Peshtigo Fire topic for SCHRC presentation

The Sheboygan County Historical Research Center begins another season of great speakers with nine new topics for history lovers.

This new season starts Saturday, Sept. 14, when author Scott Knickelbine will take us back to the days of The Great Peshtigo Fire. Knickelbine has written more than 30 nonfiction books for young people, including the series "America at War" and "Environmental Disasters," both of which received positive reviews in "Booklist."

The event will take place at the Sheboygan Falls Public Library, 330 Buffalo St., Sheboygan Falls, from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m in the lower level meeting room.

Open to the public, this free presentation is appropriate for adults and students ten and older. No reservations are needed.

Background Peshtigo, Wisconsin, was a company lumber and sawmill town owned by William Ogden that was home to what was then one of the largest wood-products factories in the United States. The summer of 1871 was particularly dry across the northern Midwest. Still, settlers continued to set fires, using the "slash and burn" method to create new farmland and, in the process, making the risk of forest fire substantial. In fact, the month before had seen significant fires burn from Canada to Iowa.

Peshtigo, like many Midwestern towns, was highly vulnerable to fire. Nearly every structure in town was a timber-framed building--prime fuel for a fire. In addition, the roads in and out of town were covered with saw dust and a key bridge was made of wood. This would allow a fire from outside the town to easily spread to Peshtigo and make escaping from a fire in the town difficult. On Sept. 23, the town had stockpiled a large supply of water in case a nearby fire headed in Peshtigo's direction. Still, they were not prepared for the size and speed of the Oct. 7 blaze.

The blaze began at an unknown spot in the dense Wisconsin forest. It first spread to the small village of Sugar Bush, where every resident was killed. High winds then sent the 200-foot flames racing northeast toward the neighboring community of Peshtigo. Temperatures reached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, causing trees to literally explode in the flames.

On Oct. 8, the fire reached Peshtigo without warning. Two hundred people died in a single tavern. Others fled to a nearby river, where several people died from drowning. Three people who sought refuge in a water tank boiled to death when the fire heated the tank. A mass grave of nearly 350 people was established because extensive burns made it impossible to identify the bodies.

Trees, buildings, and people burst into flames. Metal melted. Sand turned into glass. People thought the end of the world had come. When the "tornado of fire" was over, 2,500 people were dead, and Peshtigo was nothing but a smoking ruin. It was the deadliest wildfire in U.S. history.

Rarely do we hear about the Great Peshtigo Fire because it is always overshadowed by another great fire. The Great Chicago Fire also started on the evening of Oct. 8, 1871. While there is little doubt that the fire started in a barn owned by Patrick and Catherine O'Leary, the exact cause of the fire remains a mystery. From the barn at 137 DeKoven St., on the city's southwest side, the fire spread north and east, into the heart of Chicago's business district.

Rain put out the fire more than a day later, but by then it had burned an area 4 miles long and 1 mile wide. The fire destroyed 17,500 buildings and 73 miles of street. Ninety thousand people—one in three Chicago residents—were left homeless by the fire. While only 120 bodies were recovered, it is believed that 300 people died in the blaze.

Two great disasters, two great moments in history, Scott Knickelbine will enlighten us about both.


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