Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Peshtigo fire

Were you aware that on the same night as the Great Chicago Fire - October 8, 1871 - another fire was raging just 200 miles to the north? Although largely forgotten, the Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin was the deadliest fire in U.S. history, taking ten times as many lives as the fire in Chicago. As many as 2,500 people are thought to have perished, with 350 buried in a mass grave because they could not be identified. The specific cause of the Peshtigo Fire is unknown, but it was fanned by high winds, crossed the Peshtigo River, and burned more than 1 million acres. It is included in lists of the 10 Worst U.S. Natural Disasters, The Worst and Strangest Fires in History, and The 10 Biggest Natural Disasters. Every structure in the town was leveled within 1 hour. The 1st building to be rebuilt after the fire was the Congregational Church, which was purchased by the Peshtigo Historical Society in 1963 and is now a museum. Although it is called the "forgotten fire," the Peshtigo blaze was remembered by survivors, whose stories have been collected:
  • A man carried a woman he thought was his wife to safety. When he realized it wasn't her, he went crazy.
  • A 13 year-old German immigrant girl said she survived by holding onto the horn of a cow all night in the river.
  • A group who had gathered in a stream were stampeded by terrified cattle.
  • Families who sought refuge in cellars died from asphyxiation.
  • Those who jumped into wells and shallow marshes to escape the fire were boiled alive.
  • Others tried to escape by running into large buildings, which burst into flame and collapsed.
  • Papers and wood caught in the updraft traveled as far north as Canada.
The sound of the conflagration was like artillery fire or "1,000 stampeding cows." It swept through like a tornado and moved so quickly that some people who fled simply burst into flames and many thought it was the end of the world. As early as 1888, it was speculated that the blaze had been started by a comet, but the cause has been attributed to the burning of brush to clear the drought-ridden land for a railroad and led to better forest management guidelines.

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