Fire research fuels a business

This map of the Great Fire of 1871 shows the area of lower Door County, Wis., where cartographer Julius Wagner began his research on Belgium ancestors.

EagleHerald Staff Writer

Julius Wagner’s interest in his Belgium ancestry led to research on the 1871 Peshtigo fire in lower Door County, which fueled a new mapmaking business.

As he delved into fire research, he taught himself how to create maps. “I made a fire map and started a map business,” said Wagner, a cartographer at Bay Maps in Green Bay.

Like most fire researchers, Wagner said he has found conflicting information. Some people say the fire jumped across the Menominee River, while Wagner believes two separate, distinct fires started on the same day on both sides of the river. “There were already fires burning in those areas,” he said. “When the winds picked up Oct. 8, it fanned those fires, not necessarily it jumped the river.”

While estimates of the area affected by the fire go as high as 1.5 million acres, Wagner said he has carefully studied maps of the Peshtigo fires in northeast Wisconsin and, “560,871 is what I came up with” for acres burned.

A man named Frank Tilton wrote a book in 1871, called “Sketch of the Great Fires in Wisconsin at Peshtigo,” where he writes about the Sugar Bush area of Menominee County, Wagner said. “It’s probably one of the most historically credited sources. He really goes into a lot of details,” he said.

Wagner said his interest in the Peshtigo fires started with research on Belgium heritage in the area. About 1,000 immigrants settled in the peninsula area of Wisconsin in the early 1800s, he said.

As Wagner researched Belgium heritage near Williamsonville in southern Door County, he learned “a lot of it was affected by the fires.” A Belgium settlement in Williamsonville, where 60 of 77 residents reportedly lost their lives, was one of the areas destroyed in the fire.

“This was a really important part of their history because it affected a lot of their communities. A lot of those stories have been handed down,” Wagner said.