By Susan Lampert Smith
The deadliest fire in American history swept through northeast Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan one hundred and fifty years ago today. Probably you haven’t heard of it.
There were actually three major regional fires on October 8, 1871. The Peshtigo Fire killed at least fifteen hundred and possibly as many as twenty-five hundred people and torched 1.2 million acres. The even lesser-known Great Michigan fire roared across the entire Lower Peninsula, from Holland in the west to Port Huron in the east, killing an estimated five hundred people. And the third one is the reason you likely don’t know about either of the first two—the Great Chicago Fire, which killed three hundred people, leveled more than three square miles of wooden buildings, left a hundred thousand without homes, and grabbed the national headlines.
The years 1870 and 1871 were both very dry, and small fires had been burning around the region since late August. It was so smoky along the shores of Green Bay that the keeper at the Green Island lighthouse kept his lamp lit day and night for the whole month of September 1871 so that ships could find the harbor in the haze. Then, on October 8, a huge low-pressure system swept in from the Great Plains, bringing cyclone-strength winds that whipped up the small fires and sent them roaring up both shores of Green Bay.
The normally green and leafy Upper Great Lakes region was a vision of hell. According to Jed Meunier, a fire ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, fires that big can make their own weather. Survivors of the Peshtigo blaze described “fire tornadoes” and told of a low moaning that grew to the roar of a thousand trains. “When I heard the roar of the approaching tornado, I ran out of my house and saw a great, black balloon-shaped object whirling through the air over the tops of distant trees,’’ wrote survivor Alfred Griffin of lower Sugar Bush. “When it reached the house, it seemed to explode, with a loud noise, belching out fire on every side, and in an instant, my house was on fire in every part.”
The Marinette Eagle newspaper headlined one account: Hell Rode the Hurricane. In Peshtigo, the wind grew to a gale and dropped burning coals on the wooden village. There was a stampede as people and animals ran between flaming buildings to seek shelter in the Peshtigo River, where many drowned. Fr. Peter Pernin, a local priest, later said, “The air was no longer fit to breathe, full as it was of sand, dust, ashes, cinder sparks, smoke and fire.” Pernin was temporarily blinded by the fire, and survived the night in the river, where he draped wet cloths over the heads of people whose hair had ignited. Folksinger Chris Richards describes the scene in his Sawdust Town.
Across Lake Michigan, the scenes were similar. When ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax visited Traverse City in 1938, he recorded local singer Louis Brideup, singing about the Great Michigan Fire: “Like a roaring demon, it went thundering through the slash. Oh such a wild fantastic sight, I cannot well describe.”
Even if you do know about the day the Great Lakes burned, what you heard about those fires is probably wrong. The passed-down explanation is that the Peshtigo and Michigan fires were caused by sloppy lumberjacks who left behind piles of flammable pine slash, but Meunier told me that theory is likely wrong. “I know that people are emotionally attached to that narrative, but the idea that pine slash caused the fires is likely wrong,’’ he said. His research shows the trees of the Peshtigo region in 1871 were the same sugar maples, hemlock, cedar and ash that grow there today; the wholescale lumbering of the pine had not yet begun.
And the story you’ve heard of the Chicago Fire, about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, was a trope of anti-immigrant hatred. James Leary, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert in the folklore of the Upper Midwest, says that blaming immigrants for the fire shows that 1871 was not that different than 2021. “As a Leary, I’ve known all my life that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was blamed for kicking over a lantern in the Irish slum where beasts and humans lived in close proximity,’’ he said. “I remember my dad being asked, ‘Did your name used to be O’Leary?’ and he’d answer, ‘Not since the Chicago Fire.’’’
In the North, Meunier says that new European immigrants did probably contribute to the severity of the Peshtigo and Michigan fires because they didn’t understand the danger of letting small fires smolder, nor did they grasp that the North American landscape was shaped by historical fires. “There had been dozens of these fires in the years before and after Peshtigo,’’ Meunier says. In 1780, before European settlement of the Great Lakes, forest fires in the region were so intense that they dropped six inches of ash on the streets of New Hampshire and created “New England’s Dark Day” that blacked out the sun and led colonists to believe that Judgment Day had arrived. The largest fires in Wisconsin history occurred in 1910, Meunier said, but they had few fatalities and so are forgotten.
Meunier has a personal tie to fire and Wisconsin history: he’s the great-grandson of famed ecologist Aldo Leopold, who died while fighting a fire on a neighbor’s property in Wisconsin’s sand country in 1948. By then, Leopold was in favor of setting a “prescribed burn” to create fire breaks, control invasive plants and restore the prairie. “People know that [Leopold’s] thinking on wolves evolved over the years, but he made the same evolution with fire,’’ Meunier said. “When he was a young U.S. Forest Service employee, he thought that fire was the evil of all evils. But he came to see it as a powerful tool.”
Meunier says the great fires of October 1871 could—and likely will—return someday. “We tend to think of those years as so anomalous that they can’t repeat,” he told me. But “what we learn from studying the Peshtigo fire is that it was climate and weather driven: we had drought and then we had wind. We’re not understanding the important lessons from those fires. We need to be prepared for that to happen again.” ■
Susan Lampert Smith is a freelance science writer from Wisconsin. She previously wrote the On Wisconsin column for the Wisconsin State Journal.
Cover photo: “The Burning of Peshtigo” (public domain).
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