Peshtigo fire eclipses Chicago’s

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By: 

Roger VanHaren

“Late one night, when we were all in bed, Mrs. O’Leary lit a lantern in the shed. Her cow kicked it over, then winked her eye and said, ‘There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight!’ ”

Those are lyrics of an old song referring to the famous Chicago fire of Oct. 8, 1871.

Interestingly, that was also the date of the Great Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin. For people like me who grew up in northeast Wisconsin, the Peshtigo fire is a much bigger deal than the Chicago fire.

Did Mrs. O’Leary’s cow start the Great Chicago Fire? And what started the Peshtigo fire? There are probably no definitive answers to those questions.

In the case of the Chicago conflagration, it’s possible that the cow started it. People who’ve studied the case say that it almost surely began in the vicinity of the crowded barn where Kate O’Leary kept her five cows. There was a rumor that Kate O’Leary admitted to people right after the blaze began that she was in the barn when “Daisy” kicked over a lantern.

But there are also plenty of reasons to think that Mrs. O’Leary was innocent. Kate O’Leary offered sworn testimony that she was in bed when the fire started, and the official inquiry concluded that it found no proof of her guilt.

On top of this, a reporter named Michael Ahern, who worked for the Chicago Republican at the time, boasted in the Tribune that he and two now-deceased cronies made up the whole “cow kicked a lantern” story.

Whether or not the stories are true, at least 300 people were dead, 100,000 people were homeless and $200 million worth of property was destroyed. The entire central business district of Chicago was leveled. The fire was one of the most spectacular events of the 19th century, and it is recognized as a major milestone in the city’s history.

As major as that event was, though, it was nothing in comparison to the Peshtigo fire of the same day. The Peshtigo fire was a forest fire that took place in and around Peshtigo. Wikipedia says, “It was a firestorm that caused the most deaths by fire in United States history, with reported deaths of around 1,500 people, or 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.”

So what caused the Peshtigo fire? Weather may have played a role. There had been a prolonged drought and on Oct. 8, a cold front moved in from the west, bringing strong winds that fanned the small fires that had been set to clear forest land for farming and railroad construction. The fires got out of control and grew to massive proportions.

One author wrote, “a wall of flame, a mile high, five miles wide, traveling 90 to 100 miles per hour, hotter than a crematorium, turned sand into glass.”

By the time it was over, 1,875 square miles of forest had burned, about twice the size of Rhode Island. The fire affected areas of Oconto, Marinette, Shawano, Brown, Kewaunee, Door, Manitowoc and Outagamie counties. Twelve communities were destroyed. An accurate death toll could never be determined because local records were destroyed in the fire. In 1870, the town of Peshtigo had 1,749 residents. More than 350 bodies were buried in a mass grave; so many had died that no one remained alive who could identify many of them.

The fire jumped across the Peshtigo River and burned on both sides of the little town. The fire was so intense that debris from the firestorm flew several miles over the waters of Green Bay and burned parts of the Door peninsula. In the fire museum in Peshtigo (I suggest you visit it sometime), there are reports that some survivors said that the heat generated a tornado that threw rail cars and houses into the air. Some people escaped death by immersing themselves in the Peshtigo River, in wells or in other nearby bodies of water. Some of them drowned while others died of hypothermia in the ice-cold river.

So, two famous fires on the same day; the Chicago fire became part of the national consciousness while the Peshtigo tragedy gradually slipped into obscurity, eventually remembered primarily by scholars, local “old-timers” and Wisconsin school children (who are required to study Wisconsin history in fourth grade). Why? One was a great Midwestern city, the other a tiny Wisconsin town. And Peshtigo didn’t have a Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.

Contact Roger VanHaren at rjmavh@gmail.com