Revisiting the Peshtigo Fire, America's Forgotten Megadisaster

Vintage |

The most devastating fire in the history of America was a fire that broke out in Peshtigo, Wisconsin in 1871. It occurred on the same night as the famous Great Chicago Fire, which destroyed three square miles of Chicago and killed three hundred people. But the Peshtigo fire, much less famous, was actually far deadlier.

Peshtigo, a small town north of Green Bay, was annihilated by a fire that spread until it was roughly twice the size of Rhode Island. In just an hour and a half, it killed between 1,200 and 2,500 people, making it the deadliest fire in American history.

The fire's causes are still unknown. But conditions were perfect for something to go awry. Peshtigo had a booming lumber industry, which reduced much of the town's surrounding forests to fire-ready brush. Peshtigo was also suffering through a protracted dry spell, and the day of the fire, there was a cold front which blew cold wind across the landscape. However the fire began, it culminated in a towering blaze that overwhelmed the town with little notice.

Peshtigo Fire 1 Door County Pulse

Survivors described a wall of fire a thousand feet high engulfing the area. The updraft from the blaze was so strong that when the fire touched houses, they would be lifted off their foundations and into the air before being incinerated. Many of the townspeople tried to escape the heat by diving into the Peshtigo River, but the air temperature was so high that it made breathing a challenge, even with their bodies submerged.

In a stroke of luck, the morning brought a downpour of rain that put the fire out. The devastation was total - all of Peshtigo had burned, along with a great deal of the surrounding countryside. Since the telegraph line and railway station were both destroyed, it was a number of days before anyone outside of the town even learned of the disaster.

While the Great Chicago Fire made headlines (and history), the Peshtigo fire smoldered into irrelevance. Despite the fact that it claimed far more lives, it is now a forgotten footnote in American history. In fact, it received barely any media attention at all, except for local newspapers.

It seems hard to believe that an event which took the lives of up to two and a half thousand people wouldn't make an imprint on our cultural memory. To put the destruction into perspective, the estimated death toll of 9/11 was 2,996 people. But the Peshtigo fire remains an article of interest mostly just to historians and encyclopedia readers.

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Matt lives in Southern California. He is interested in politics, history, literature and the natural world.