The Midwest, Wisconsin

Hell on Earth: The Forgotten Firestorm of Peshtigo, Wisconsin

Peshtigo Firestorm

On the night of October 9th, 1871 sailors on the deck of the schooner C.I. Hutchison two miles off the coast of Wisconsin in Lake Michigan saw something incredible. Wind driven cinders fell from the sky, setting the boat’s rigging on fire. Five miles further out, flaming roof shingles landed on the deck of the schooner Atlanta and dropped hissing into the lake all around them. The next morning a lone horseman rode into the town of Marinette, Wisconsin with shocking news. The town of Peshtigo was destroyed. Fifty or sixty bodies lay dead in the street, burned to a crisp. It was far worse than the rider was reporting.

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In fact, Peshtigo had experienced a cataclysm on the scale of an atomic blast. Almost every standing structure in the town had been incinerated. More than 1,800 people were dead and more than 3,000 were homeless. Those who had survived were suffering from burns and smoke inhalation. No one who had lived through it would ever be able to forget it. Yet, incredibly, what happened to Peshtigo was not headline news for most of the country. Another disaster overshadowed it. On the same day 250 miles away the Great Chicago Fire happened, stealing the nation’s attention, and sending the Peshtigo firestorm on a long journey into obscurity that has lasted to this day. Most people have never heard of it. But it was worse than the Chicago fire – far worse.

 

A Holocaust in Wisconsin

The fields were strewn with the bodies of dead animals.

The fields were strewn with the bodies of dead animals.

When the first rescuers reach the town of Peshtigo, they were shocked speechless. Every building was flattened. Every house was wiped out. Trees had been ripped from the ground by their roots. A locomotive had been knocked off its tracks, its rail cars reduced to ashes, the iron wheels being the only things remaining. A 700-pound fire bell that had hung in the cupola of the firehouse had been reduced to distorted lump of metal. In one spot, the sand around the base of a tree had been spun into glass by an inferno that had reached more than 1,800 degrees.

The fire had raged over 1,875 square miles, destroying farms and settlements. The fields were strewn with the carcasses of dead animals. The scorched remains of fifty horses lay in neat rows where they had stood in the stalls of an incinerated stable. The charred bodies of entire families were discovered in culverts, ditches, root cellars and the smoldering foundations of farmhouses. One family was found smothered to death in a well where they had sought to escape the blaze.

Remains of railroad cars

A locomotive had been knocked off its tracks, its rail cars reduced to ashes, the iron wheels being the only things remaining.

In town the horrors were manifold. Charred lumps littered the streets, the remains of human beings, blackened and desiccated by roasting. Dead bodies floated in the river and collected along the banks. Piles of ashes revealed themselves, on closer inspection, to be all that remained of people whose jewelry, watches or boot nails were all that survived the inferno. Others had been completely obliterated, as if vaporized. A group of workmen seen digging a ditch as a firebreak were reduced to ashes and whirled away, the melted metal of their shovels and pickaxes being the only remaining sign that they had existed. In Chicago 250 people had lost their lives. In the Peshtigo the death toll was estimated at 1,800. Regionally, it may have been as high as 2,500, ten times what it was in Chicago. What happened?

 

A Bonanza of Wood

Trees in Peshtigo, Wisconsin

The old growth forests of Wisconsin’s central woods were thick with centuries old trees.

Like the Great Chicago Fire, the origins of the Peshtigo firestorm were shrouded in myth and mystery. Part of the problem was that the science of meteorology was in its infancy in 1871. Fire had long been understood as the combustion of dry materials by ignition and wind, but what happened in Peshtigo was more akin to a weather event, one accelerated by unusual atmospheric conditions and conditions on the ground.

Peshtigo was a thriving lumber town in 1871. The old growth forests of Wisconsin’s central woods were dense with centuries old trees that provided the timber to build burgeoning cities like Chicago and Milwaukee. Huge trees up to six feet in diameter and more than 150 feet tall clustered together over hundreds of miles, a bonanza for lumbermen who came from near and far to work the Wisconsin forests.

19th century sawmill

Loads of timber left the town by river or rail.

On a daily basis, loads of timber left the town by river or rail. Stacks of logs waited by the wayside to be transported. Deep in the woods a railroad right-of-way was being cut through the forest, generating piles of timber slash waiting to be burned. When they got the chance, the lumberman set the slash afire. Smoke and fire were nothing new to Peshtigo. Burning was part of lumbering in the 19th century and happened regularly. But conditions were converging to create a disaster.

