October 8, 1871 saw two horrific fires: the Great Chicago Fire and the forest fire that destroyed the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin and several towns in Michigan. The latter began as a series of smaller fires that were whipped into a major conflagration by high winds and dry conditions. Peshtigo is in northeastern Wisconsin, near Lake Michigan. The fire burned about 1.2 million acres in and around the town and is the deadliest wildfire in recorded history. Somewhere between 1,200 and 2,500 people perished in this fire, which also affected several cities in Michigan (including Holland, Manistee, and Port Huron).
The setting of small fires was common in the 19th Century to clear forest land for farming and railroad construction. On the day of the Peshtigo fire, a cold front moved in from the west, bringing strong winds that fanned several small fires out of control. “When a firestorm erupts in a forest,” according to Gess and Lutz (Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History), “it is a blowup, nature’s nuclear explosion.” Firestorms can create superheated flames of at least 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and winds of up to 110 miles per hour. The diameter of such a fire ranges from 1,000 to 10,000 feet. By the time the Peshtigo fire was all over, 1,875 square miles of forest had been consumed. This is an area 50% larger than the state of Rhode Island. In all, twelve communities were destroyed.
An accurate death toll has never been determined for this fire because all local records were destroyed in the fire. In 1870, Peshtigo had 1,749 residents. The 1873 Report to the Wisconsin Legislature listed 1,182 names of dead or missing residents. More than 350 bodies were interred in a mass grave, primarily because so many people had died that there was no one left who could identify these poor souls.
The fire jumped across the Peshtigo River and burned both sides of the town. Survivors reported seeing fire tornadoes that threw rail cars and houses into the air. Many escaped the inferno by throwing themselves into the river, a well, or other nearby body of water. Some drowned, and others succumbed to hypothermia in the frigid river. The Green Island Light was kept lit during the day because of the obscuring smoke, but the three-masted schooner George L Newman was wrecked offshore anyway, although the crew was rescued.
At the same time, yet another fire burned parts of the Door Peninsula. Because of the coincidence, many incorrectly assumed the flames had jumped the waters of Green Bay. Across the lake to the east, the town of Holland, Michigan, along with nearby areas, burned to the ground. Some 100 miles to the north of Holland, the lumber community of Manistee also went up in flames in what became known as the Great Michigan Fire. Further east, along the shores of Lake Huron, the Port Huron fire swept through Port Huron, Michigan and much of Michigan’s “thumb.”
In Robinsonville (now Champion), Sister Adele Brise and other nuns, plus farmers and their families, fled to a local chapel for protection. Although the fires surrounded the chapel, the building was spared. The chapel is now known as the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help. The fires also spared the then village of Sturgeon Bay, on the east side of the bay.
Occurring on the same day, the Great Chicago Fire killed approximately 200 people, destroyed roughly 3.3 square miles of the city, and left more than 100,000 residents homeless. The fire began in a neighborhood southwest of the city center. A long period of hot, dry, windy conditions, plus the wooden construction prevalent in the city, led to the conflagration. The fire leapt the south branch of the Chicago River and destroyed much of central Chicago, then leapt the main branch of the river and consumed the Near North Side.
The fire is claimed to have started at around 8:30 pm, in or around a small barn belonging to the O’Leary family. The barn bordered an alley behind 137 DeKoven Street. The shed next to the barn was the first building consumed by the fire. Officials never determined the cause of the blaze, but the rapid spread of the fire was due to a long drought, strong winds from the southwest, and the destruction of the water pumping system. This explains the extensive damage to the mainly wooden city structures. There has been much speculation over the years on a single start to the fire. The most popular tale blames Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, who allegedly kicked over a lantern. Mrs. O’Leary made a convenient scapegoat: she was a poor, Irish catholic immigrant and anti-Irish sentiment was strong during the latter half of the 19th Century. Other speculations state that a group of men were gambling inside the barn and knocked over a lantern, or that the blaze was related to the other fires in the Midwest that same day. Amateur historian Richard Bales has suggested that the fire started when Daniel “Pegleg” Sullivan, who first reported the fire, ignited hay in the barn while trying to steal milk.
The fire’s spread was aided by the city’s use of wood as the predominant building material in a style called balloon framing. This style of building uses long continuous studs that run from the sill plate to the top plate, with intermediate floor structures let into and nailed to them. Once popular when long lumber was plentiful, balloon framing has largely been replaced by platform framing. More than two-thirds of the structures in Chicago at the time of the fire were made entirely of wood, with most of the buildings topped with highly flammable tar or shingle roofs. All of the city’s sidewalks and many roads were also constructed of wood. Compounding this problem was the fact that Chicago had received only one inch of rain from July 4 to October 8, causing severe drought conditions, while strong southwest winds helped to carry flying embers toward the heart of the city.
