EagleHerald Staff Writer
MENOMINEE—The Peshtigo Fire of 1871 might be the best known fire here, but researchers marvel at the similar conditions causing great fires in three states—Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois—that arrived with gusto on this day, Oct. 8, 150 years ago.
The fires exploded in fury, wiping out buildings and killing hundreds. Some died that night, while others died months or even a year or two later after having been weakened by the smoke and blazing heat.
“The Peshtigo fire was the most extreme fire behavior on record,” said Karen Vincent Humiston, a historical and family history researcher working on a book on the Peshtigo fire. “The conditions were just unbelievably ferocious. There was no way for people to escape unless they could get to the river. It’s amazing as many people survived as did, except in Sugar Bush because there’s no river there.”
To fully picture how the fire destroyed hundreds of homes and thousands of acres in the area near Marinette and Menominee, consider parched cities made of wood and without adequate fire departments, said Michael Kaufman, executive director, Menominee County Historical Society. Before Peshtigo, Menominee didn’t have a fire department, he said.
“The fire was the catalyst to the Menominee Fire Department being formed,” said Menominee Fire Chief Mark Petersen. An open house Oct. 23 will commemorate the department’s 150th anniversary. “Prior to that, each of the lumber companies had their own fire brigades. They would come into the city to help. After the fire, the citizens of Menominee said, ‘What the heck, we’re dependent on these companies, that dosen’t seem right,’” Petersen said.
In Peshtigo, railroad workers used fire to clear land to make way for tracks to Escanaba, and small fires broke out several weeks before the great fire exploded like a tornado on Oct. 8, researchers said.
“Most of us would think of October as not the time we have fire. But when you have a situation like they had in 1871, those warm temperatures in October, the leaves had fallen, all of the fuel activity was there…they can be very hard to stop,” said Robert Ziel, a Marquette, Mich., fire analyst who gave a webinar in September on “The buildup and the blowup” of the 1871 fires for the Forest History Association of Wisconsin. The association is holding its annual conference in Peshtigo this weekend.
An abundance of dry wood in northeastern Wisconsin and Menominee County fueled the flames. “The buildings were wooden. The houses were wooden. The sidewalks were wooden. Everything was wooden, even the water pipes,” Kaufman said.
With no mass communication, people discovered the fast-moving fire individually. Amber Polzin, a researcher at the Menominee County Historical Society provided a written account by Josephine Ingalls Sawyer, then a resident of what’s now Menominee County. She was the daughter of Judge E.G. Ingalls, who had a water mill on Little River and is among the leaders who incorporated the City of Menominee.
Sawyer wrote that on the evening of Oct. 7, while traveling south from Menominee in a light wagon, she noticed a “roaring in the air and the sky was lighted up over towards Peshtigo. The smell of smoke was strong before we were half way back. The roaring became loud and the wind came in fierce hot gusts, which fanned the smoldering logs into flames.”
Many people sought refuge in water. By the next morning, Sawyer wrote, “All of the buildings were on fire….The heat was so intense that the instant they rose out of water, their clothes caught fire and when they inverted wooden buckets of water over their heads, the bottom of the buckets would catch.”
“Late the next day, my brother-in-law got a team as far as Frenchtown. From there he had to walk the rest of the way to the mill, over fallen timber and hot ashes. He found them all alive but blind from smoke and heat and badly blistered, especially the eighteen-month-old baby, which could only be held under water a few minutes at a time. He roped them together so he could guide them, and, so carrying the children and sometimes the woman, they stumbled along, helping each other as best they could, often falling over burnt logs or burning their feet in hot ashes til they reached Frenchtown. We kept them at our house for two weeks, feeding them like children, until their eyes recovered. The woman and baby died to or three months later.”
The fire’s destruction was widespread. “My remembrance is that everything burned, even fences, walks and the saw dust covered streets. The fierce hot wind carried burning a mile and more out into the bay and set fire to sails of ships. Where the fire struck, it was so sudden and fierce that everything caught at once.”
The estimated number of fatalities in the Peshtigo fire ranges dramatically from one researcher to another, with some believing 2,500 perished, while others say those numbers are inflated. (See related story.)
“The extent of the devastation has never been determined,” Ziel said.
Where the fire raged
What many Wisconsinites might not be aware of is how Michigan also battled blazes the same day. About 3,900 square miles burned, including an area in Menominee County, Ziel said. Hundreds of families were left homeless.
“It came into Birch Creek in Menominee County very suddenly. People tried to run. It was just intense, ferocious conditions. It didn’t give people much chance to escape,” Humiston said.
