Worst U.S. Natural Disaster

by Mike Crowe

Between the general failure of the people to prepare and the sudden explosion of the fire, there was little time to run. The only escape was at the river, and many went at the same time.

This story was first published in 2002

On October 11, 1871, Walter McLaughlin, the lighthouse keeper at Gannet Rock, Grand Manan Island, recorded a strong smell of smoke in his journal, but saw no fire or smoke. He smelled smoke for many days and on the 18th of October he learned of the fire that started in Chicago – on October 8th. Sixty years earlier, ash from a volcano had circled the globe and caused the “year without a summer” that dropped 6'' of snow on Portland, Maine in June. Today summer smog on Mt. Desert Island, Maine is proof enough of the course of these upper air streams. But the Chicago fire was out the following morning. Had he known this, the mystery would have been why was he smelling smoke for so many days.

The mystery and the answer are wrapped together in the country’s worst and little known “natural” disaster. It began at almost the same time as the Chicago fire. But because the event was 240 miles to the north in the forest of eastern Wisconsin, it got second billing to the work of Mrs. O’Leary’s famous cow in one of the country’s largest cities. The fire started in the O’Leary’s barn on Chicago’s west side, but no one actually saw the cow knock that oil lamp over. The load of hay in the barn is said to have been green, which may get the cow off the hook.

Chicago was a wooden city in 1871, transportation was horse-drawn. Milk was from a cow out back, not the Quiki-Mart at the corner. In those days there was no diesel exhaust or rubber dust from tires to inhale in the streets. But there were horse “droppings,” at times ankle deep; and that, not diesel, was the “eau du Chicago.” Boots were not just a fashion statement in American cities in 1871.

Chicago had literally exploded into existence around the time of the Civil War. It had been both a livestock terminal and frontier town on the way to being on the way to way out west. It quickly became a railroad center and major port on the Great Lakes. In the previous twenty years, 1850-1871, population went from 30,000 to 330,000.

The summer and fall of 1871 were hot, dry, and on October 8, windy. When the fire was first noticed at around 9:20 p.m. in the O’Leary’s barn, the wind rapidly drove it through the city east to the shore of Lake Michigan. The water table was low and there was really no way to fight the fire other than fleeing. The fire destroyed a swath of the city 4 miles long and 3/4 of a mile wide before rain miraculously doused it the next day. It’s estimated that 18,000 buildings burned and between 200 and 300 people died. So what was Walter McLaughlin detecting for so many days, 1,200 miles away in eastern Canada?

At Peshtigo, a frontier lumber town on upper Green Bay on the western side of Lake Michigan, a larger more intense disaster would unfold. It had been as hot and dry there as it had been in Chicago, the last measurable rain had fallen in July. Chicago was a town based on cattle, trains and trade. Peshtigo was based on wood. It was a town built of wood, everyone’s livelihood was related to cutting, sawing or making things out of wood. The town had the world’s largest woodenware factory, many sawmills, four hotels, bars and lumberjacks to frequent them.

Within hours the fire burst across 1.25 million acres, 16 towns and more than 1,200 lives.

Stranger than the coincidence with the Chicago fire was the fact that fires smoldered in the woodland turf over a vast area. There are estimates that an area 100 miles by 70 miles had fires smoldering in the forest. Some were started by lightning, others by woods workers. The air in town was filled with smoke all summer from these smoldering fires. Crews were sent to quell fires that regularly flared up in the woods.

Peshtigo was, for the most part, a “company town” under the influence of the Peshtigo Company. A glow was on the horizon at night, but production in the woods and in town took precedence over dealing with the threat of fire. This town with its woodenware factory, wooden corduroy roads, houses, wood sidewalks and surrounded by woods at the kindling point, might have made other decisions about living in a tinder box, but didn’t. On October 8, the glow at the west end of town was brighter than usual at sunset, the smoke in town thicker, but few if any decided to alter their routine.

The wind picked up after 8 p.m. By 8:30 the glow on the horizon had clearly become a fire. The monster lurking all summer in the woods at the edge of town was now awake and hungry. At 9:30 the winds had become a fire storm generating winds that knocked people over in the street, ignited buildings like match heads, and sent previously accepting residents into a panic. Blazing tree tops carried by the high winds crashed into buildings setting them alight. With the clothes on their backs, running into the wooden streets en masse they sought refuge in the Peshtigo River.

People waded into the river up to their necks, some half or more out of their wits. Two steamboats that served Peshtigo and the west coast of Lake Michigan were tied up at the wharf. The captain of one was fearful of running aground under power in the narrow channel created by the low water level. He drifted out the river toward the lake. By the time they approached the mouth of the river fire raged on both shores. As the blaze roared toward the river the lines of the other boat were chopped with axes at the last minute and the boat was set adrift filled with survivors. The steamboat Dunlop, expected in Peshtigo on the 8th, was kept out in Lake Michigan overnight after the captain saw the smoke and fire in the distance. Passengers spent the night above and below deck, while the town disappeared.

Most who made it to the river survived, but some did not recover from the shock of the disaster’s intensity.

People in outlying areas had little chance of escaping to the river or anywhere else. Some attempted to get to town on foot or by wagon. Others hauled some belong -ings and their families to the middle of a field and huddled in hope. In the aftermath, piles of ashes and a few metal parts were all that remained of many trapped this way. Climbing down wells failed most who tried it when the oxygen was consumed by the wall of fire that blasted across the landscape.

The number of horrific tragic losses and remarkable escapes are too numerous and gruesome to list here. But the scale of the devastation was so overwhelming that comparisons to the Chicago fire don’t fit. The temperatures rose so quickly and the fire moved so rapidly that, for some, stumbling to the ground once was fatal. Carrying a prized item from a doomed home slowed some by critical seconds. The hot ash and smoke were too thick to see through. The air nearly depleted of oxygen was too hot to breath in the last minutes. By 10:30 p.m. the town was gone, incinerated one hour after the fire reached it. Of 2,000 residents 800 were killed at Peshtigo. Survivors lived with burn scars on their heads, arms and backs.

The fire raced 55 miles up the coast and 30 miles south toward the town of Green Bay. It jumped 12 miles across the waters of Green Bay to the east. There on Dorr County peninsula it burned most of the 18-mile-wide peninsula from Stugeon Bay to Franklin, 45 miles to the south. In all, 16 towns were destroyed, 1.25 million acres burned, and between 1,200 and 1,500 people were killed.

The vast, unending woods of majestic timber had suddenly been confronted with a devastating quantifier.


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