Fire was a massive forest fire that took place on October
8, 1871, in and around Peshtigo, Wisconsin. It was the deadliest
wildfire in American history, with estimated deaths of around 1,500
people, possibly as many as 2,500.
Occurring on the same day as the more famous Great Chicago Fire, the
Peshtigo fire has been largely forgotten. On the same day as the
Peshtigo and Chicago fires, Holland and
Manistee, Michigan (across
Lake Michigan from Peshtigo), and Port Huron at the southern end of
Lake Huron also had major fires, leading to various theories of mutual
cause by contemporaries and later historians.
2 Comet theory
4 See also
4.1 Other October 8, 1871, fires
4.2 Other fire disasters in the Great Lakes
7 Further reading
8 External links
The setting of small fires was a common way to clear forest land for
farming and railroad construction. On the day of the Peshtigo fire, a
cold front moved in from the west, bringing strong winds that fanned
the fires out of control and escalated them to massive proportions.
A firestorm ensued. In the words of Gess and Lutz, in a firestorm
"superheated flames of at least 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit...advance on
winds of 110 miles per hour or stronger. The diameter of such a fire
ranges from one thousand to ten thousand feet.... When a firestorm
erupts in a forest, it is a blowup, nature's nuclear
By the time it was over, 1,875 square miles (4,860 km2 or 1.2
million acres) of forest had been consumed, an area 50%
larger than Rhode Island. Twelve communities were destroyed.
An accurate death toll has never been determined because local records
were destroyed in the fire. Between 1,200 and 2,500 people are thought
to have lost their lives. The 1873 Report to the
listed 1,182 names of deceased or missing residents. In 1870, the
Town of Peshtigo had 1,749 residents. More than 350 bodies
were buried in a mass grave, primarily because so many had died
that no one remained alive who could identify all the bodies.
The fire jumped across the
Peshtigo River and burned on both sides of
the inlet town. Survivors reported that the firestorm generated a
fire whirl (described as a tornado) that threw rail cars and houses
into the air. Many escaped the flames by immersing themselves in the
Peshtigo River, wells, or other nearby bodies of water. Some drowned
while others succumbed to hypothermia in the frigid river. The Green
Island Light was kept lit during the day because of the obscuring
smoke, but the three-masted schooner George L. Newman was wrecked
offshore, although the crew was rescued.
At the same time, another fire burned parts of the Door Peninsula;
because of the coincidence, some incorrectly assumed that the fire had
jumped across the waters of Green Bay.[Note 1] In Robinsonville
(now Champion) on the Door Peninsula, Sister Adele Brise and other
nuns, farmers, and families fled to a local chapel for protection.
There they participated in prayers and devotions to the Virgin Mary.
Although the chapel was surrounded by flames, it survived.
Those gathered at the chapel considered their survival a miracle.
One speculation, first suggested in 1883, is that the occurrence of
the Peshtigo and Chicago fires on the same day was not just a
coincidence, but that all the major fires that occurred in Illinois,
Wisconsin on that day were caused by the impact of
fragments from Comet Biela. This theory was revived in a 1985
book and investigated in a 2004 paper to the American
Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Scientists with
expertise in the area argue that meteorites cannot ignite a fire as
they are cold to the touch when they reach the Earth's surface,
and there are no credible reports of any fire anywhere having been
started by a meteorite.
Additionally, various aspects of the behaviors of the Chicago and
Peshtigo fires attributed to extraterrestrial agency have more mundane
explanations. In any event, no external source of ignition was
needed; numerous small fires from land-clearing operations and other
causes were already burning in the area after a tinder-dry
summer, generating so much smoke that the Green Island Light
was kept lit 24 hours a day for weeks before the main fire. All
that was needed to generate the firestorm, as well as other fires in
the Midwest, were the winds from the front that moved in that
Fire Museum, just west of U.S. Highway 41, has a
small collection of artifacts from the fire, first-person descriptions
of the event, and a graveyard dedicated to victims of the tragedy. A
memorial commemorating the fire was dedicated on October 8, 2012 at
the bridge over the Peshtigo River.
The chapel where Sister Adele Brise and others sheltered from the fire
has become the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help. The site is a
Marian shrine, where visitors can make religious pilgrimages.
The combination of wind, topography and ignition sources that created
the firestorm, primarily representing the conditions at the boundaries
of human settlement and natural areas, is known as the Peshtigo
Paradigm. The condition was closely studied by the American and
British military during
World War II
World War II to learn how to recreate
firestorm conditions for bombing campaigns against cities in Germany
and Japan. The bombing of Dresden and the even more severe one of
Tokyo by incendiary devices resulted in death tolls comparable to the
atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Other October 8, 1871, fires
Great Chicago Fire
Great Michigan Fire
Fire of 1871
Other fire disasters in the Great Lakes
Thumb Fire of 1881
Great Hinckley Fire
Great Hinckley Fire of 1894
Fire of 1910
1918 Cloquet Fire
^ "Because of the timing, many people later thought—incorrectly, it
now appears—that this fire was an offshoot of the one that had
struck Peshtigo and that it had somehow jumped across the 30-mile-wide
^ a b Biondich, S. (2010-06-09). "The Great Peshtigo Fire". Shepherd
Express. Retrieved 2011-11-09.
^ Scott Knickelbine. The Great Peshtigo Fire: Stories and Science from
America's Deadliest Firestorm. Madison, WI:
Society Press, 2012.
