go around.
By the 1850's, the country's insatiable need for lumber had cut down the forests of New England, New York and Pennsylvania. The industry looked west for new sources. They found them in Michigan and Wisconsin. Lumber became the cash crop of the north woods, especially the white pine. It grew up to 170 feet tall and six feet in diameter. Perfectly straight, with no branches for the first 3/4 of the tree, it could be felled, topped and sent straight to the mills. A good sized house could be built from one tree - and there were a billion of them waiting to be harvested.
The Peshtigo River was integral to the success of the town's growing lumber industry. From its cold water spring sources in the north, it twisted 94 miles (80 miles as the crow flies) to its mouth on the Green Bay, six miles below the town and its mills. Dropping over 1,000 feet in elevation along the way, it was the wildest river in Wisconsin. Its fast, free-flowing water became a natural slough for the pine logs. If they got tangled up in the winding river, a little dynamite would fix the problem. The Peshtigo River and its watershed were thick with geese, ducks, trout and cranberry bogs - a true gem in the wild.
In 1856, a financial powerhouse from back East named William Butler Ogden came to Clarksville. He had already amassed a fortune in lumber and railroads. Along the way, he had built much of Chicago 20 years earlier and served as its first mayor. Ogden knew a thing or two about potential and risk-taking. He took note of the abundant untapped resources in the area and decided he was all in. The Peshtigo Company was born. Clarksville became Peshtigo in 1858 and took off.
By 1871, it was a full-fledged boomtown. It had sawmills, grist mills, banks, stores, hotels, stables, a schoolhouse and three active church congregations. There was Ogden's Woodenware Company. It made all kinds of wooden tools and implements - barrels, pails, clothes pins, axe handles and more. It was the largest factory of its kind in the country. A new bridge spanned the river in town. A dam was built to power the new mills. Six miles downstream at the mouth of the river, a harbor facility was built on the bay and a new town sprang up - Peshtigo Harbor. Steamships from Green Bay, Milwaukee and Chicago arrived at the docks weekly. This transportation link would prove crucial after the fire.
Ogden built a railroad between the two towns and the harbor, going along the northeast side of the river. Spurs were being built into the woods to bring the lumber out of the camps. Another railway from Green Bay was nearing completion, with the goal of augmenting and eventually replacing the need for water transportation on the treacherous Great Lakes. Another line to nearby Marinette, WI and its sister city of Menominee, MI was in the works.
Despite Ogden's huge stake and presence in the town, entrepreneurship flourished. There were many independent shops, craftsmen and professionals. There were also several dozen saloons and brothels to entertain the lumberjacks, who were mostly single and worked 12 hours a day six days a week no matter what the weather. It was hard and dangerous work. On average, one lumberjack a day was killed on the job.
In the summer of 1871, Peshtigo was dirty, rowdy, noisy and prosperous with seemingly limitless potential. Dozens of people arrived every week on the steamboats including a boatload of 200 the day before the fire. Most of the newbies were Scandinavian immigrants seeking work and their little piece of this "Eden of the North." However, the seeds of its destruction were already planted and growing.
Fire was always an important part of life on the frontier and Peshtigo was no exception. Fire was used to clear land, burn brush, dispose of refuse, cook food, heat homes and fuel machinery. Hunters, trappers, lumberjacks, farmers and Native Americans built fires daily. Railroads, steamboats and sawmills put out sparks. Even the bullets used for hunting had a sizable fire signature. There was fire everywhere in the north woods. People there could not have existed without it. They viewed fire as people in Florida view hurricanes - it goes with the territory. Most fires were left unattended. Occasionally, one would spread and burn several trees or several acres. Sometimes they were put out but mostly they were ignored. In normal times these fires extinguished themselves in the damp, dark, windless forest. But these were not normal times.
The winter of 1870-71 was almost devoid of snow. Instead of the usual four to five feet, they got almost none. The spring rains came and went early. The last good soaking happened on July 8. The only precipitation after that was a light sprinkle on September 16. The bogs dried out. Leaves and pine needles from stressed trees fell early and thickly carpeted the forest floor. Bark and branches at lumber sites dried out as did the sawdust at the mills. The river flow was way down and had a major effect on lumbering operations. Lumber camp bosses had to stack their timber on site because the water flow wasn't enough to move them downstream. At the mills, there was no dumping of sawdust into the water because it just sat there. Huge piles of sawdust were everywhere. It was poured in the streets, under porches and sidewalks, in gardens and flower beds, even stuffed in mattresses.
