October 8, 1871: Peshtigo, Wisconsin, is Consumed by Fire

By James Lewis on October 8, 2011

On this date in 1871, the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, and several smaller surrounding communities were obliterated by fire. The “booming town of 1700 people was wiped out of existence in the greatest fire disaster in American history,” according to the memorial marker that still stands in Peshtigo as silent sentinel watching over the graves of more than 1,100 of the fire’s victims. The fire, which destroyed more than $5 million in property and 2,400 square miles, was overshadowed by the Great Chicago Fire, which occurred the same day and annihilated that city’s core. News of the Peshtigo fire didn’t even reach the state capital for two days. And when it did, Wisconsin’s governor was in Chicago with other state leaders trying to aid that stricken city and had to hurry home to help his own constituents.

Though still little known by the general public today, Peshtigo looms large in forest history and fire history circles. For example, several articles in the Fall 2008 issue of Forest History Today reference Peshtigo as an example of fire in the wildland-urban interface, and one looks at it in the context of wildfire and civil defense.

To mark the 140th anniversary, we have just finished processing a related archival collection, the Peshtigo Fire Centennial Collection, 1970-1990. In 1970, the town held a commemoration event marking the centennial of the fire. The new collection features event programs, commemorative items, publications, letters, newspaper clippings, photographs, and other materials. A few things that caught our eyes were the commemorative stickers and the postage cancellation mark, which you can see on the finding aid page, and a bumper sticker and wooden coins. All materials were kindly donated by Karl W. Baumann.

Peshtigo Centennial bumper sticker

Peshtigo Centennial bumper sticker (click to enlarge)

Peshtigo Fire commemorative wooden coins

Peshtigo Fire commemorative wooden coins

Artist's rendering of Peshtigo Fire.

Artist’s rendering of Peshtigo Fire approaching a Wisconsin farm (FHS2525).

3 responses to “October 8, 1871: Peshtigo, Wisconsin, is Consumed by Fire”

  1. […] was not the only devastating fire in October of 1871. This year marks the 140th anniversary of Peshtigo, Wisconsin’s fire, as well. That fire killed 1,100 people, destroyed $5 million in property, and ravaged over 2,400 […]

  2. Walter Cook says:

    Eight years ago, I read Firestorm at Peshtigo, by Denise Gess and William Lutz, an excellent recounting of the disaster. I do not recall any mention in that book, or elsewhere, that the same thing was burning in Chicago as was burning in Peshtigo — white pine ! The same weather conditions were mentioned — the extreme heat and drought. But white pine, whether in a slash pile or in a wooden building, when bone dry and ignited by a spark, will burn as if doused in kerosene. And Chicago, as well as other Midwestern cities and towns, were built by and large with Lake States white pine. It always seemed odd to me that the similarity of fuel has rarely if ever been mentioned as a factor in contemporary or historical comparisons of the two fires. Walter Cook

  3. David Herman says:

    my dad passed away 2 yrs ago wile going thru his things I found a copper colered coin about the sizeof a silver doller it seems to be made of copper front has a image of fire and a house back has a short info on when and were fire was dated 1871 – 1971 is there any value to this my grate uncle was a forrest ranger at the time any ino would be great
    David