 

Brittle and Dry

Bird's eye view of Peshtigo, Wisconsin in September 1871

Bird’s eye view of Peshtigo, Wisconsin in September 1871

The summer of 1871 had been particularly dry across the Midwest. The Peshtigo River was the lowest it had been in years. Normally moist ground was so dry it crunched under foot. Sawdust, the predictable byproduct of lumbering, was everywhere, shoveled over the streets, swept under the sidewalk boards and poured into the foundations of houses. It was even used as the ticking in mattresses, and it was dry as bone.

In the last week of September, the barometric pressure plunged. Combined with low relative humidity, it made everything more combustible. Fires broke out across the region. Several sawmills burned. All three bridges on the road from Green Bay to Manitowoc caught fire. Fires ignited here and there, feeding on the fuel of dried mosses and the gas rising from desiccated swamps.

Smoke hung in the air for days

Smoke hung in the air for days, creating an eye stinging pall. No one seemed particularly alarmed by the sickly yellow color of the sky.

The fires were so pervasive and long lasting that smoke hung in the air for days, creating an eye-stinging pall that residents grew accustomed to. No one seemed particularly alarmed by the sickly yellow color of the sky or the red glow on the horizon. It came with the territory. Then on the night of October 8th things took a turn for the worse.

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The Making of a Firestorm

Map of the fire pattern

The swirling winds created a massive fire, a fire with the characteristics of weather.

A gale off the coast of Texas on October 3rd moved north, creating atmospheric instability that influenced the path and extent of the fires that had been burning in disparate locations across the region. The swirling winds swept them together, creating one massive blaze, a fire so large it took on the characteristics of weather.

Cyclones and tornadoes are driven by the latent heat produced by available moisture, but in a fire the speed and force of the flames are driven by the release of heat during combustion. Thus, the greater fire, the more the wind it produces, and the more wind it produces, the greater the fire, creating a cyclone of flames growing hotter and more destructive as it advances, consuming everything in its path. But it gets worse.

Forest fire

When the advancing fire confronted a change in topography, the wind sheared upward, carrying the fire with it.

When the advancing fire confronts a change in topography—a sudden rise of land or a deep ravine, the walls and bridges of a city or the palisade of trees that form the front of a forest—the wind shears upward, carrying the fire with it to collide with the wind coming in from the other side, creating a vortex, a fire tornado. This can happen multiple times in multiple places, sending fire tornadoes bounding off in all directions. A firestorm is the sum of all of this, and it has the destructive power of a nuclear explosion.

 

Hell on Earth

Fleeing the firestorm

People tried frantically to get to the river as they were pelted by hurtling firebrands.

Eyewitness accounts of the firestorm that engulfed Peshtigo read like a vision of hell on earth. The sound it made was said to be like “a thousand locomotives”, or like the devil had opened his mouth with a “deafening, persistent roar that never stopped but kept growing louder.” Dry lightning preceded it, striking the ground with meteor-like shafts of burning light. Fireballs were flung ahead of it like mortar shells, exploding on contact with the earth.

Even before the flames arrived, the sheer heat of the storm ignited anything flammable: dried brush, trees, wagons, buildings, sidewalks, hair, clothing, flesh. A young woman running along the sidewalk, her waist-length hair streaming out behind her, was overtaken. Horrified onlookers watched as her hair caught fire and her head burst into flame.

At the river a scene of pandemonium ensued.

At the river a scene of pandemonium ensued.

People trying frantically to get to the river were pelted by hurtling firebrands. Women who were struck caught fire instantly. The multi-layered female clothing of the time was a perfect accelerant and before they could reach the water they were trailing sheets of flame. Even if they reached the river, safety was not guaranteed. A scene of pandemonium ensued. Hundreds of thrashing people churned the water. Burning logs collided and spun. Some people couldn’t swim. One woman in an effort to keep from drowning lay on the shore with her lower body submerged in the water and her upper body on the bank. Later she was found incinerated from the waist up.

 

Explanations and Myths

Increase Allen Lapham

Increase Allen Lapham saw it coming. Unfortunately, his warnings were ignored.

When it was over, the survivors had no words for what happened. The nature of a firestorm was little understood, and the science to explain it was in its infancy. People naturally gravitated toward metaphysical explanations. It was the wrath of God. It was retribution for the sins of the people. But those who had survived the devastation were numb. They had nothing to add to the conversation. Others invariably did. In Chicago it was a poor Irish woman whose cow had kicked over a lantern. In Peshtigo it was the lumbermen and railroad builders, many of them Italian and Swedish immigrants, who had carelessly let the slash piles burn out of control. Decades later astrological explanations became the vogue. What had happened was caused by a meteorite striking the earth. Or maybe it was a vengeful extraterrestrial aiming a death ray at Peshtigo.