Other fuel was adding to the deadly mix. The mills and the railroad had large quantities of industrial cleaners, lubricants, wood treatment and paint. The peat bogs contained highly flammable methane gas, a natural byproduct of carbon decomposition. Usually held in by moisture, the parched bogs emitted methane that swirled in the atmosphere for weeks
The entire north woods was turning into a bone dry tinderbox but the burning continued. Now, instead of dying out on their own, the fires went dormant. They smoldered under the fuel on the ground and consumed the roots of trees. In the peat bogs, coals could smolder as much as five feet down. Sparks and hot coals were a constant threat. People traveling the roads at night saw red coals glowing and tiny flames sputtering in the dark. Fires began erupting with increasing size and frequency. The residents of Peshtigo began to wonder how safe the town was.
Peshtigo had no fire department, so fire fighting was a community effort with buckets and hand tools. William Ogden's lumber company had a single hand-cranked pumper available. They placed barrels of water around the town and stationed a 24 hour fire watch at the mills. Church bells and the sawmill steam whistle were used to summon the citizenry to action. Fire fighting became almost a daily occurrence somewhere in the area.
Additionally, people made their own preparations. Some dug root cellars and underground storm shelters. Others planned escape routes. People buried their valuables and in general made preparations for a quick getaway should the town catch fire.
Along with the fires came smoke. For weeks in the late summer and early fall of 1871, Peshtigo was enveloped by thick, acrid smoke. At times, visibility during the day was less than 30 feet. The smoke obscured the entire region. The Green Island Lighthouse offshore had to run the lamp and the foghorn 24 hours a day. Along with the sounds of industry and commerce came another sound - the hacking cough that affected almost everyone. Schools and shops closed and people walked with their heads down, holding cloths over their faces.
By the end of September, major fires were burning in northeast Wisconsin and all around Peshtigo. At night, all eyes were on the horizon, which usually glowed crimson and orange in at least one direction. The residents were sick, worn out and on edge, afraid that it was only a matter of time before one of the blazes invaded the town.
On Sunday, September 24, the Big One they feared looked like it was upon them. A blaze came in from the west. A shower of red hot coals set small fires in the town as the flames moved in. The townspeople doused the small fires while others frantically cleared brush for a fire break and threw water on it. Buildings were covered with wet blankets. The heat and smoke were brutal, but at the last minute, the wind shifted and the town was spared. It also cleared out a lot of the smoke.
After the close call on September 24, some people began to cautiously hope that maybe the worst was over. Providence and fire fighting efforts had saved them so far and the start of the autumn/winter precipitation couldn't be that far off. Others weren't so sure. There was still a lot of fire left out there and a lot of woods to burn. The optimists were right about one thing. Precipitation was not far off. Cold, soaking rains would come just 15 days later - the day after Peshtigo was wiped out.
Every fire has hot air rising from it. This is called a convection column. The colder air in the surrounding atmosphere attempts to rush in and re-establish equilibrium. Some fires, like small campfires, may have a convection column only two or three feet high. Above that, equilibrium is established. The fire is stable and controlled. This constant battle between hot and cold creates turbulence. In a small campfire, it explains why the smoke seems to blow every direction at once. Firestorm convection columns can reach up to 50,000 feet and suck in enormous amounts of cooler air. In this situation, the collision of hot and cold creates wind and cyclonic flow on a huge scale and accounts for the power and unpredictability of big fires.
Firestorms are formed when multiple smaller fires come together, usually propelled by the wind. Now there are multiple convection columns added into the mix fighting themselves as well as the outside air. This multiplies the power of all of them. This violent collision of air masses and columns makes firestorms ebb and flow, flare up and die down, double back on themselves, throw sheets of flame across the sky and send waves of fire along the ground. A firestorm keeps churning and burning until it runs out of fuel, which is just about anything it touches including dirt, sand and brick.
A firestorm may be the most intense destructive force that nature can unleash. Nothing in man's fire fighting arsenal can stop them. Part forest fire, part cyclone and part napalm bomb, they can be miles wide and miles high. They generate enough heat to turn sand into glass and enough wind to pick up railroad cars. With the superheated air overwhelming everything around it, they create their own weather. Gale force winds are an additional destructive element of firestorms. The really big ones, though, can generate full blown tornadoes made of fire - and the Peshtigo Fire was a really big one. In fact, the town was about to be hit by the biggest firestorm the North American continent has ever seen - before or since.
