Memory  /  Retrieval

Why America's Deadliest Wildfire Was Largely Forgotten

In 1871, the Wisconsin town Peshtigo burned to the ground, killing up to 2,500. But due to another event at the time, many have never heard about the disaster.

On the night of October 8, 1871, women snatched their children from their beds, men formed ad hoc fire brigades, and the terrified residents of Peshtigo, Wisconsin fled what would become the deadliest wildfire in American history. So why did the Peshtigo wildfire fade from national memory?

The story starts in a booming logging town surrounded by dense forests. The seemingly endless trees in close range of Lake Michigan sparked a brisk trade in logging that attracted immigrants from all over Europe, beginning in the 1780s. Thanks to its prime location near Chicago—the world’s largest lumber trade market at the time—Peshtigo prospered, felling trees for a rapidly expanding country that needed timber for its houses and new cities.

But Peshtigo's trees proved to be its downfall.

The confluence of events that led to the devastating blaze started “a low rumbling noise, like the distant approach of a train,” witnesses to the chaos later recalled. Soon, it became clear the town itself was being consumed by flames. Before townspeople had a chance to react, it was already too late. Survivors describe a cyclone-like firestorm—a whirlwind that consumed everything around it.

The conditions were so extreme that people wondered whether they had been incited by a comet (that theory has never been proven). A staggering 1.2 million acres—the size of the state of Connecticut—burned that night.

Building after building ignited, and many burned before anyone could find their way out. Those who did make it to the river watched helplessly as their entire town burned to the ground. Cows and horses rushed into the river, too, creating a scene of anguish and chaos. Some who ran to the river drowned or died of hypothermia.

Those who made it to the next morning found only “a bleak, desolate prairie, the very location of the streets almost a matter of doubt.” A newspaper reporter wrote that “no vestige of human habitation remained, and the steaming, freezing, wretched group, crazed by their unutterable terror and despair…could but vaguely recognize one another in the murky light of day.”