If you had to guess the name of the most destructive fire in American history, you'd probably pick the Great Chicago Fire. After all, it killed at least 300 people, scorched 2,000 acres of the developing city of Chicago, destroyed 18,000 buildings, caused $200 million in property damage, and made 90,000 people homeless. But the Chicago Fire missed being the most destructive American fire by a long shot. That distinction belongs to the Peshtigo Fire, which began in northeastern Wisconsin. Although the Peshtigo Fire burned 750 times as many acres and killed 8 times as many people in 1 day as the Chicago Fire did in 3, it barely made the news. Why? Because it started on October 8, 1871, the same day as the Chicago Fire. The newspaper coverage focused on Chicago, ignoring the much more devastating blaze in Wisconsin.
The year of 1871 was very dry, so dry that the wetlands in the Wisconsin Great Lakes area had completely evaporated by that fall. Combustible materials were everywhere: sawdust from the lumber industry, a town full of wooden buildings, and dried-up peat bogs producing methane gas. These bogs smoldered from the heat. For weeks, smoke blanketed the area, making it hard to see and even harder to breathe. The little town had no fire department, so the townspeople relied on each other to help fight fires. In late September, a blaze headed for the town, and was valiantly battled by the townsfolk. At the last minute, the wind changed direction and blew the fire away.
The morning of October 8th was unusually hot and stifling. The sun was an unnatural coppery color. In the afternoon it disappeared, replaced by a strange yellowish glow. Ashes began blowing through windows. At about nine o'clock at night, people heard a strange moan, which turned into a roar. Fire began shooting from the sky. The smoldering underground fires had become a raging firestorm with temperatures as hot as 2,000° F, moving at 80 mph, sucking up flaming trees and buildings like a tornado and throwing them through the air. The air grew so hot that things spontaneously burst into flame. Railroad cars turned into molten metal. Panic-stricken people in pajamas headed for the Peshtigo River, which flowed through the town. Even here, they weren't always safe, as their hair caught fire, forcing them to dip their heads underwater. Some drowned, many were blinded or burned, and some died from hypothermia. In one hour, Peshtigo was gone. The fire moved on, consuming Menominee and Door County, Wisconsin, crossing the Green Bay and devouring on the other side, reaching all the way to Michigan. There it stopped, at the Great Lakes, and rain started to fall. In 24 hours, it had devastated a million and a half acres, killed as many as 2,500 people, and maimed or blinded about 9,000.
When word finally reached Madison, Wisconsin's governor and government officials were all in Chicago, except the mayor of Madison. His wife took charge of the rescue efforts, sending food and other supplies and setting up hospitals to take care of the wounded. Slowly the devastated towns began to rebuild, though some of them would never fully recover. In many ways, the Peshtigo Fire was the perfect storm: everything that could go wrong, did. Never before or since has there been a fire that came close to causing as much devastation as did the Great Peshtigo Fire.