In 1871, the Chicago Fire Department had only 185 firefighters and 17 horse-drawn steam pumpers to protect the entire city. The initial response by the department was quick, but an error by watchman Matthias Schaffer sent the firefighters to the wrong place, allowing the fire to grow unchecked. An alarm sent form the area near the fire also failed to register at the courthouse where the fire watchmen were, while the firefighters were tired from fighting numerous small fires and one large one in the week before. These factors all combined to turn a small barn fire into a huge conflagration.
When firefighters finally arrived at DeKoven Street, the fire had spread to neighboring buildings and was moving toward the central business district. Firefighters had hoped the South Branch of the Chicago River, along with an area that had previously burned, would act as a firebreak. However, all along the river were lumber yards, warehouses, coal yards, barges, and numerous bridges. As the fire grew, the southwest wind intensified and became superheated, causing structures to catch fire simply from the heat, as well as from flying debris. Around midnight, flaming embers blew across the river and landed on roofs and the South Side Gas Works. With the fire now across the river and headed for the heart of the city, panic set in. About this time, Mayor Roswell B. Mason sent messages to nearby towns asking for help. When the courthouse caught fire, he ordered the building be evacuated and the prisoners jailed in the basement released. At 2:30 am on the 9th, the cupola of the courthouse collapsed, sending the great bell crashing down. Some witnesses reported hearing the sound from a mile away.
As more buildings succumbed to the flames, a meteorological phenomenon known as a fire whirl became a major contributing factor in the fire’s spread. As overheated air rises, it meets cooler air and begins to spin, creating a tornado-like effect. These fire whirls are likely what drove flaming debris so high and so far. Such debris was blown across the main branch of the Chicago River to a railroad car carrying kerosene. The fire had now jumped the river a second time and was raging across the city’s north side. Also a likely factor in the fire’s rapid spread was the amount of flammable waste that had been allowed to accumulate in the river from years of improper disposal methods used by local industries.
Despite the fire’s spread and rapid growth, firefighters continued to battle the blaze. A short time after the fire jumped the river however, a burning piece of timber lodged on the roof of the city’s waterworks. Within minutes, the interior of the building was engulfed in flames and the building was destroyed. With it, the city’s water mains went dry, and Chicago was helpless. Finally, late into the evening of October 9, it started to rain. The fire had already begun to burn itself out, having spread to the sparsely populated areas of the north side. Once the flames were extinguished, the smoldering remains were too hot for a survey of the damage to be completed for many days.
Eventually, the city determined that the fire destroyed an area about four miles long and averaging ¾ mile wide, encompassing an area of more than 2,000 acres. Also destroyed were more than 73 miles of roads, 120 miles of sidewalk, 2,000 lampposts, 17,500 buildings and $222 million in property, which was about a third of the city’s valuation in 1871. Of the approximately 324,000 inhabitants of Chicago in 1871, one in three were left homeless (90,000 residents). 120 bodies were recovered, but the death toll may have been as high as 300. The county coroner speculated that an accurate count was impossible, as some victims may have drowned or been incinerated, leaving no remains.
St. Michael’s Church in Old Town and the Chicago Avenue Pumping Station were both gutted in the fire, but their exteriors survived, and the buildings were rebuilt using these walls. Additionally, although the inhabitable portions of St. James Cathedral were destroyed, the bell tower survived and was incorporated into the rebuilt church. The stones near the top of the tower are still blackened from the soot and smoke. Additional structures which survived the blaze include the Chicago Water Tower, St. Ignatius College Prep., Police Constable Bellinger’s cottage at 21 Lincoln Place (2121 North Hudson today), and 2323 and 2339 North Cleveland Avenue.
The city of Singapore, Michigan, provided much of the lumber to rebuild Chicago. As a result, the area was so heavily deforested that the land deteriorated into barren sand dunes that eventually buried the town, which had to be abandoned.
Since 1883, speculation has suggested that the coincidence of both major fires starting on the same day was caused by impact fragments from Biela’s Comet. This hypothesis was revived in a 1985 book, reviewed in a 1997 documentary, and investigated in a 2004 paper published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. However, scientists with expertise in the field have pointed out that there has never been a credible report of a fire being started by a meteorite. Also, Biela’s Comet was not even visible from Earth until 1872. In any event, no outside source of ignition was needed for the Peshtigo Fire. There were already numerous small fires burning in the area as part of land-clearing operations. These fires created so much smoke that the Green Island Light was kept lit continuously for weeks before the firestorm erupted. All that was needed to trigger the disaster in the Midwest was a strong wind from the cold front that had moved in.
Many of our modern fire codes stem from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, but during that era, your characters would have worried about fire and been in serious danger from it. If they lived in a city or even a small town, fire was a real threat, especially if the buildings were close together. Your characters could easily have experienced such a disaster or know someone who had. Men could be part of the volunteer firefighting force in town or could be called in to help fight a large fire. Women, while not allowed to become firefighters, would have done what they could to protect their homes, such as forming bucket brigades to douse the flames. In short, fire was something everyone in the Old West thought about on a regular basis, and something that should be incorporated in your historical fiction.