'The Forgotten Fire': Marking 150 years since the Peshtigo Fire, the deadliest fire in U.S. history
Eyewitness accounts described fireballs, mass drownings, an atmosphere marked more by flame than sky and a veritable hurricane of fire
PESHTIGO, Wis. — On a weekday morning in late summer, at the corner of Front and French streets, with the Peshtigo River at your left, and the town of 3,357 spread before you, nothing stirs. The sun rises and the hours pass and still nothing much moves. The streets seem wide and empty. A backdoor slaps its frame. A breeze puffs and the celebratory banners stretched across a bridge flaps and straightens out long enough to make out an illustration of lapping flames. It’s a reminder of the upcoming Peshtigo Historical Days. Which, this year, marks the 150th anniversary of the total destruction of Peshtigo. It’s what Peshtigo, just north of Green Bay, is known for: being flattened by fire, becoming hell on Earth, for one night only, in the late 19th century.
On Oct. 8, 1871, even as the Great Chicago Fire roared 250 miles south, the arguably greater Peshtigo Fire — still considered the deadliest fire in United States history — leveled more than 1 million acres, flattened 16 neighboring towns and killed between 1,200 and 1,500 people.
Some historians insist that figure is probably a thousand victims too low. Eyewitness accounts described fireballs, mass drownings, an atmosphere marked more by flame than sky, a veritable hurricane of fire, coupled with actual tornadoes of flame that lifted entire buildings from foundations.
Stand in the center of Peshtigo and try to imagine this.
You don’t come close.
One day Peshtigo was a steadily growing company town, spurred to success by railroad and lumber tycoon William Ogden, the first mayor of Chicago, who owned much of Peshtigo.
The next day, after a firestorm that lasted only two hours, almost nothing remained.
“I’m old enough to have known survivors,” said Cubby Couvillion, 95, the town historian. “I recall well a lady in our neighborhood, at our backyard fence, leaning over, talking, telling me about that night, how her mother gathered up a suitcase, her father said it was time for the family to head to the river, how a woman crossed their path in a nightgown, running down the road, screaming, because her head was on fire.”
So intense was the inferno that entire families vanished.
A father, cornered by the fire, slit the throats of his own children. Among the few things that survived the fire were firsthand accounts, preserved in diaries, by local historians and in journals. Cattle trying to escape the flames stampeded residents who escaped into the river. The 1870 census reported 2,000 residents in Peshtigo. A year later, the fire had killed at least 800 who lived in the small downtown area alone. The fire was so destructive that years later the U.S. military, just prior to entering World War II, studied it in the hopes of re-creating its conditions in German cities.
And yet, you have never heard about any of this, have you?
You’re not alone.
When vacationing Chicagoans hear the details, they sometimes apologize in revulsion, said Helene McNulty, a volunteer at the Peshtigo Fire Museum. “They get physically upset at how much attention the Chicago fire got and how little is known about this far worse fire, which happened so close, at the exact same time.” The way she says “Chicago fire,” you imagine air quotes. The Great Chicago Fire flattened 3 1/2 miles and killed 300 — a perversely mild tally compared with what happened here. So Peshtigo refers to its fire as “The Forgotten Fire.” Being destroyed then overshadowed — that’s its identity. They have a Forgotten Fire Winery. “Of course it’s unusual to be fire chief here,” said Mike Folgert, “but as I say, ‘It didn’t happen on my watch.’”
Walk a few yards into the cemetery holding many of the residents killed by the fire and between the aging, pocked headstones fading in sun and weather, there is an arrow of a sign that reads “Mass Grave,” directing you down a sloping hill. At the bottom is a plot, larger than the typical burial patch, marked with a single small white painted wooden cross. Here rest 350 victims, many of whom were killed in the Peshtigo Co. boardinghouse owned by Ogden. What’s actually buried, though, are parts of bodies, bones, ashes. Intact corpses were tough to come by.
Fitting a town that exists so close to its death, few commemorative markers around Peshtigo mince words or sugarcoat what happened in 1871. At the Fire Museum, located beside the cemetery, there is a mural of the fire painted on the back wall that partly depicts a man burning to death while simultaneously being trampled by a horse. With a wince, McNulty said that when she was growing up here, her siblings used the site of the mass grave as a sledding hill. It’s not hard to picture teenagers lingering amid all of the gruesomeness.
Here lies the Kellys, who got off easy, losing one child and the patriarch.
Here lies the Lawrences, who took shelter in an open field, only to be killed by a fireball.
