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Wisconsin Parent

Peshtigo's "Forgotten Fire"

Jun 16, 2016 02:04PM ● By Jessica Witkins

Photo courtesy of Traveling with Sweeny. For more photos of the Peshtigo Fire Museum, visit their post, "The Forgotten Fire," July 11, 2012.

School history lessons often detail the legendary tragic story of a cow who kicked over a lantern, starting the famous two-day blaze that burned much of the Windy City. But did you know the deadliest and largest American fire actually took place in northern Wisconsin?

Few learn about the fire that occurred on October 8, 1871, the exact same night as the Great Chicago Fire, in the burgeoning lumber business of Peshtigo. Located in the state’s northeast county of Marinette, near Upper Michigan’s border, this natural disaster known as the “forgotten fire” remains largely unheard of.

In its heyday, Peshtigo was home to the rising industrial dream. It was said men arriving by train would step off already employed due to the booming lumber mills and farmland. But prosperity led to carelessness, and the city was overrun with large amounts of brush and sawdust. Piles were left everywhere, its streets lined with debris.

The exact origin of the Peshtigo Fire is not known. In 1871, like Chicago, Peshtigo suffered a major drought. Its waterways were receding, and that fall, hurricane-like winds made their way across the country. Most likely, the forest fire began from the mix of extreme heat with the dry climate.

When matched with 100 mph winds, the Peshtigo Fire created what survivors called “a tornado of fire.” The sky rained down balls of fire, and the tornado of flames swept wildly and madly across the northeast. Spreading down to Green Bay and up into Canada, it destroyed 2,400 square miles and everything in its path. Imagine - that’s the equivalent of twice the size of Rhode Island, and 2,400 linear miles is almost the distance between New York and Los Angeles!

It quickly knocked out the city’s one telegraph line and major roadways, making communication for help impossible. It would take two days for word of the devastation to travel to the state capital of Madison. City officials weren’t even present, as they had gone to Chicago to help.

The Peshtigo fire claimed 1,200 to 2,400 lives, nearly 10 times the fatalities of the Chicago fire’s 250. Today, the Peshtigo Fire remains the largest and most deadly firestorm in American history. 

Though tragic and destructive, the Peshtigo Fire is not forgotten. The Historical Society of Peshtigo has preserved history inside the Peshtigo Fire Museum located in a renovated, period church. With free admission, families can explore Wisconsin history and view surviving artifacts from the fire, including a melted watch, a scorched Bible, and a tabernacle rescued from a church by Father Peter Pernin.

Just reopened Memorial Day weekend, the Peshtigo Fire Museum is a true memorial to both Wisconsin and our country’s developmental past.