The Great Peshtigo Fire: The Deadliest Blaze You've Never Heard Of

Mel Kishner //
Mel Kishner // / Mel Kishner //

This week—October 8, specifically—marks the 144th anniversary of a fire that completely destroyed 1.2 million acres and killed more than 2,500 people. That's more deaths by fire from a single incident than any other in United States history. If you have a brain for dates, you might remember that this exact same day, October 8, 1871, is the day Mrs. O’Leary’s cow allegedly kicked over a lantern in her barn in Chicago (a tale which turned out to be totally fabricated, by the way). But we’re not talking about the Great Chicago Fire, which ravaged 3.3 square miles of land and killed 300. This was the Peshtigo Fire, a blaze that scorched an area of Wisconsin more than twice the size of Rhode Island.

With today’s technology and mobility, it’s hard to imagine how a fire could take so many lives. But in 1871, the small town of Peshtigo didn’t have the hoses and pumps required to fight a fire of that magnitude. Surrounded by burning forest, the townspeople became trapped in a city of wooden buildings, wooden sidewalks, and streets covered in sawdust. The fire only died down when it finally reached the waters of Green Bay and a rain began to fall.

Though the effects were widespread (with more than 12 communities affected), the tragedy eventually took on the name “Peshtigo” because that town suffered the worst—approximately half of its population perished that night. Many victims were burned so badly that they were unidentifiable. Three hundred and fifty of these men, women, and children are buried in a mass grave at the Peshtigo Fire Cemetery.

Royalbroil via Wikimedia Commons / /CC BY-SA 2.5

The Peshtigo and Chicago Fires weren’t the only infernos that raged that day, by the way. The Great Michigan Fire also started on October 8, 1871, leading some to believe that there was a central source for all three fires—namely, a comet that passed across the Midwest, spraying hot debris in its wake. The problem with that idea is that meteorites aren’t hot by the time they get to Earth. A more likely scenario is that all three fires were caused by dry weather conditions and strong winds across the region.