Here lies the Mellens, whose 19-year-old son carried his two siblings into the river to avoid combustion, only to emerge four hours later with the siblings in his arms, now dead of hypothermia.
Here lies the Lemke family, whose patriarch survived but, as the grave marker explains, fled and looked back to realize that he’d been separated from his family, who were now “burning furiously.”
As I poked around, a man in a Chicago Dogs T-shirt said it was crazy how few people in Chicago seem to know anything about Peshtigo. Plus, he’d heard the whole thing was caused by a meteorite.
Actually, no one knows for certain what caused the Peshtigo fire. McNulty says that she tells visitors to the museum it was likely a combination of railroad workers clearing brush during a particularly long dry season, a fast-moving cold front that fanned flames already smoldering — or likely some combination of those and more. “Then they look at you and say, ‘Yeah, but tell me how it really started.’” They want to hear a story about a cow kicking over a candle.
Or a match landing in a bale of hay.
Something apocryphal and clear.
A number of accounts place a degree of blame at the feet of Ogden himself, without quite implicating him. In 1871, Peshtigo was fast becoming a center of the Midwest lumber industry. Thanks to Ogden. He had built a lot of what resembled Peshtigo in 1871. Local farmers, many of whom were relatively new immigrants from Northern Europe, saw opportunity here and began clearing more and more land, often using fire. Geographically, the town was nearly perfect. Ogden had bought an existing mill here 15 years earlier and cleared large swathes of forest, transported it down the Peshtigo River to the mouth of Green Bay, then south on Lake Michigan to Chicago. Without Ogden, Peshtigo “would be a wide place in the road,” said Couvillion. On the other hand, he added, Ogden also offered a bonus to his workers if they finished new railroad tracks by 1872, to speed lumber traffic to Chicago. As the New York Tribune explained after the fire, Peshtigo was created solely for “one purpose, to make money for its founder and keep up the lumber interstate.”
Yet fires had been raging across the upper Midwest throughout September, in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin; indeed another vast fire in nearby southern Door County on Oct. 8, 1871, often conflated with the Peshtigo fire, was probably a separate blaze. Smoke grew so dense in Peshtigo harbor that foghorns routinely blew. Peshtigo, aware of these smaller fires creeping close, grew nervous.
Peshtigo, surrounded by dense forest, was geographically removed from its neighbors. It was frequently described by visitors as appearing suddenly in a clearing outside the pines. Roads were rare. By the time the fire reached Peshtigo, all communications to outside were choked. Residents reported a sound like an approaching train — not so different from how contemporary Midwesterners describe tornadoes. What followed, however, sounded closer to rolling waves, a tsunami of wildfires.
The inferno reached downtown on Sunday evening.
By morning, newlyweds were dead and infants were found alive beside still burning parents. The river was thick with drowned residents and farm animals. Families were found huddled in clumps, sometimes alive, most of their clothing burned away. One dead man was identified by his wooden leg — perversely, the only part of him that had not burned. Many survivors, having spent hours so close to flames, beneath a deep orange sky swirling with embers, reported being temporarily blinded. The Chicago Tribune, reporting from the scene, compared it to Sodom, Gomorrah and Pompeii. And Ogden, having lost a fortune in the Chicago fire, lost everything else in Peshtigo: his sawmill, factory, boardinghouse, railroad. He promised to rebuild, but never did.
The governor of Wisconsin, still aiding Chicago, redirected resources to Peshtigo.
Bud Lemke, 91, a descendant of the Lemke family nearly decimated in the fire, still lives on his great-grandfather’s farm. “He survived but his kids and wife burned and he had a hole burned into his stomach and yeah, his eyes burned out. And when he came back to Peshtigo, he had nobody to live with. He arrived from Germany. He had no one left here. And so he moved in with a generous family who lived on a nearby farm and whose house had miraculously not burned and so, on the anniversary of his wedding, my great-grandfather, he bought their farm! Then he gave it to them! They didn’t own it yet. He did it out of gratitude to the family. He paid $1,325. I often wonder where he got it. Probably from the donations given to survivors. But today, that family still owns that farm.”
The Peshtigo Fire Museum is something between a small town museum and an antique store that won’t sell you anything. What it is not is a museum about a fire. It’s housed inside a century-old church (now the oldest structure in Peshtigo). It became a fire museum in 1963, though many of the items that pass for artifacts were donated to fire survivors from throughout the Midwest and beyond. It’s more like a museum about turn-of-the-century lifestyles. Ancient ice skates. Dugout canoes. Giant bikes. Church hats. First-generation Zenith radios. Wooden classroom desks. Sewing wheels. A gun recovered from the nearby river after Peshtigo National Bank was robbed many decades ago (by a couple of guys from Chicago). One wall holds portraits of survivors, including the last living one, Amelia Desrochers, who died in 1966 at 100. It’s a museum about how ordinary life can become after tragedy. Chicago’s fire got the attention, but here is low-key poignancy. So generous were the donations that many survivors ended up with more than they had before the fire.
