The Hungry Blaze: The Peshtigo Fire

Yellowstone Fire Courtesy Wikipedia

For months the people of Peshtigo, Wisconsin and nearby towns of Marinette and Menominee had been looking for rain. The days turned into weeks and the weeks into months and still the rain refused to come. The dry conditions were only worsened by the sporadic fires that were constantly breaking out. The dusty air had become an everyday part of life. In the town of Marinette, townspeople walked around town covering their faces with cloth. These type of  living conditions were affecting Wisconsinites’ health, who were plagued with fevers and lung problems.

The growing town of Peshtigo lacked a fire company. In the event of a fire the town pulled together to extinguish the threat. Logging was one Peshtigo’s major industries and the trees made great fuel for the fire. Sawdust was not an uncommon sight and in an effort to do away with it, it was used to stuff mattresses, dumped in gardens or put to any other practical use.

In the days leading up to 8 October 1871, the people of Peshtigo were no doubt weary of the fires. Perhaps it was due to the frequency of the fires that they turned a blind eye to what was coming. There were those who decided to stick it out. Farmer Abram Place, took his Chippewa in-laws’ advice and dug a firebreak around his property. Still more than that would be needed to stop the inferno that was coming. A few realized this and began abandoning their property. On September 23rd, fires destroyed telegraph communication between Marinette and Green Bay.

By October 7th, a steady wind sprung up helping to push the flames on. It came on the 8th, ready to hit Peshtigo and the surrounding area full force. Even until the last minute as the fire roared loudly, there were families unsure about leaving their homes. Some people climbed down into their wells, but it was not always a guarantee they would survive. The tops often burned and collapsed on its occupants killing them. In town and outside of Peshtigo balls of fires went flying through the air, smashing through buildings. The wind was so fierce a home was blown over and trees uprooted. To give a person an idea of how hot the flames were, in the aftermath a sheet of glass was found having been formed out of nearby sand.

Peshtigo River Courtesy Wikipedia

One horrible detail was the fact that person could be sitting down and the next minute be engulfed in flames. The fire didn’t distinguish between young, old, man or woman. Anyone unfortunate to be caught up in it was shown no mercy. Some people managed to flee to the Pehstigo River where they hoped to find safety. But the logs in the river caught fire and drifted over to the swimmers. As people fled across the overhead bridge, it collapsed. So many people had been trying to cross at once that it couldn’t hold up under the strain. They spilled into the river, adding to the struggling humanity.

In the Menominee River a few men had found safety, but the fire was still licking at them. They would hide beneath the surface coming up for air now and then. But even that was dangerous; surfacing for a breath of intense heat could kill them. One of the men, Elbridge Merrill, rescued a baby and had a terrible time trying to keep it alive. The poor child had their hair burned off, but would indeed survive the night. Out on Green Bay, ships several miles out were reached by the fire and suffered damage.

Other horrors were taking place on land. One man watched helplessly as his wife and child were consumed by the fire. Most likely thinking he was doing them a mercy, he killed his remaining two children and then himself. The Lemke family was also having a rough time. As the fire quickly closed in, ready to add the Lemke farm to its menu, Charles Lemke and his wife Fredericke (who was about to have a baby) piled onto the wagon with the couple’s five children. Apparently the horses spooked and Charles was knocked from the wagon as the horses raced off. He managed to catch up, but just as he did, one of the horses was knocked down by debris. When Charles went to tend to it, the mare got away. He went to follow and then turned back to his family only to see the fire had quickly claimed them. He would survive the fire with a hole in his side and unseen scars on his mind. Afterwards he would revert back to his native German forgetting the English language.

Peshtigo, September 1871 Courtesy Library of Congress

By October 9th, the fire had come and gone from Peshtigo and was replaced with rain. Marinette and Menominee had suffered from the fire as well, but not as badly as Peshtigo. Both towns didn’t know about the disaster in Peshtigo until a survivor arrived with the news. At the moment, the nation had its attention transfixed on the Great Chicago Fire. The three closely connected Wisconsin towns didn’t know about the fire in Chicago and with the telegraph lines down no one outside of their community knew of the Peshtigo fire. Ironically, the governor of Wisconsin, Lucius Fairchild, had sent aid to Chicago and would go there unaware of the tragedy in his own State. In his absence his wife took command. She rounded up aid to be sent to Peshtigo. In the following days Americans turned their attention away from Chicago and aid aid began to flow into Peshtigo.

People from Marinette ventured into Peshtigo and found the carnage left in the wake of the fire. Bodies and ashes of what had been people were strewn about. The burial parties had a grim task before them as they went through Peshtigo and the surrounding farms. Bodies burned beyond recognition were buried in a mass grave. A burial party came across a boy who had lost his family, all nine of them. All alone, he gave  them a proper burial.

The survivors in the Peshtigo River picked themselves up and slogged ashore. One man found he had lost his entire family, but his horse and dog had come through alive, albeit all three suffered from burns. Two brothers who had lost parents and siblings were reunited, but it seems incidents like this were rather few. Whole families had been obliterated. Not everyone had died from burns. Numerous others not touched by the fire were found to have died from suffocation. In all it is believed over 2,000 lives were lost in the tragedy. Peshtigo rebuilt, but for some it was quicker to throw up a frame house then it was for their wounded mind and hearts to heal.

Source: Gess, Denise and William Lutz. Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People and the Deadliest Fire in American History

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33 thoughts on “The Hungry Blaze: The Peshtigo Fire

    • You’re welcome! I think the Chicago Fire must’ve overshadowed the Peshtigo Fire and it was gradually lost to history. Which is sad, because much more people died at Pehstigo.

      Thanks for your comment!

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  1. Well told. We’ve been to Peshtigo a number of times. We used to vacation in the area. They have a great little museum in town all about the logging and of course the fire that was a bigger deal than the Chicago fire on the same day.

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  2. You mention the general hot, dry conditions, lots of fuel (wood products & homes), and sporadic fires breaking out. Any idea what srated the fires? (lightening, woodstoves, spontaneous combustion of the piles of sawdust).
    Oscar

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    • The author of “Firestorm at Peshtigo” mentioned how the railroad employees set fires to clear the way for the rails. They didn’t put them out but let them go. There is a theory that meteorites may have caused the fire. I believe there was also some dry lightning involved.

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    • Thank you. I can only imagine the anguish and sickening feeling that ran through Lempke when that happened. I’m amazed he pulled through the fire alive. Poor man, it’s a wonder he didn’t lose his mind. Thanks for your comment!

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  3. Every generation believes that they suffer the most! History shows that humanity has endured many tragedies along the way! It is a testament to resiliency, optimism and hope. You have an amazing way of telling the stories with compassion and consideration. May we remember their despair and courage…by carrying on…

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