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‘The night America burned’: The deadliest — and most overlooked — fire in U.S. history

A painting by Mel Kishner of the 1871 Peshtigo fire, the deadliest in U.S. history. (Wisconsin Historical Society)

This story has been updated several times.

On the morning of Sunday, Oct. 8, 1871, the citizens of Peshtigo, a Wisconsin lumber town up a dirt road from Green Bay, went to church and prayed for God to spare them from the flames.

Brush fires had been popping up throughout the Midwest, the result of a summer drought that stretched into the first days of fall. The townsfolk could smell smoke wafting through the pews. Outside, ash sprinkled down like snowflakes.

“Still, the thought of danger did not enter the minds of the people,” according to an account in the Peshtigo Times newspaper. That night, “one by one the lights that had glimmered through the windowpanes were extinguished; babes lay tranquilly on their mothers bosoms; the virtuous and the vicious were seeking the God-given boon of sleep.”

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And then, the sound of a train rumbled in — only it wasn’t a train, but a fire that wiped out nearly the entire town on its path of fury, engulfing more than 1.5 million acres of land in Wisconsin and Michigan. As many as 2,500 people died in the two states, including 1,000 in Peshtigo alone, making it the worst forest fire in North American history.

It is also, according to some historians, the nation’s most overlooked catastrophe — far more destructive than the fires that have devoured and destroyed large swaths of California in recent months. This week, fires have ravaged Southern California. One blaze is now so large it’s nearly the size of Orlando. Officials said Wednesday that hundreds of thousands of people live in evacuation zones.

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The Peshtigo fire ignited at almost exactly the same time as the Great Chicago Fire. But Peshtigo lost its only telegraph line in the blaze, leaving the survivors with no way to notify the government or outside newspapers. While the nation quickly learned of the Chicago fire — which killed about 300 people and destroyed thousands of buildings  — the horror of what happened in Peshtigo went totally unheard of for days.

When the ashes settled, the evening became known as “the night America burned.”

Unlike the Chicago fire, which has been the subject of numerous books, movies and fables (no, the first didn’t start with a cow tipping over a lantern), the Peshtigo fire has garnered little attention in the American consciousness — a book or two at most. That’s it.

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The best account of the fire was written by the Rev. Peter Pernin, the parish priest of Peshtigo and the nearby town of Marinette. It describes the region’s vast forests and thriving lumber industry:

The climate of this region is generally uniform and favorable to the crops that are now tried there with remarkable success. Rains are frequent, and they generally fall at a favorable time. The year 1871 was, however, distinguished by its unusual dryness.

Around 7 p.m., the priest heard a great rumbling, like some kind of biblical thunderstorm:

I perceived above the dense cloud of smoke overhanging the earth, a vivid red reflection of immense extent, and then suddenly struck on my ear, strangely audible in the preternatural silence reigning around, a distant roaring, yet muffled sound, announcing that the elements were in commotion somewhere.

He led a charge to a nearby river.

All were struggling alike in the grasp of the hurricane. A thousand discordant deafening noises rose on the air together. The neighing of horses, falling of chimneys, crashing of uprooted trees, roaring and whistling of the wind, crackling of fire as it ran with lightning — like rapidity from house to house — all sounds were there save that of the human voice. People seemed stricken dumb by terror.

In the river, the priest and the townsfolk thought they would be safe. Surely, the fire would stop when it reached the water. They would spend the night there, soaking wet, treading water until the flames moved on — a “prolonged bath,” the priest thought. They were wrong:

The flames darted over the river as they did over land, the air was full of them, or rather the air itself was on fire. Our heads were in continual danger. It was only by throwing water constantly over them and our faces, and beating the river with our hands that we kept the flames at bay. … Not far from me a woman was supporting herself in the water by means of a log. After a time a cow swam past. There were more than a dozen of these animals in the river, impelled thither by instinct, and they succeeded in saving their lives. The first mentioned one overturned in its passage the log to which the woman was clinging and she disappeared into the water. I thought her lost; but soon saw her emerge from it holding on with one hand to the horns of the cow, and throwing water on her head with the other.

The survivors emerged from the water early the next morning and spent the next few days wandering through town like zombies, looking for family members, trying to remember where their homes once stood.

The heat of the fire turned sand to glass. Whole families were found bound together in desperate heaps, charred beyond recognition. It is said that 200 men died at a single tavern. Some townsfolk, knowing the certain anguish of death by flames, killed themselves and their children before the fire could.

The priest wrote:

There a mother lay prone on her face, pressing to her bosom the child she had vainly striven to save from the devouring element; here a whole family, father, mother, and children, lying together, blackened and mutilated by the fire fiend. … One of the workmen engaged in the construction of the church was found, knife in hand, with his throat cut, two of his children lying beside him in a similar condition; while his wife lay a little farther off, having evidently been burned to death. The name of this man was Towsley, and during the whole summer he had worked at the church of Peshtigo. Doubtless seeing his wife fall near him, and becoming convinced of the utter impossibility of escaping a fiery death, his mind became troubled, and he put an end to his own existence and that of his children.

In the days after, as word slowly spread of the catastrophe in Peshtigo, doctors arrived to help treat survivors. Some of them came with newspapers. “We read of the terrible ravages wrought by fire, on the same night, and, strange to say, about the same hour, not only at Peshtigo but in many other places and above all at Chicago,” the priest wrote.

He was troubled.

“Journal and telegraph created far and wide an immense outburst of compassion in favor of the unfortunate city,” the priest wrote, “diverting entirely the general attention from the far more appalling calamities of which we had been the hapless victims.”

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