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Preserving the Perishable: Remembering the Forgotten Fire of Peshtigo

Preserving the Perishable: Remembering the Forgotten Fire of Peshtigo

With fire prevention week upon us, our minds naturally turn to the Great Chicago Fire, and with good reason, not only because Fire Prevention week got its start in memory of the Great Chicago Fire, but also just by the sheer massive size of the conflagration and the destruction it caused.

Following a lengthy drought and supported by very strong winds, the fire got its start in a barn; some say Mrs. O'Leary's, some say not. Once the fire started, supported by a dispatch error, the fire grew to massive proportions. Soon the fire exceeded the capabilities of the 17 steam engines and the 185 firefighters and the city was at the mercy of the blaze. Chicago, which fancied itself on the use of wood for everything from balloon construction buildings, sidewalks, and even its streets, had sufficient fuel for three days. Further hampering the efforts of the firefighters was the fact that the city pumping station was soon a causality of the fire eliminating the city's water supply. By October 10th, a swath ¾ of a mile wide and 4 miles long was left in ruin. Seventeen thousand five hundred buildings were destroyed, 2,112 acres were burned. One hundred thousand were left homeless and an estimated 300 fatalities were reported. In the final report, damages were estimated at 222 million dollars which was roughly ⅓ the value of Chicago. Yet, in all the destruction, this was not the deadliest fire that day!

On that same day, on October 8th, disaster would also strike Peshtigo, Wisconsin. The forest service was in the process of doing slash and burn operations to control wildfires. During the process, strong winds also kicked up and put the fires out of control. Many witnesses described the fires as fire whirls (tornadoes) with enough strength to throw houses and rail cars in the air. Many residents ran to the river to seek protection from the blaze resulting in some drowning and some dying from hypothermia. This raging inferno burned a total of 1.2 million acres with a total of 1875 square miles of forest. This was 64% larger than the state of Rhode Island. In the end, an estimated 1,500 to 2,500 deaths were reported. Firm estimates were not available as all records were destroyed. In one location, a mass grave was dug to hold 350 bodies that were difficult to identify. In addition, 12 towns were completely destroyed.

Two incredibly destructive fires, but the question is why is one memorialized with fire prevention week, folk songs, and wild stories of Mrs. O'Leary's cow. At the same time, the other remains obscure and largely forgotten.

Many potential thoughts come to mind. Was it the fact of the media presence in Chicago vs. Peshtigo? Was it based on politics of the time and political connections to the Federal government? Was it the number of buildings in a major US city that was destroyed? Was it based on the concentrated need of an incredible number of fire victims? Did Chicago just capture the media and Peshtigo never stood a chance?

We may never know the reason why Peshtigo has been largely overshadowed, but we can certainly change the future going forward. On that tragic day in October 1871, an estimated 1500 to 3000 Americans lost their lives to fire in two catastrophic events. Homes, businesses, towns, and cities were decimated. In addition, two significant regions were left in ruins.

This blog has repeatedly stated the need to preserve our history, or it will soon become forgotten. This is a prime example of how we can not rely on our own capabilities to remember but the need to document and share so future generations can learn as well. Peshtigo has been the victim twice, first by the fire and second by our failure to preserve their history in our minds. So going forward, let us make a simple promise. We will always stay vigilant on fire prevention, and when Fire Prevention Week rolls around, we will pause to remember Chicago and Peshtigo and the tragic loss of life and property.

Cover Photo: "During the Fire." Luanne Harff-Burchinal, 1967. Photography by Scott Wittman.

This blog article was a collaboration with Chief (Ret.) Dick DeVore (Executive Director, Chief Archivist) and Christopher Baker, GIFireE (PIO).

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  • The National Fire Heritage Center
  • Physical Address: 17701 Creamery Road, Emmitsburg, Maryland 21727
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  • Phone: (301) 876-3454