When the fires of Oct. 8, 1871 are plotted on a Midwest map, the lowest point is Chicago, where a cow in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn is blamed for kicking over a lantern and starting the fire that raged out of control. Researchers believe the easternmost point of the 1871 triangle of fires was Bay City, Michigan, but fires apparently destroyed areas on Michigan’s western coast and the Upper Peninsula.
“There are people who talk about that triangulation and try to tie it into the comet theory,” said Julius Wagner, a cartographer at Bay Maps in Green Bay who has researched the great fires of 1871. “It suggested the fires started from some sort of fire balls coming out of the sky and igniting, but that theory really doesn’t hold up.”
Instead, drought conditions and a dramatic change in the weather led up to the fire.
In Michigan, Holland, Manistee and Traverse City were burned, Humiston said. “Probably more area was burned in Michigan, but there was not nearly as much loss of life” as in northeastern Wisconsin, Humiston said.
A historic plaque in lower Michigan states, “In a few hours most of Holland and Manistee lay in smoldering ruins, a fate other coastal towns barely escaped. The fires swept on across the state, clear to Lake Huron, destroying some two million acres of trees.”
Many fire researchers consider the fires of northeastern Wisconsin and Michigan’s lower Upper Peninsula, from Door County to Sugar Bush and Birch Creek in Menominee County, to be part of the Great Peshtigo Fire. But Humiston said the fire didn’t jump the Bay of Green Bay, though fires burned on the Door peninsula. Some researchers believe a wind from the west pushed the Peshtigo fire toward Door County.
The Peshtigo fire did jump the Menominee River, she said. “Jumping across the river was nothing for this fire because it would be throwing debris. It would throw burning fuel ahead of it and start fires. It jumped the Peshtigo River the same way,” Humiston said. “People tried to get away by going to the east side, but the east side was already burning, too.”
While the fire’s destructive force wiped out Peshtigo, what occurred in Marinette has been an ongoing topic of research.
“Some dispute whether the city of Marinette burned,” Wagner said. “There’s a lot of confusion over it” because what’s known as Marinette today was called Menekaune in 1871, and it was a Native American settlement village. The white settlement called Marinette was located north of the river.
Wagner’s map shows Marinette north of the river in 1871. “I got some criticism from the Peshtigo Fire Museum. One of the people said Marinette didn’t burn, but on my map I show it did burn because I call it what it is today versus what it used to be called, Menekaune,” he said.
The city of Menominee wasn’t officially formed until after the fire, but Sugar Bush and Birch Creek in Menominee County burned, researchers said.
A perfect storm of conditions
Drought conditions were a large factor in the great fires of 1871, and experts said a large fire could happen again if weather conditions were right.
In 1871, “there was just a perfect storm of conditions,” Humiston said. “Between the drought and the uncontrolled fires and the fuel load and that wind coming in to blow it all up, it was an explosive situation.”
Ideal conditions of ample dry wood, warm temperatures and strong winds that made the blaze uncontrollable for days, said fire analyst Robert Ziel.
A summer and fall drought led up to the great fires of 1871. In Sturgeon Bay, which also saw blazes 150 years ago, only 4.75 inches of rain fell that year, compared with about 12 inches in a more typical year, Ziel said.
“Folks in and around Peshtigo were living with fire for weeks,” Ziel said, as land was being cleared for the railway. An early frost in September turned into a killing frost in late September and early October, but an Indian Summer brought temperatures of about 80 degrees.
A fierce wind blew up the fires on Oct. 7 and 8 throughout the three Midwestern states.
“The violent winds threw parts of buildings through the air,” Humiston said. “Certainly doors and parts of walls were flying through the air, and sometimes hitting and killing people.”
“Peshtigo had also burned two weeks earlier and they thought they had fought it off. You had an absolutely explosive fuel load. (The fire) would take the valuable parts and leave the rest there. Leaves had fallen early, so everything was dried on the ground.”
On the roads, sawdust was used to keep the dust down, and it, along with wood waste from lumber cuts, became fuel for the flames, Humiston said.
In accounts of the Peshtigo fire, survivors described how the top of the fire leapt over them. “The fire temperature climbed to 900 degrees,” Ziel said.
A wildfire starts with an ignition point and spreads with the wind direction, the top of the fire spreads more rapidly than the bottom.
No one knows how the Peshtigo Fire was put out. Some researchers speculate the fire died as the intense heat consumed the fuel it burned, while others say rain ultimately extinguished it.
“I imagine it had to be some weather phenomenon that stopped the fire,” Petersen of Menominee said.