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(975 posts)
Sun Oct 8, 2023, 06:53 AM Oct 2023

On This Day: Simultaneous fires ravage Wisconsin, Chicago, and Michigan - Oct. 8, 1871

(edited from Wikipedia)
Peshtigo fire

The Peshtigo fire was a large forest fire on October 8, 1871, in northeastern Wisconsin, United States, including much of the southern half of the Door Peninsula and adjacent parts of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The largest community in the affected area was Peshtigo, Wisconsin, which had a population of approximately 1,700 residents.

The fire burned about 1.2 million acres and is the deadliest wildfire in recorded history, with the number of deaths estimated between 1,500 and 2,500.

Although the exact number of deaths is debated, mass graves, both those already exhumed and those still being discovered, in Peshtigo and the surrounding areas show that the death toll of the blaze was most likely greater than the 1889 Johnstown flood death toll of 2,200 people or more.

Occurring on the same day as the more famous Great Chicago Fire, the Peshtigo fire has been largely forgotten, even though it killed far more people. In total, the Great Chicago Fire took one-fifth as many lives as the Peshtigo Fire.

Nonetheless, several cities in Michigan, including Holland and Manistee (across Lake Michigan from Peshtigo) and Port Huron (at the southern end of Lake Huron), also had major fires on the same day. These fires, along with many other fires of the 19th century had the same basic causes: small fires coupled with unusually dry weather.


Slash-and-burn land management was a common way to clear forest for farming and railroad construction. This allowed for farmers to have good soil for planting which contributed to the fires that burned all summer and into the fall. Due to the benefit of having the controlled fires, many people including immigrants from Europe believed that fire was an ally. On the day of the Peshtigo fire, a cold front moved in from the west, bringing strong winds that fanned the fires out of control and escalated them to massive proportions.

A firestorm ensued. In the words of Gess and Lutz, in a firestorm "superheated flames of at least 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit ... advance on winds of 110 miles per hour or stronger. The diameter of such a fire ranges from one thousand to ten thousand feet ... When a firestorm erupts in a forest, it is a blowup, nature's nuclear explosion ... "

By the time it was over, between 1.2 and 1.5 million acres of land had been burned. In addition to Peshtigo, 16 other communities were destroyed in the fire.

The value of the property and forest that was destroyed in the fire was estimated to be about $5 million US (about $122 million in 2023 dollars). Additionally, 2,000,000 trees, saplings, and animals perished in the fire; this had a devastating economic impact on the area as well.

At the same time, another fire burned parts of the Door Peninsula. Most likely, the firestorm spread and created a new ground fire in New Franken which then spread and burned everything northward up until Sturgeon Bay.

Comet hypothesis

Speculation since 1883 has suggested that the start of the Peshtigo and Chicago fires on the same day was not coincidental, but that all the major fires in Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin that day were caused by impact of fragments from Biela's Comet. [However,] scientists with expertise in the field pointed out that there has never been a credible report of a fire being started by a meteorite.

In any event, no external source of ignition was needed. There were already numerous small fires burning in the area as part of land-clearing operations and similar activities after a tinder-dry summer. All that was necessary to trigger the firestorm, plus the other large fires in the Midwest, was a strong wind from the weather front which had moved in that evening.

Legacy and aftermath

The combination of wind, topography and ignition sources that generated the firestorm at the boundary between human settlements and natural terrain, is known as the "Peshtigo paradigm". Those conditions were closely studied by the American and British military during World War II to learn how to recreate firestorms during bombing campaigns against cities in Germany and Japan. Denise Gess, co-author of Firestorm, said, "They actually made a 'demo' first, a little scale model of wooden buildings, and studied how you would drop bombs until it created a firestorm. Something that devastating and that hot."

Rutkow (2012) writes that the event prompted almost no change to the practices of the lumber industry or the way settlers approached life in forests. He notes that in the following decades, the rate of industrial logging increased and the amount of forest fires increased throughout the country, with Wisconsin itself experiencing major fires in 1880, 1891, 1894, 1897, 1908, 1910, 1923, 1931, and 1936. The loss of half a million acres a year was not uncommon.

Great Chicago Fire

The Great Chicago Fire was a conflagration that burned in the American city of Chicago during October 8–10, 1871. The fire killed approximately 300 people, destroyed roughly 3.3 square miles (9 km2) of the city including over 17,000 structures, and left more than 100,000 residents homeless.

The fire began in a neighborhood southwest of the city center. A long period of hot, dry, windy conditions, and the wooden construction prevalent in the city, led to the conflagration. The fire leapt the south branch of the Chicago River and destroyed much of central Chicago and then leapt the main stem of the river, consuming the Near North Side.

Help flowed to the city from near and far after the fire. The city government improved building codes to stop the rapid spread of future fires and rebuilt rapidly to those higher standards. A donation from the United Kingdom spurred the establishment of the Chicago Public Library.

Origin [, and Mrs. O'Leary's cow]

The rapid spread of the fire due to a long drought in that year's summer, strong winds from the southwest, and the rapid destruction of the water pumping system, explain the extensive damage of the mainly wooden city structures. There has been much speculation over the years on a single start to the fire. The most popular tale blames Mrs. O'Leary's cow, who allegedly knocked over a lantern.

The O'Leary family denied this, stating that they were in bed before the fire started. Catherine O'Leary seemed the perfect scapegoat: she was a poor, Irish Catholic immigrant. During the latter half of the 19th century, anti-Irish sentiment was strong in Chicago and throughout the United States. This was intensified as a result of the growing political power of the city's Irish population.

In 1893 the reporter Michael Ahern retracted the "cow-and-lantern" story, admitting it was fabricated, but even his confession was unable to put the legend to rest. Although the O'Learys were never officially charged with starting the fire, the story became so ingrained in local lore that Chicago's city council officially exonerated them—and the cow—in 1997.

