Friday, October 7, 2011

Peshtigo - The Worst Fire in American History

Peshtigo Fire by Mel Kishner
 "Peshtigo Fire" was used with kind permission from the Wisconsin Historical Society.  Thank you!

This post is to commemorate the Great Peshtigo Fire which occurred the evening of October 8th, 1871...140 years ago.

If you ask someone to name the worst fire in American history.  The fire that took the most lives (approximately 2,500).  The fire that occurred on this date 140 years ago, you would most likely be told that it's the Great Chicago Fire.  While the Great Chicago Fire did occur on this date 140 years ago, it was not the only fire to rage...and it was not the worst...

So if Peshtigo killed more people than the Chicago Fire why isn't it more famous?  Well, if you live in Wisconsin, no doubt this is a part of your state history classes and you do know about it.  If you live almost anywhere else...well, it's likely you've never even heard of Peshtigo.  That's really the reason most people haven't heard of the Peshtigo Fire...Chicago is a big city.  Famous before and after the fire.  Not because of the fire.

So while people were beginning to turn their attention to Chicago, a small city (and large region) to the north suffered an unbelievable fate.  Something truly terrifying.  A tornado of fire.  A wall of fire.  So fierce, fast, and unforgiving that there was no time to think of possessions.  You had to grab your family and run if you had any chance of surviving.

Why is the Peshtigo Fire important enough for me to blog about today?  More than today.  I will be blogging all week about the fire.  Sharing articles about the fire.  Transcribing names of the deceased.  The fire is important to me because my husband's great grandmother, Florence Cayemberg nee Villers, and her parents, Martin Joseph and Octavia Villers nee Waguener suffered in the fire...survived the fire. 

Not inPeshtigo itself (although family lore did place them there for many years, but her obituary tells otherwise), but in another town.  The town of Rosiere, WI.  The Peshtigo Fire was the name given to the entire wave and series of fires that swept through the region that night.  It eventually was named for Peshtigo as that was the city most devastated.

I've blogged before about this fire.  It is a significant part of my family's history.  Had Florence not been saved by the actions of a brave young boy when she was separated from her parents, my husband would not be here.  My children would not be here. 

Below is an article from a Pennsylvania newspaper (The Waynesboro Village Record) reporting on the Peshtigo Fire.  It is very detailed.  Perhaps even disturbing to some, but well worth reading.

The Waynesboro Village Record, 26OCT1871, pg1
"Destruction of Peshtigo

A correspondent, writing from Menasha, Wis., on the 11th inst., describes the destruction of Peshtigo:

The village was situated on Peshtigo river, seven miles from Green Bay.  It was a nice little town of about 2,000 inhabitants, quite regularly laid out; had fine hotels, stores, churches, schools, &c., besides the large factory owned by the Peshtigo Manufacturing Company, a sash, door and blind factory, also owned by the same company, who owned nearly every building in the town.  The factory was devoted to the manufacture of pails, tubs, broom handles, &c., and gave employment to about 700 hands in the different branches.

The town is nearly surrounded by pine forests, the suburban portion being built 'among the pines.'  The inhabitants have for the past ten days been fighting fire in the woods, trying to save the town, and had settled down into a feeling of comparative security, since the woods on all sides have been more or less burned over.

On Sunday night they were awakened from this feeling of security by a noise like distant thunder, which increased in volume until the crash of falling trees and the roar of the wind and fire could be plainly heard.  Soon after a tornado burst upon the town, unroofing a number of buildings, and quickly followed by a solid sheet of flame, extending the whole length of the village and far beyond each way.

In an instant the whole exposed side of the place was in flames.  Men, women and children rushed into the street, and surrounded by fire on all sides, were soon either smothered or burned to death.  In the less exposed portions the people fled to the river, and, in jumping in, many were drowned.  Some saved their lives by keeping their bodies well under water, and once in a while putting their heads under as the heat became [sic] insufferable.  Others took refuge in wells and cisterns, and were saved.  Quite a large portion of the inhabitants ran to a field to the leeward of the fire, and by lying on the ground were saved, although some of these were badly burned.  There is but one house left standing, and that is isolated, and lately built, of green lumber.  As near as can at present be ascertained, two hundred and fifty lives have been lost, mostly women and children.  Although a good many men have perished, there are seventy-five who are badly burned, many of whom will die, and nearly all are more or less burned.  The destruction has been so complete that the streets cannot be traces, all being covered with sand, which was swept in great clouds by the tornado.  In some instances bodies have been found completely covered by sand.

I could fill columns with heart rending incidents of this conflagration, but will only give a few as illustrative of the rest.  In on instance a man took his family and fled to the bridge spanning the river.  The bridge was soon on fire, and the poor unfortunate family were nearly roasted alive, and then jumped into the river and were drowned.  A woman, on seeing the fire approaching, put her little girl, a child of six years, in a well, which was nearly dry, and ran to the river herself for security.  The woman was saved, and, as soon as she could, found out the locality, and her joy was so great at finding the little one alive and well that she swooned, and on recovering clasped her child in her arms, and ran off crying for joy.

Too few, alas, were so fortunate.  In many cases whole families have perished.  In other cases men have lost their families, they being, at the time of the fire, working to save the factories.  In other places men perished in their endeavoring [sic] to save their families.  In one case to which my attention was called, a little boy of seven years is the only surviving member a numerous family.  As soon as the fire had sufficiently subsided, all that were able went to the relief of the sufferers.

Blackened, charred corpses were lying in every direction, with their clothing, as a general think, nearly or quite burned off.  Many dead bodies were found in the river, and many more have since been recovered.  A number have died from their bruises, while others are crippled or fearfully disfigured.  The most imaginative mind cannot begin to realize this fearful calamity, much less my poor pen to describe it.  The shrieks and groans of the dying, and of those who had lost near and dear friends; the ghastly aspect of the blackened corpses; the shocking appearance of many who badly burned and almost destitute of clothing, were running they knew not where; others int he last agonies of death, made a picture too horrid for contemplation.  The sufferers have all been taken to Green Bay and other towns, where they will be kindly cared for, as hospitality is one of the marked traits of the West.  The loss to the Peshtigo Company, who owned the factories and most of the town, besides large pine lands, is estimated at three million dollars, besides the loss of their extensive warehouses in Chicago.

Meunekaunee, a town of seven or eight hundred inhabitants, is all destroyed but three houses.  Fortunately no lives were lost here.  Marinette is also nearly all destroyed.  Business in this section is partially suspended.  All the saw mills and factories at Oshkosh, Fon du Lac, and other neighboring towns are stopped by an order of the authorities."

As with most disasters, the true numbers of lives lost was not known.  Was under estimated.  Because many people were burned so completely and remains could not be identified, even today we do not know with 100% certainty the number of dead from this tragedy.