There are no pictures of the Peshtigo Fire but given that it was bigger than anything yet recorded, it must have been enormous. There are numerous eye witness accounts from survivors. Although they vary in detail depending on age, location and perspective, they all paint a picture of horror and destruction that is incomprehensible. It's a miracle that anyone survived at all.
The day before the Apocalypse, two monster weather fronts collided several hundred miles to the west. A cold front from Canada and a warm front from the south ran into each other over Nebraska and sealed the fate of Peshtigo. The gale force winds they generated turned small prairie fires into infernos in southern Minnesota. Then the winds headed into Wisconsin, where the smoldering coals and sputtering flames awaited.
Sunday, October 8 was another hot, smoky day in Peshtigo. The winds shifted to the southwest and picked up during the day. The harbor became obscured with smoke and the stiff wind made docking difficult. In the afternoon, white ash began to fall like snow.
Evening church services ended at 8:30. Around 9:00, a dead silence fell over the town, followed by a roar which could soon be heard over everything. The crimson horizon to the south turned bright as day. The winds became hurricane force. White ash fell in blizzard proportions. Showers of hot coals rained down, starting fires in the town and the forest beyond. Wildlife raced out the woods at full speed and thousands of birds fled their nighttime roosts.
Then came the first flames - tongues of fire overhead reaching out several hundred yards like scouts probing a target. The approaching cold front had united dozens of smaller fires into a wall of flame three miles wide and a half mile high with 100 mph winds and 2000 degree temperatures. There would be no fire fighting on this night.
In the blink of an eye, the fire was all around and inside the town. Escape routes were cut off. Any contingency plans that people had made went up in smoke with everything else. Folks headed for the bridge, thinking the river would stop the fire. The east side went west. The west side moved east. Smoke and walls of superheated sand and dirt blew horizontally making visibility almost nil. Nobody could see or hear anything. The bridge was full of panicked people when it caught fire itself and collapsed into the water.
The river offered little refuge, but it was better than nothing. Logs and debris on the surface caught fire spontaneously and floated away burning. The people in the river kept wetting their heads or holding them underwater as long as they could over and over again. Some covered their heads with wet clothes and blankets. They dried out and ignited almost instantly. Others covered up with pots and pans, which became too hot to handle. Meanwhile, below the surface, the river's ice cold spring-fed water slowly began to suck the life out of people standing neck deep in it.
Outside the river was worse. Hot, poisonous gas and superheated air stalked the town. Wells burned and boiled, sometimes with people in them. Storm shelters, root cellars, culverts and basements turned into crematoriums. Exposed skin burned. Dry hair and clothes ignited. Lungs seared. Eyeballs were especially susceptible to these onslaughts and many people were blinded. There was nowhere to go.
The abundant fuel in and around the town increased the ferocity of the fire even more. It turned on itself and created a fire tornado. The cyclone demolished buildings, uprooted trees and sucked tons of burning material high into the air, only to drop it on to whatever or whomever was below.
The soil itself was burning, powder dry with sawdust ground into it. At the height of the conflagration, a dome of flames arched over the town. Many survivors said the sky was on fire.
Survivors also reported a phenomenon which has never been fully explained. They saw dark, ball-shaped objects come streaking out of the flames and explode on contact with anything, much like napalm. Several accounts refer to them as "fire balloons." Some theorize it was methane gas or some other carbon byproduct. Others have said it was pine sap, thinned by the heat, concentrated by the wind like a centrifuge and spit out. Whatever they were, they appear to have been unique to the Peshtigo disaster. There are no recordings of similar occurrences in other fires.
By midnight, Peshtigo was reduced to ashes and 1000 people were dead. Residual and secondary fires continued to burn but the firestorm finally starved to death from lack of fuel. Wildfires continued to rage on their way to Marinette in the north and on the east side of the bay. Even ships miles offshore were assaulted with heat, wind and falling debris. Before the night was over, a dozen communities and another 1000 people would perish on the shores of the Bay.
Peshtigo got the worst of it. After the storm, the ground was too hot to walk on and stunned people weren't taking any chances. They stayed in the frigid water as long as they could. Around 3:00 AM, they started to venture out - cold, burned, naked, thirsty and blind. The fire they had dreaded for weeks and could never have prepared for was over. For the living, the ordeal was just beginning, as daylight would soon reveal.
New horrors and problems began immediately as the survivors began to emerge. Those coming out of the river had to push past floating bodies. They also tripped over corpses, carcasses and debris which carpeted the river bottom.
