People sought refuge in the ice-cold waters of the Peshtigo River to avoid certain death during the Peshtigo fire in October 1871. (Illustration by GJ Tisdale, via Peshtigo Fire Museum)
People sought refuge in the ice-cold waters of the Peshtigo River to avoid certain death during the Peshtigo fire in October 1871. (Illustration by GJ Tisdale, via Peshtigo Fire Museum)

Wisconsin inferno of 150 years ago remains America’s deadliest.

While coverage of wildfires in the American West dominates 2021 news coverage, most people don’t know that the deadliest wildfire in the nation’s history occurred 150 years ago along the shores of Lake Michigan, right here in Wisconsin. 

On Oct. 8, 1871, the Peshtigo fire killed an estimated 1,200 people, burning up 1.2 million acres on both sides of Green Bay and wiping entire communities off the map.

Lumberjacks, Drought, and a Near-Hurricane Whipped Up the Firestorm

Peshtigo’s location, where the Northwoods meets the Great Lakes, made it the perfect location for lots of lumber mills. Nearly every building was made of wood, and piles of sawdust and branches stripped from trees surrounded the town. 

A dry 1870 was followed by an even drier 1871 and a huge, swirling low pressure system blew in from the Great Plains with cyclone-speed winds.

Local Rivers Became Refuges and Death Traps

As winds swept the fire from building to building, the people and animals of Peshtigo fled to the icy-cold Peshtigo River, many of them with their clothing on fire. Some estimated the ambient air temperature at 700 degrees, causing spontaneous combustion of clothing and hair. 

Buildings on both sides of the river were engulfed in flames, and the hot air was so full of smoke and embers that it was unbreathable. Many drowned, and others perished from hypothermia.

The Rev. Peter Pernin described being in the water for more than five hours, beating out flames from the clothing of his neighbors and draping them with wet blankets. He emerged from the water temporarily blinded and shaking with cold.

Fire Tornado Sweeps Across Green Bay

The fire was so huge and the winds so strong that it swept across the waters of Green Bay to Door County, where it destroyed even more buildings and killed 128 people. 

The fire vortex completely wiped out the small town of Williamsonville, which was located on the Ahnapee River. The fiery tornado killed all but 19 of the town’s 76 residents. A group of 35 huddled together in a potato field were burnt beyond recognition. 

Tornado Memorial Park, located 10 miles southwest of Sturgeon Bay, and Tornado Road, remember those lost that day.

A map of Peshtigo as it appeared in September 1871, the month before a fire wiped the town out. (Library of Congress)

Great Chicago Fire was the Same Day

The same dry conditions that plagued northeast Wisconsin also contributed to the three-day Great Chicago Fire, which occurred at exactly the same time and killed 300 people. 

Because it hit a big city, news of the Chicago fire captivated the country, but few knew of the much greater disaster farther north on Lake Michigan. 

Adding to the problem, the telegraph lines along both sides of Green Bay had burned, so residents of northeast Wisconsin had to ride to the city of Green Bay to send a message about their plight.

Angel of Wisconsin: First Lady Frances Fairchild

By the time word reached Madison of the conflagration that had hit up north, Wisconsin Gov. Lucius Fairchild had already left the state with a trainload of supplies to help the people of Chicago. 

That left his 23-year-old wife, Frances, in charge. When she heard of the plight of her own people, she went to the railroad depot and commandeered a trainload of food and supplies bound for Chicago and rerouted it to Peshtigo on the fastest route possible. She also organised a blanket drive in Madison to give the survivors some protection from the coming cold weather.

A memorial to the Peshtigo fire of 1871, which killed 1,200 people in northeastern Wisconsin. (Photo via Royalbroil/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.5)

Peshtigo Remembers With a 150th Anniversary Event

Peshtigo Historical Days, Sept. 24-26, will celebrate the community rising from the ashes and commemorate those who were lost 150 years ago. The event includes a historical play at the Embers 1871 restaurant (already sold out), historical re-enactments, a lumberjack show, a beard-growing contest, and a parade.