With a practiced singsong, the museum volunteers apologize to the trickle of tourists: There’s not a lot to see in here from the fire itself because not a lot of Peshtigo — almost no structures or possessions — remained the morning after the fire.
“It’s a miracle anything’s here,” McNulty said.
There’s so little they hold it is in a single cabinet.
Remains of a watch. A kettle. A pie pan. A church tabernacle. Bibles. A business ledger from Ogden’s vault. A can of blackberries that fused with its tin cylinder, creating a kind of petrified black nugget. To be honest, McNulty whispered, some of this stuff comes from nearby towns flattened by the fire.
She waits in the entrance to the church, answering questions from visitors and chatting with Paige Frappier-Potkay, a younger volunteer, who said, before working here, everything she knew about the fire, she heard from her great-grandmother. “I never got it in school,” she said.
McNulty sighed and nodded.
“I never got it in school either,” she added. “And I was baptized in this church! This fire, considering how much a part of our history it is, odd as it sounds, it’s never truly set in, all this time later.”
Peshtigo has two fire departments. One for the city, and one for the wider, forested area. The latter was established in 1964. It’s a volunteer department, with 25 part-time firefighters. When I asked Clarence Coble, town clerk (and volunteer firefighter), why firefighting in Peshtigo has never been more than a part-time profession, he made the universal gesture for money — he rubbed fingers together. Still, compared with the nearly 1 million acre Dixie fire in California, he said — then leaned forward, punched numbers into a calculator, converting square miles to acres — they have less land to worry about. Since 1871, they have had other infernos — a hotel burned, another paper mill, a church. Jim Meyer, a volunteer firefighter, told me they just had a big worry of a fire but no one was hurt. When he said they “just” had a big fire, he meant 10 years ago.
Still, look around here, in every direction, it’s all pines, oaks — a dense canopy of trees.
Mike Folgert, the fire chief, says it’s a different time, of course. They still do controlled burns to clear the dead parts of the surrounding forest that could ignite, “but that’s very controlled these days.”
One hundred and fifty years ago, there was no fire department here. Today they have 911, they have nearby departments as backup. They have roads. “But there is drought and climate change — so we have the potential everyone has.” Which is what worries Kate Lenz, forestry team leader for the local Department of Natural Resources. “In Marinette County here, when we get into staffing and preparing each spring, I always dread the thought of a fire where I lose a couple of homes in my own backyard. The conditions are different here than you see out West — species of tree, health of the forest, the length of (wildfire) conditions last longer there. But yeah, there’s a concern anyway.”
Fewer residents live in downtown Peshtigo now than in the surrounding woods. Which is also where there are no fire hydrants. And yes, there are roads in these areas now, but not necessarily the kind that make it easy to drive a large firetruck down — never mind turn a large firetruck around.
Lenz said, “Rural (fire) departments around here, they get a call on a Tuesday at 5 p.m., say, those volunteers might be out of town, working their day job. We’re still having pancake breakfasts around here to buy equipment. It should be a concern of anyone who has property or vacations up here.”
The Peshtigo River is narrow enough to imagine one thing about Oct. 8, 1871, with certainty: If you retreated here to the center of the waters, flames were still never far off. Anything alongside the river disappeared. Indeed, even now, there’s not much development on its banks. There are parks, a paper mill, several rows of modest homes a block away. That’s about it. A once-bustling harbor is closer to a small boat launch today. Peshtigo prides itself on being a town that rose out of its ashes — that’s partly the purpose of Peshtigo Historical Days. But the town lost much of its momentum in the fire and never quite boomed or bustled again. Those flames, in a way, never quit.
Cubby Couvillion has spent his whole life here.
When he talks about Peshtigo, he says in a melancholy sigh: “We live in a beautiful little city.” In the next breath he wonders if a layer of 150-year-old wildfire ash rests beneath the streets, even now.
“Imperceptible, but, you know, there.”
Leaving Peshtigo, headed east toward Michigan, you pass an old Smokey Bear, waiting with his shovel, ready. The sign notes that fire danger today is “LOW.” But it’s also placard, and it can change.
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