The town itself was a tinderbox waiting to ignite. Most of its structures were made of wood, as were its sidewalks. Even the streets were paved in wood chips.
Weather was the match that turned those dangerous conditions into an unprecedented fire. Smaller wildfires had raged in the area for days, but on the night of the 8th, winds whipped up and the flames reached Peshtigo. Between 500 and 800 people died in Peshtigo—half the town’s population—and between
1,200 and 2,400 people died in the region through northeastern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. However, since the records of most of the communities ravaged by fire burned, too, it wasn’t possible to identify or count all the victims.
But something else happened the night of October 8—another fire, fueled by the same conditions, in nearby Chicago. The
Great Chicago Fire left 100,000 people homeless, destroyed over 17,000 wooden structures and killed 300. Though it wasn’t as severe as the Peshtigo fire, the big city blaze dominated headlines and history books.
While the Wisconsin fire was overshadowed by the Chicago fire, it is still studied by forest managers and firefighters, who use it as an
example of bad forestry practices and the power of unpredictable wildfires.
Another group hasn’t forgotten the fire, either: the residents of Peshtigo. The town was rebuilt after the fire and placed the remains of over 300 of its residents—many too charred to identify as men or women—in a mass grave.