Peshtigo Fire

From Encyclopedia of Wisconsin Environmental History
Jump to: navigation, search

The year of 1871 was notorious for fires, such as the Peshtigo Fire which occurred on October 8th, 1871. It had engulfed the town of Peshtigo, a town in northeastern Wisconsin, and the surrounding area in flames. It is believed that around 1,500 lives were lost that day. The fire consumed much of the area, resulting in a loss of a great portion of the forest area. Witnesses described the event as a fire storm similar to that of a tornado, leading many to think that it was judgement day. [1] Today the Peshtigo Fire is still known as the deadliest forest fire in modern world history.[2]

The Causes of the Fire

One of the most common myths about how the fire started was Mrs. O'Leary and her cow tipped over a lantern which then caught fire to some hay and began to spread for miles. However, it is more than likely that the fire was started by the lumber industry and linked with the overly dry conditions that Northeastern Wisconsin had been suffering. Before the fire, Peshtigo was a leader in the lumber industry which led the town to be rich in timber. The timber was in the roads, houses, and helped make up bridges and buildings in town. In addition, due to the importance of the lumber industry fires were a common practice in the area by lumberjacks, farmers, and even railroad construction crews. Setting these fires was part of their daily work. After the day was over these fires were often left to burn out on their own. Furthermore, the weather had been very dry through the fall and winter months of 1870 and northeastern Wisconsin faced many dry conditions. With the hope of improving these dry conditions, spring and summer arrived and conditions declined even more. The continuous dry conditions year round and heavy involvement of the lumber industry in town, including the use of fires, led the town to catch fire in October, 1871. [3]

The Effects of the Fire

While the fire affected much of northeastern Wisconsin, its name became known as the Peshtigo Fire, because much of the devastation took place in the city of Peshtigo. Exact totals may never be known, but it's estimated that between 1,200 to 2,400 lives were lost that day in Peshtigo and the surrounding areas. In addition to the lives lost, millions of dollars in property and lumber were destroyed as well. The survivors of the fire described the event as similar to a fire storm, and many were sure it was the end of the world or judgement day. Relief efforts came late because of Peshtigo's remoteness, many where unaware there had even been a fire, and many were already preoccupied with The Great Chicago Fire, that also took place at this time. It took approximately two days for word of the Peshtigo fire to reach Madison. By that time, many government officials were already in Chicago helping the recovery there. However, the governor's wife rerouted some box cars bound for Chicago to head back to Peshtigo. In the end, the fire had burned about 1.3 million acres in Peshtigo and sixteen other surrounding communities in northeastern Wisconsin. An estimated $169 million worth of damage which about equaled the resulting amount of damage in urban Chicago as well. [4]

In Chicago

On the same day, October 8th, 1871, the better known fire, The Great Chicago Fire, had also happened. The devastation had been far worse in Peshtigo, but due to its size, the Chicago fire received much more attention. An estimated 300 people were lost in the Chicago fire, only a small fraction of what was lost in Peshtigo alone on that same day. In response, the federal government formed new forest management programs and reformed the lumber harvesting techniques to make them less dangerous and wasteful. The fires also brought the government's attention to the fact that the forest was not an unlimited resource. [5]

Peshtigo Today

Peshtigo, today, is a small city with around 3,500 people living there. [6] The Peshtigo Fire Museum is located near the Middle/High School, at the corner of Oconto Avenue and Ellis Avenue. The museum opens Memorial Day weekend and stays open until October 8th, which is the anniversary when the fire occured. The hours open to guests are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The museum is free to the public, but donations are welcome. The museum features artifacts from the fire, displays depicting the lifestyle at the time, and a cemetery adjacent to the museum honoring those who lost their lives. The museum is full of the many tragic and miraculous stories from those who died and those who survived. [7]


  1. Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth, (Oxford University Press 2009), 67-68.
  2. The Wisconsin Cartographer’s Guild, “The Peshtigo Fire” In Wisconsin’s Past and Present a Historical Atlas, 47
  3. Peshtigo Fire Museum, “Fire!,” Accessed on April 27th, 2017,
  4. Chuck Lyons, "Hell on Earth: The Peshtigo Fire," History Magazine, February/March 2010, 38-40
  5. Chuck Lyons, "Hell on Earth: The Peshtigo Fire," History Magazine, February/March 2010, 38-40
  6. Suburban Stats, Population Demographics for Peshtigo, Wisconsin in 2016 and 2017, Accessed on April 27th, 2017
  7. Peshtigo Fire Museum, “Home,” Accessed on April 27th, 2017,

Article History

Format: [[username1]] (YY-MM-DD); [[username2]] (YY-MM-DD); [[username3]] (YY-MM-DD)
For example: voelkerd (2015-10-12)