Forgotten History

My mother was born in Marinette, Wisconsin, a small northern town you’ve probably never heard of that sits on the border with Upper Michigan. Marinette is only a couple of miles northeast of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, another town you’ve probably never heard of. And that’s a shame.

I could try to recreate the town of Peshtigo for you from memory, but decades have passed since I last went through the place. I can’t believe too much about it has changed, though. It was (and probably still is) a close-knit lumber town surrounded by pine forests and smelled of the nearby paper mill.  Peshtigo is also divided in half by a river, not surprisingly called the Peshtigo River.

Because I grew up in nearby Marquette, Michigan and passed through Peshtigo at least a handful of times every year as a kid, I know its history. I know its story. I know why nobody else knows it, too. In fact, during my junior year of high school in suburban D.C., Peshtigo’s story was the one thing that helped me graduate from high school on time. My class attendance was awful, truancy-worthy, even, but my history teacher gave me a final shot at passing his class. His challenge:

Teach me something I don’t already know.

So I told him about Peshtigo. I told him about the lumber town, the river, and of one of the driest summers on record. I told him what happened on October 8, 1871, and he asked, “Isn’t that the same date as the Great Chicago Fire?” Why, yes. Yes, it is!

I passed my history class, became a senior, and spent some of my final year of high school helping to grade juniors’ papers with my former history teacher.

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The reason most people have never heard of the town of Peshtigo is because of Chicago. More people were killed in the Peshtigo Fire, an estimated 2,500 compared to Chicago’s 200 to 300. They both occurred on the same date. Peshtigo’s fire was caused by drought and lightning, not by a legendary cow (I’m looking at you, Mrs. O’Leary!). The firestorm in Peshtigo was exactly that: a storm. It created its own weather patterns complete with cloud-to-ground lightning and tornadoes. But what’s all that worth when a cosmopolitan city on the lakeshore is nearly destroyed by a cow? Forgotten history, indeed.

(I had been struggling a bit to come up with a topic for my upcoming thesis for my bachelor’s degree. When I came across this page in Andrew Carroll’s Here is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History, I took it as a sign. Also, if you have knowledge of any resources or people, historians or otherwise, that/who may be able to help me with my research, please let me know.):

Fire

My mother was born and raised in Northern Wisconsin, not too far from a town called Peshtigo.  Peshtigo is a small town just a few miles from the Upper Michigan border and is situated on the banks of the Peshtigo River which spills into nearby Lake Michigan. US Highway 41 cuts through a part of the town while leading you over the bridge that hovers above the river where so many people died one fateful night in 1871.

Most people have never heard of this catastrophe and that makes the events in Peshtigo doubly tragic.  Honestly, if it were not for the fact that my mother calls this part of the country home, I may have never heard of it myself.  But one afternoon when I was about 10 or 11 years old, my mother took me to my first ever local museum to teach me about the fiery and often forgotten incident that left thousands dead, including many children.

In the late 19th century, Peshtigo was a logging town, its buildings constructed of wood and its streets filled with sawdust.  The summer leading up to the greatest forest fire in our country’s history had been dry and dusty with no promise of a cooperating rain. Parched earth left the town vulnerable to disaster but there seems to be no greater enemy that night than the bustling and ever popular city of Chicago.

Chicago and Peshtigo both went up in flames on October 8, 1871. Crews rushed to save Chicago.  The residents of Peshtigo and the surrounding towns were on their own.  There were no fire crews left in the region since they’d all started to move south in an effort to save one of the country’s most populated cities.

The city of Chicago suffered tremendously.  Also constructed mainly of wood, the business district was devastated.  Approximately 300 people died in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. 

Here are some other numbers:

  • What is known as The Peshtigo Fire covered 2,400 square miles of land in Northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan.
  • It is believed that between 1,200 and 2,400 people were killed in the Peshtigo Fire.  In the town of Peshtigo alone, nearly half the population perished.
  • There are reports that a cyclonic storm in the region generated a number of fire tornados which essentially enabled the wildfire to jump over large bodies of water, including Green Bay. 
  • Many of Peshtigo’s residents died from being burned or from drowning.  As most assumed the safest place to wait out the firestorm was the Peshtigo River, none anticipated that the river itself would catch fire.  No place was safe.

As I walked through the museum with my mom, I was drawn toward the children’s section full of toys, clothing, eyeglasses, and shoes.  Maybe because I was still such a young girl myself, I couldn’t take my eyes off of a little doll that had survived the disaster.  The handmade doll rested above a small crib made of dark wood with no padding or anything placed inside.

I am beyond a doubt convinced that this outing with my mother is what began my fascination with natural disasters and, more importantly, stories of human triumph.  It’s what made me realize that every person, every town, has its own story to tell. An alleged tale of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and the unfortunate incidents that followed in the drought-stricken city of Chicago contributed to the deaths of thousands in an unknown region of the wilderness of Northern Wisconsin.  And that if we look hard enough, we will see that we, either by relationships or circumstances, are all connected in some way.