Monday, October 08, 2007

October 8

In the fall of 1871, horrific fires choked the midwestern United States, taking thousands of lives and rendering millions of acres to cinders. Like most natural disasters, human error and shortsightedness compounded problems that already existed. In this case, post-Civil War agricultural and industrial growth weakened an already vulnerable ecology in the upper Midwest, where late summer drought had dried out bogs and swamps. As farmers and timber barons splintered the region’s hardwood forests, and as railroad companies left endless piles of brush and slash beside the tracks they were feverishly extending into the continental interior, they unwittingly contributed the ideal circumstances for what would become the deadliest fire in American history.

On October 8, 1871, eastern Wisconsin burst into flames. Within hours, brisk winds stirred up prairie fires along the edge of Green Bay and across the waters on Door Peninsula; massive whirlwinds scorched 2400 square miles along with dozens of small towns and villages. Marsh gases exploded, sowing shards of fire that lit up the forests and accelerated the fire’s spread. With nowhere to run, people lept into rivers where they drowned, wells where they suffocated, and marshes where they were poached by the heat.

One survivor, a Mrs. W. A. Ellis, described the fire in a letter to a friend:
The tornado was upon us -- Mr. Ellis told us to leave the house and go somewhere -- we went in to the house for a moment -- I took two of my dresses and two of sisters -- blew out the lights, and left. I thought we would burn before we got out of the yard, our clothes being linen. The fire came on to us and all around us like snow -- the hot sand and cinders filled out eyes and blinded us we could scarcely keep our feet or keep from fainting. The air was so hot -- before I got to the guideboard the wind had taken all my dresses like chaff.
In the town of Peshtigo, as many as 1500 people perished within a matter of minutes as the heat and fumes literally smothered people where they stood. More than one victim was discovered leaning against a tree or sitting by a stream. Others were so thoroughly consumed that their remains could be gathered into a patty pan. More than a few were trampled by cattle, who ultimately fared no better than the people.

Two days after rains dampened the fire, the Marinette and Peshtigo Eagle eulogized Peshtigo, which it described as “one of the busiest, liveliest and one of the most enterprising communities along the Bay shore.”
Standing amid the charred and blackened embers, with the frightfully mutilated corpses of men, women, children, horses, oxen, cows, dogs, swine and fowls; every house, shed, barn, out-house or structure of any kind swept from the earth as with the very besom of destruction, our emotions cannot be described in language. No pen dipped in liquid fire can paint the scene — language “in thoughts that breathe and words that burn” gives but he faintest impression of its horrors.
Such horrors are only faintly recalled today; by unfortunate coincidence, the Peshtigo Fire happened the same night that Chicago burnt to the ground.