The Washington Times-Herald


March 11, 2014

A pair of fires to remember

When two catas­trophic events happen on the same day, and just a couple of hundred miles from each other and yet have no connection with the other, it is indeed a rare event. Just such an event occurred on Oct. 8, 1871. One was in northern Wisconsin, the other in northern Illinois.

The latter one was the terrible Great Chicago Fire, the other was the equally terrible Peshtigo Fire. The Great Chicago Fire will be featured in a future column.

Peshtigo was a small town in northeastern Wisconsin in an area known as the “Great Woods.” Thousands of acres of woods surrounded the village and logging had been going on for several years. Piles of cut over remains of logged trees were everywhere, and huge mounds of sawdust were all around the lumber mills that dotted the landscape. In addition to all the lumbering going on, railroads were being built and the railroad crews had felled a lot of trees.

Many people had also flocked into this area to take advantage of all the available jobs. Most had constructed their houses with lumber, and with all the flammable material just waiting for a spark, it was a calamity waiting to happen.

Little rain had fallen in July, August, September and October, so it was extremely dry, but apparently most people gave little thought to what could happen. No one knows just what did start what has come down in history as the Peshtigo Fire. It may have been a spark from a locomotive, a left unattended campfire or even arson. We will never know.

Once it began, a strong wind from a cold front whipped a little fire into a firestorm that is hard to imagine. It moved across the woodland so fast that towns like Peshtigo and Williamsonville were engulfed before they realized what was happening.

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