Other survivors came out of the woods and marshes. Regardless of how or where they survived, few if any were uninjured. Many of the people were in nightclothes and warmth became the first priority. The cold front that had whipped up the fires dropped the temperature 40 degrees overnight. The leftovers of the fire which had threatened them now provided some measure of comfort and dryness. It didn't last long. Later in the day, the soaking rains which they had desperately needed finally arrived and extinguished all fires.
As the horizon brightened before sun up, the extent of the devastation became apparent. The town of Peshtigo was completely gone. In its place was a landscape that looked like the surface of the moon littered with the dead - people, wildlife, livestock. No buildings or streets. No birds. No trees. No bushes. Thousands of fish were floating dead on the river surface. To this day, no one really knows what killed them. Not a single living thing was seen anywhere. Even the land itself had burned and blown away to a depth of up to two feet, leaving sand and stone where there had once been fertile soil.
Local help arrived fairly quickly. Peshtigo Harbor, the little town down by the bay, was untouched and had a large sawmill. The people there loaded up wagons with lumber and nails. First priority - build coffins to bury the dead.
A formal search for casualties and an accounting of the dead were never conducted. People went looking for family and friends, often finding dozens of dead along the way. Some remains were simply powder with a melted ring or belt buckle in the middle. Others were blackened and charred, falling apart when touched. Still others looked as if they were sleeping, killed by smoke or gas but untouched by fire. Some were identified. Hundreds weren't. No one will ever know how many people were vaporized to dust and just blew away. Whatever remains were found were put in coffins and taken to the cemetery. In the days that followed, burial wagons lined up for several miles.
The city of Marinette, seven miles to the northeast, also answered the call even though they had problems of their own. The wildfires had gotten to the edge of the city before hitting sand dunes and veering off. They immediately packed up supplies and went to Peshtigo. They had to go by boat since the roads were blocked by hundreds of downed trees. On every supply run, they returned with casualties.
Government disaster relief was almost unheard of in 1871 but they rose to the occasion once they found out what happened. All lines of communication were down and the Great Chicago Fire, which started the same night and was still burning, was international news. The nearest working telegraph terminal was in Green Bay, so a boat had to go there and get the word out. It took two days. When news got to Madison, the Governor's office sent trainloads of supplies to Green Bay. From there, lake boats got them to Peshtigo and returned with casualties and refugees. Aid came in from all over the world. Manufacturers donated tools, bedding and clothing. The Army opened its warehouses and issued blankets, rations and horse tack. The docks of Green Bay and Milwaukee were stacked with stuff headed to Peshtigo.
The recovery operation really was a remarkable achievement, especially for its time and the remote location. It would be several years before Peshtigo was recognizable as a town again. However, soon people were asking "What is to become of Peshtigo?" A lot of that depended on William Ogden. Losses in both Chicago and Peshtigo had cost him millions, but without him, the town was finished.
Soon after the fire, Ogden announced that Peshtigo would be re-built "...as fast as time and men will allow." True to his word, he showed up and lived in Peshtigo Harbor for two months. He personally oversaw the re-building of mills and infrastructure, including the repair and completion of the railroad from Peshtigo Harbor to Peshtigo to Marinette and its Michigan twin city Menominee.
While the city leadership envisioned a new and improved boomtown, Ogden had other ideas. The woodenware factory was not re-built, to the dismay of many. It had never been profitable and Ogden wrote it off. After the railroad, his big push was the mills. There was still plenty of lumber in the Northwoods and Peshtigo could still handle it. A large modern mill was constructed in Peshtigo. However, Ogden placed equal or greater efforts into building new mills in Peshtigo Harbor. Whether it would do any good or not remained to be seen. After two months at the harbor town with the re-building in progress, Ogden left and never returned. The future of the lumber industry and its town was up in the air.
Agriculture was in even worse shape. All the basics of farming - horses, seeds, barns, plows, soil and farmers - were in very short supply. The land was dead, the water was fouled and winter was just around the corner.
The winter of 1871-72 was brutal. The people that remained in the Peshtigo area eked out a barebones existence in ramshackle temporary buildings eating Army rations. But farmers are eternal optimists and many looked forward to the spring planting to rejuvenate the area.
Planting season in the spring of 1872 was an exercise in hope and heartbreak. Despite heavily depleted resources and minimal tools, crops were planted, only to become food for the one living species the fire didn't touch - armyworms. The worms emerged from deep in the earth looking for food and headed straight for the farmers' fields. There were millions of them. They formed a moving green slimy mass that filled up wells, polluted the river and stripped the crops. The birds and mammals that would normally feast on them were gone and soon the spring planting was too.