Meteorite striking the earth.

One theory held that the Peshtigo firestorm was caused by a meteorite striking the earth.

Yet even in 1871 some people had it right. A Quaker canal builder from Palmyra, New York named Increase Allen Lapham had been studying the way wind direction and speed effects forest fires and saw it coming. He believed that meteorology, the science of atmosphere and weather patterns could help prevent big fires. A year before the fires in Wisconsin and Chicago he petitioned congress for a bill to establish the national weather service. He got the agency, but he didn’t get the knowledgeable scientists he wanted to run it. Instead, the weather agency was placed under the control of the War Department (today’s Department of Defense) and was overseen by military leaders who knew little about weather.

As the conditions in the upper Midwest became known in early October of 1871, Lapham and his fellow scientists reached out to the War Department to warn them of an impending disaster. They were ignored. Their science was downplayed and dismissed. No one in Peshtigo was evacuated or alerted. Then the fire struck.

 

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Cognitive Dissonance

The Peshtigo River today.

The Peshtigo River today. The town never fully recovered from the disaster.

Cognitive dissonance is what happens when assumptions that serve as predictions about future events are upset by facts that do not fit into that framework. Those experiencing cognitive dissonance either try to reframe their thinking or try to make the new facts fit their existing assumptions. Those in a position to do something to prevent the loss of life in Peshtigo in 1871 were confronted by new facts that upset their assumptions about the behavior of fire. Even after the fire was over, they refused to believe them. When Increase Lapham submitted his report on what had caused the fire, officials brushed it aside. But Lapham had it right. Meteors, extraterrestrials and a vengeful God notwithstanding, Lapham had it right.

Fire victim's mass grave in Peshtigo

The fire victims’ mass grave. Many charred bodies were never properly identified.

When science is downplayed and ignored and disaster results, those who refuse to believe it scramble for alternative explanations. Or they try to sweep the whole messy business under the rug. In Peshtigo that was easy. From day one, the Great Chicago Fire had eclipsed the Peshtigo firestorm in the national media. The survivors of the firestorm were in no mood to talk about it, and those businessmen who had lost their investments in Peshtigo were only too happy to pick up and move on. As a result, the Peshtigo firestorm faded into obscurity, which is truly astonishing if you think about it.

 

The Price of Ignorance

Peshtigo Fire Museum.

The Peshtigo Fire Museum. There are lessons here for our time.

To this day, the Peshtigo firestorm is the single deadliest fire in US history. It visited devastation on the scale of an atomic blast. Yet most people have never heard of it. A visit to the Peshtigo Fire Museum yields little in the way of an appreciation for the size and intensity of the blaze. Ironically, that’s because few artifacts remain; almost everything was destroyed by the fire. The town itself is a mere shadow of what it once was. It never fully recovered and is now just a small Wisconsin burg struggling to hang on in the stressed rural economy of the 21st century.

But the Peshtigo firestorm holds lessons for all of us about the dangers of ignoring science, particularly as it regards weather and climate. The Increase Allen Lapham’s of our time have been trying to warn us for a long time to take precautions.

We ignore them at our peril.

 

 

 

Previous Stop on the Odyssey:  Sault Ste Marie, MI
Next Stop on the Odyssey: Chicago, IL

 

My American Odyssey Route Map

My American Odyssey Route Map

Sources

 

Gess, Denise and William Lutz. Firestorm at Peshtigo. Henry Holt and Company, 2002. Website

Knickelbine, Scott. The Great Peshtigo Fire: Stories and Science from America’s Deadliest Fire. Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 29 August 2012.

Long, Rob. “Understanding the Social Psychology or Risk and Safety.” SafetyRisk.net, 10th July 2020. Website

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Image credits

Huddling before the flames, Courtesy of the Peshtigo Fire Museum

Dead animals in the fields, Wisconsin Historical Society

Rail cars reduced to ashes, Peshtigo Fire Museum

Old growth forest, Malcolm Logan

Timber on the river, Public domain

Bird’s Eye View of Peshtigo, Wisconsin Historical Society

Smoke filled sky, NBC Montana

Map of fire pattern, National Weather Service

Forest fire, Public domain

People trying frantically to get to the river, Peshtigo Fire Museum

Pandemonium at the river, Peshtigo Fire Museum

Increase Allen Lapham, Public domain

Meteor striking the earth, Public domain

Peshtigo River today, Malcolm Logan

Fire victim’s mass grave, Malcolm Logan

Peshtigo Fire Museum, Malcolm Logan

 

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