Why You Don't Know About The Deadliest Fire In U.S. History

By Karen Harris

People seeking refuge in the Peshtigo River, 1871. (G. J. Tisdale/Wikimedia Commons)

The deadliest wildfire in U.S. history claimed approximately 2,500 lives and destroyed more than 1.2 million acres of a Wisconsin logging town, but you've probably never heard of it. The Peshtigo Fire of 1871 tends to be overlooked in the history books, mostly because it happened on the same day as a much more famous fire—likely no coincidence.

Two pieces of lumber that survived the fire. (Royalbroil/Wikimedia Commons)

The Peshtigo Fire

On the evening of October 8, 1871, residents of Peshtigo, Wisconsin heard a low rumble that sounded like a train, stepped outside to investigate, and found a raging wildfire ripping through the surrounding forests and rushing toward town. The winds, which were so strong that many survivors reported fire tornados, swept the fire from building to building so fast that many residents never had a chance to escape. Others were caught in the flames as they tried to make their way to the river, which offered little refuge, as the wooden bridges caught fire, too. The wind spread the burning embers until both sides of the river were ablaze.

The Peshtigo Fire Museum. (Royalbroil/Wikimedia Commons)

What Caused The Peshtigo Fire?

When the Peshtigo Fire finally burned itself out, around 2,500 people (more than half the city's population) were dead, most of them burned beyond recognition and consigned to a mass grave, and an area of land the size of Connecticut was destroyed. To add insult to injury, when survivors asked the public for help in the cleanup, recovery, and rebuilding efforts, they found that resources were overwhelmingly being directed to the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire, which happened on the same day. In fact, an unusual number of fires occurred in the region, including the Michigan cities of Holland, Manistee, Alpena, and Port Huron. This was likely due to drought conditions and high winds in the area, but some cite explanations as far-fetched as meteor showers (which weren't reported that day and have never been known to cause fires, F.Y.I.).

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.