^ Christine Gibson. "Our 10 Greatest Natural Disasters". American
Heritage, vol. 57, no. 4 (August/September 2006).
^ John Steele Gordon. "Forgotten Fury". American Heritage, vol. 55,
no. 4 (April/May 2003). Retrieved May 24, 2017.
^ Hemphill, Stephanie (November 27, 2002). "Peshtigo: a tornado of
fire revisited". News and Features. Minnesota Public Radio. Retrieved
March 30, 2008.
^ a b Gess, D.; Lutz, W. (2003).
Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its
People, and the Deadliest
Fire in American History. New York:
Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-8050-7293-8. OCLC 52421495.
^ Kim Estep. "The Peshtigo Fire" Green Bay Press-Gazette. National
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Wisconsin Wildfires >
250 Acres, 1871 - Present. September 11, 2017.
^ Everett Rosenfeld. Top 10 Devastating Wildfires: The Peshtigo Fire,
1871". Time, June 8, 2011.
^ Wisconsin. Legislature. Assembly (1873). Journal of Proceedings.
pp. 167–172. Retrieved 8 August 2013.
^ United States Census Bureau. The Statistics of the Population of the
United States ... Compiled, from the Original Returns of the Ninth
Census (June 1, 1870), Vol. 1. Washington, DC: G.P.O., 1872, p. 292.
^ "1870 Federal Census of town of Peshtigo". Rootsweb.ancestry.com.
^ registered historic marker (Image:PeshtigoFireCemetery.jpg), dated
1951, accessed August 26, 2007
^ Hipke, Deana C. "The Great Peshtigo
Fire of 1871". Retrieved
^ "Green Island Lighthouse". Terry Pepper. Retrieved 2010-11-26.
^ a b Watson, Benjamin A. 1993. Acts of God: The Old Farmer's Almanac
Unpredictable Guide to Weather and Natural Disasters. New York: Random
House, p. 106.
^ "Shrine escaped devastation of Peshtigo Fire", The Compass, February
17, 2011. Retrieved October 8, 2013.
^ "Robinsonville: A
Wisconsin Shrine of Mary", Catholic Herald,
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, May 23, 1935. Retrieved October 8, 2013.
^ a b c Cipin, Vojtech (2011). "Troubles and Miracles". Shrine of Our
Lady of Good Help. Archived from the original on 2013-11-27. Retrieved
March 1, 2013.
^ Waskin, Mel (1985). Mrs. O'Leary's Comet: Cosmic Causes of the Great
Chicago Fire. Academy Chicago Publishers. ISBN 0897331818.
Fire From The Sky. WTBS documentary, 1997
^ Wood, Robert M. (2004). "Did Biela's Comet Cause The Chicago And
Midwest Fires?" (PDF). American Institute of Aeronautics and
Astronautics. Archived from the original (PDF) on March 25, 2009.
Retrieved May 31, 2012.
^ a b Calfee, Mica (February 2003). "Was It A Cow Or A Meteorite?".
Meteorite Magazine. 9 (1). Retrieved 2011-11-10.
^ "Meteorites Don't Pop Corn".
NASA Science. NASA. 2001-07-27.
^ Bales, R. F.; Schwartz, T. F. (April 2005). "Debunking Other Myths".
Great Chicago Fire
Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O'Leary's Cow. McFarland.
pp. 101–104. ISBN 978-0-7864-2358-3.
^ a b Bales, R. F.; Schwartz, T. F. (April 2005). "Debunking Other
Great Chicago Fire
Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O'Leary's Cow.
McFarland. p. 111. ISBN 978-0-7864-2358-3.
^ "Keepers of the Light – 1871 account". Survivor Stories of the
Peshtigo Fire. Oconto County WIGenWeb Project. Retrieved
^ "Large Crowd Attends
Fire Monument Event." 2012. Peshtigo Times (11
^ a b Tasker, G. (2003-10-10). "Worst fire largely unknown". The
Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 2013-10-09.
Ball, Jacqueline A. Wildfire! The 1871 Peshtigo Firestorm. New York:
Bearport Pub., 2005. ISBN 1597160113.
Bergstrom, Bill (June 2003). Peshtigo. Philadelphia: Xlibris
Corporation. ISBN 978-1401098889. .[self-published source]
Holbrook, Stewart. "
Fire Makes Wind: Wind Makes Fire". American
Heritage, vol. 7, no. 5 (August 1956).
Pernin, Peter. "The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account,"
Wisconsin Magazine of History, 54: 4 (Summer, 1971), 246–272.
Wells, Robert W.
Fire at Peshtigo. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Fire Fiend" New York Times, October 13, 1871.
DeLaluzern, Guillaume (Oct 1871). "IN WISCONSIN. Particulars of the
Burning of Williamsonville and Peshtigo – Frightful Number of
Deaths". Green Bay Advocate.
Geyer, Rev. Kurt (October 6, 1921). "History of the Peshtigo fire,
October 8, 1871". Peshtigo Times. Retrieved March 1, 2013.
Hipke, Deana C. The Great Peshtigo
Fire of 1871 Website about fire
with survivors' stories.
"Peshtigo: a tornado of fire revisited". Minnesota Public Radio.
Retrieved March 1, 2013.
"Survivor's stories". Rootsweb.com. Retrieved March 1, 2013.
The Great Peshtigo
Fire Memorial at Find a Grave
Wisconsin Historical Society's Dictionary of
"Peshtigo fire photos".
Wisconsin Historical Society.
Control of fire by early humans
Native American use of fire
Death by burning
Flame Research Foundation