Finally, a natural predator showed up - tiny blood sucking parasitic flies that laid their eggs inside the worms. They descended on the slimy mass and everything else in thick black clouds. It was all too much to overcome. There were no crops in 1872. Peshtigo was hanging by a thread.
The year 1873 was better. Crops survived and the semblance of a town was starting to take shape. Peshtigo would survive but its boom days were over. In fact, the entire burned up region was a dead zone for over 20 years. As the decades passed, industries, people and prosperity came and went. Given all it suffered, it's a wonder that Peshtigo is even around today. The grit and ingenuity of the people kept it going.
If the old city fathers came back, they would be impressed. Peshtigo is a clean, vibrant, friendly and prosperous community once again surrounded by the trees of the north woods. The Peshtigo River now has six dams. The hunting and fishing are still great and there are a host of other outdoor activities, including the best white water rafting in Wisconsin.
Be sure to check out the Peshtigo Fire Museum and the cemetery next door.
Did we mention there are geocaches around here? There are several in the town and more along the river. The shoreline of Green Bay has several. Others can be found at the old Pauper Cemetery outside of town, the old railroad bridge in town and various boat landings. Almost all are kid and family friendly. You can pick up a quick 10-12 caches while exploring the town, the river and the parks.
If you finish in Peshtigo or want to do some power caching, check out Marinette, WI and its sister city Menominee, MI. They're only seven miles up the road on Highway 41. These waterfront cities are bigger and more industrialized that Peshtigo and have a real nautical atmosphere. They also have about 50 geocaches. Many of them are on the shoreline and along the river.
In both areas, the terrain is no problem. Difficulty levels vary from 1-4 stars. Beware of muggles!
The GPS coordinates to the Peshtigo Fire Museum are 45.055645, -87.753329. Click on the coordinates for an interactive Google map.
The stories of human tragedy and courage in the Peshtigo Fire are too numerous to mention and we'll never know them all. Here's a few we came across which really gave us pause. We offer them as a memorial to all the victims, rescuers and re-builders of Peshtigo.
Father Peter Pernin was the Catholic priest of St. Mary's church in Peshtigo. The day of the fire, he worked feverishly burying sacred church items in an attempt to save them. As the flames approached, he put the church Tabernacle in the river and barely escaped with his life. He stayed in the water until 3:00 AM, supporting and encouraging people as much as he could. His face was badly burned, resulting in temporary blindness and difficulty eating and drinking. The church, his home and all his possessions were destroyed. He also had a church in Marinette. It was one of the few structures destroyed in that fire, which largely spared the town. Nevertheless, he ministered to his flock without let up. Father Pernin was a rock for his parish before, during and after the fire and his health suffered greatly from the ordeal. He left shortly after the fire and was assigned to non-parish duties. In 1874, he provided an account of his experience to a magazine in Montreal to raise money for new churches. That magazine article became the most detailed and chilling account of the Peshtigo Fire and is still in print today. Three days after the fire, the St. Mary's Tabernacle was found floating in the river completely untouched. It is on display at the fire museum.
The mass grave at the Peshtigo Fire Cemetery contains the remains of an estimated 350 people, none of whom were ever identified. Most of what is buried here is ashes and bone fragments. This is the final resting place for the remains of the people incinerated at the Peshtigo Company boarding house, where as many as 200 sought refuge thinking the brick structure would protect them. Intact bodies are also buried here. Although killed by gas, heat or smoke and untouched by fire, there was no one left alive who could identify them.
Buried here are George and Ella Mellen, aged 14 and 4 respectively. Their 19 year old brother put one under each arm and carried them into the river. He kept them shielded and wetted down as the fire raged around them. When they emerged from the water hours later, he discovered his brother and sister had both died of hypothermia. The weathered tombstone lists their names and ages along with the date October 8, 1871 and a notation that they "Perished in the Great Peshtigo Fire."
The Lawrence family had one of the largest and most productive farms in the area. The night of the fire, they went out into the middle of a large field and covered up with wet blankets. Their chances of survival looked good but it was not to be. According to eye witnesses, one of the "fire balloons" reported by many survivors came streaking out of the flames and landed right on top of the huddled family. It exploded and immolated all of them with fire, killing the parents and their three children. They are all buried here. The tombstone reads "Charles Lawrence and family died October 8, 1871 in the Peshtigo Fire."
Semper Fi....Out here....Boris and Natasha