On the night of October 8, 1871 the residents of Peshtigo, Wisconsin could smell smoke and see the glow of distant fires in the sky. This caused little concern; at that time approximately ¼ of every tree harvested went to waste. Large piles of sawdust and debris, called slash, could be found near lumbering camps, and often wound up ablaze for one reason or another. Steam locomotives frequently threw off sparks as they passed; workmen were wont to smoke as they sawed, then cast their cigarettes to the ground. Those who lived in lumber towns like Peshtigo became accustomed to these fires: one contemporary eyewitness said that in the autumn "the red on the distant hillsides was created by flames rather than the glow of frosted oaks."
Unfortunately, this had been a particularly dry summer. Between July and October only a trace of precipitation had fallen around Wisconsin's Green Bay. Ponds, creeks and bogs had disappeared, and swampy areas had become hard beds of clay. In these conditions, it was easy for a fire to grow out of control … particularly on a windy night. Small fires burning in patches throughout the region joined together, then expanded as they gathered force. It is unclear exactly how the original fires began. Some lay the blame on a passing train, others on careless laborers, and still others on a stray comet. However it happened, the end result was a firestorm, as superheated air joined with the winds to transform the dry timberland into a blast furnace.
Chicago millionaire William G. Ogden had invested heavily in Peshtigo, building what was then the country's largest wooden-ware factory to convert logs into pails, tubs, broom handles, barrel covers, and clothespins. Peshtigo was also home to a sawmill which ran 97 saws and produced 150,000 feet of lumber a day, a sash, door, and blind factory, a foundry and blacksmith shop, stores, hotels, a boarding house, a schoolhouse, and a Protestant as well as a Catholic church. Its official population of 1,700 was swollen by a steady stream of laborers working on the railroad and in the lumber camps. By the morning of October 9 fewer than 1,000 would remain alive.
The first sign was a dull red glow in the sky, then a low rumbling which quickly grew louder. Soon there were fires all around. The town was engulfed with a blast that lifted roofs off buildings and toppled chimneys. The air was hot as a furnace, and filled with sand, dust, cinders and smoke. Flaming whirlwinds, hundreds of feet high, leaped through the night, further spreading the fire. Terrified citizens raced for the river as the flames drew closer. Many stumbled and were incinerated where they lay: others ignited like Roman candles and burned as they ran. Some dived into wells and were boiled alive: others hid in their cellars and were suffocated as the firestorm sucked away the oxygen. The wooden buildings and sidewalks went up like paper in the wall of fire. By morning approximately 1 million acres of timberland had burned… and Peshtigo had vanished. Many who survived were horribly burned, or left homeless and penniless in the face of an oncoming Wisconsin winter. One survivor described the scene when he returned to the town a few days later:
Wherever the foot chanced to fall it rested on ashes. The iron tracks of the railroad had been twisted and curved into all sorts of shapes, whilst the wood which had supported them no longer existed… I plunged my cane into one of them, thinking what must the violence of that fire have been, which ravaged not only the surface of the earth, but penetrated so deeply into its bosom
While the Peshtigo Fire would be the most lethal fire in American history, it would receive little attention in the mass media. A few hundred miles away the midwestern drought had led to another catastrophe - the Great Chicago Fire. This inferno would receive the lion's share of publicity, even though the Peshtigo Fire was its equal in property damage (an estimated $175 million) and five times more lethal: while approximately 250 died in the Great Chicago Fire, some 1,250 were slain in the Peshtigo blaze.