[Other theories of the fire's origin] state that a group of men were gambling inside the barn and knocked over a lantern. Still other speculation suggests that the blaze was related to other fires in the Midwest that day.


The fire's spread was aided by the city's use of wood as the predominant building material in a style called balloon frame. More than two-thirds of the structures in Chicago at the time of the fire were made entirely of wood, with most of the houses and buildings being topped with highly combustible tar or shingle roofs. All of the city's sidewalks and many roads were also made of wood. Compounding this problem, Chicago received only 1 inch (25 mm) of rain from July 4 to October 9, causing severe drought conditions before the fire, while strong southwest winds helped to carry flying embers toward the heart of the city.

When firefighters finally arrived at DeKoven Street, the fire had grown and spread to neighboring buildings and was progressing toward the central business district. Firefighters had hoped that the South Branch of the Chicago River and an area that had previously thoroughly burned would act as a natural firebreak. All along the river, however, were lumber yards, warehouses, and coal yards, and barges and numerous bridges across the river. As the fire grew, the southwest wind intensified and became superheated, causing structures to catch fire from the heat and from burning debris blown by the wind. Around midnight, flaming debris blew across the river and landed on roofs and the South Side Gas Works.

With the fire across the river and moving rapidly toward the heart of the city, panic set in. About this time, Mayor Roswell B. Mason sent messages to nearby towns asking for help.

As more buildings succumbed to the flames, a major contributing factor to the fire's spread was a meteorological phenomenon known as a fire whirl. As overheated air rises, it comes into contact with cooler air and begins to spin, creating a tornado-like effect. These fire whirls are likely what drove flaming debris so high and so far. Such debris was blown across the main branch of the Chicago River to a railroad car carrying kerosene. The fire had jumped the river a second time and was now raging across the city's north side.

Despite the fire spreading and growing rapidly, the city's firefighters continued to battle the blaze. Finally, late into the evening of October 9, it started to rain, but the fire had already started to burn itself out. The fire had spread to the sparsely populated areas of the north side, having thoroughly consumed the densely populated areas.


Eventually, the city determined that the fire destroyed an area about 4 miles (6 km) long and averaging 3?4 mile (1 km) wide, encompassing an area of more than 2,000 acres. Destroyed were more than 73 miles (117 km) of roads, 120 miles (190 km) of sidewalk, 2,000 lampposts, 17,500 buildings, and $222 million in property, which was about a third of the city's valuation in 1871.

To protect the city from looting and violence, the city was put under martial law for two weeks under Gen. Sheridan's command structure with a mix of regular troops, militia units, police, and a specially organized civilian group "First Regiment of Chicago Volunteers."

For two weeks Sheridan's men patrolled the streets, guarded the relief warehouses, and enforced other regulations. On October 24 the troops were relieved of their duties and the volunteers were mustered out of service.

Of the approximately 324,000 inhabitants of Chicago in 1871, 90,000 Chicago residents (1 in 3 residents) were left homeless. 120 bodies were recovered, but the death toll may have been as high as 300. The county coroner speculated that an accurate count was impossible, as some victims may have drowned or had been incinerated, leaving no remains.

In the days and weeks following the fire, monetary donations flowed into Chicago from around the country and abroad, along with donations of food, clothing, and other goods.

Operating from the First Congregational Church, city officials and aldermen began taking steps to preserve order in Chicago. Price gouging was a key concern, and in one ordinance, the city set the price of bread at 8¢ for a 12-ounce loaf. Public buildings were opened as places of refuge, and saloons closed at 9 in the evening for the week following the fire.

The fire also led to questions about development in the United States. Due to Chicago's rapid expansion at that time, the fire led to Americans reflecting on industrialization. Based on a religious point of view, some said that Americans should return to a more old-fashioned way of life, and that the fire was caused by people ignoring traditional morality. On the other hand, others believed that a lesson to be learned from the fire was that cities needed to improve their building techniques.

Almost immediately, the city began to rewrite its fire standards, spurred by the efforts of leading insurance executives, and fire-prevention reformers such as Arthur C. Ducat. Chicago soon developed one of the country's leading fire-fighting forces.

[Michigan, other Illinois, and Canadian fires]

Across the lake to the east, the town of Holland, Michigan, and other nearby areas burned to the ground. Some 100 miles (160 km) to the north of Holland, the lumbering community of Manistee also went up in flames in what became known as the Great Michigan Fire.

Farther east, along the shore of Lake Huron, the Port Huron Fire swept through Port Huron, Michigan and much of Michigan's "Thumb". On October 9, 1871, a fire swept through the city of Urbana, Illinois, 140 miles (230 km) south of Chicago, destroying portions of its downtown area. Windsor, Ontario, likewise burned on October 12.


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On This Day: Simultaneous fires ravage Wisconsin, Chicago, and Michigan - Oct. 8, 1871 (Original Post) jgo Oct 2023 OP
I was reading about the Peshtigo Fire a few months ago BigmanPigman Oct 2023 #1
I live in MI's Thumb snpsmom Oct 2023 #2


(51,819 posts)
1. I was reading about the Peshtigo Fire a few months ago
Sun Oct 8, 2023, 07:38 AM
Oct 2023

and what stood out was that everything in that town was made of wood. It went up like a box of matches. A lot of people died in the water too.


(717 posts)
2. I live in MI's Thumb
Sun Oct 8, 2023, 08:24 AM
Oct 2023

and we had almost the exact same fire 10 years apart People lost everything in 1871, rebuilt, and then lost it again in 1881. The house we live in was built in 1882. When we remodeled, the walls were insulated with dirt that still smelled like smoke, and we have charred beams in our basement.

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