Pssst…. Chicago didn’t have the REAL fire in 1871….

You’ve probably grown up hearing the story of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow that kicked the lamp and

Original caption: Illustration of Chicago Fire: How it started. Mrs. O’Leary’s cow upset an oil lamp. Undated illustration. BPA2#5175. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

started the Chicago fire (which probably isn’t really true), but did you know that Chicago was just a campfire compared to the REAL fire about a hundred and fifty miles north, centered in a town called “Peshtigo”?

That’s right. The massive destruction in Chicago, which included:

  • Burned nearly 10,000 buildings
  • Consumed nearly over 500 miles of WOODEN sidewalks! (That’s why it spread so fast!)
  • Killed almost 300 people

was relatively small compared to the massive fire that destroyed many small towns near the Wisconsin/Michigan border.

And yes… it occurred on the same day!

Over 2,000 square MILES of forest, land and fields were destroyed in just a few days. The Peshtigo Fire, as it is called, left between 1,200 and 2,400 people dead in its wake.

Click here to listen to Adventure Theater’s story about the Peshtigo Fire:

The Origin of Superspecies


What was the cause of the Peshtigo Fire?

There is some debate over this, but it seems the rainfall had been quite sparse since July (only two inches in these areas) and with all the clearcutting and lumber harvesting going on, it left the entire area absolutely ripe for a spark. There had been several small fires that broke out in the preceding weeks, but on the night of November 8th, 1871, a strong windstorm blew in from the southwest, and carried the flames too far for local townsfolk to stop.

Some folks say it was a lightning spark. Others suggest a more “other worldly” origin…

Either way, the mystery of the Peshtigo Fire remains a source of discussion to this day, and a gentle reminder of how we need to “think twice, cut once“… especially when it comes to big forests.

This image courtesy of the Wisconsin Electronic Reader, a cooperative digital imaging project of the University of Wisconsin-Madison General Library System and the Wisconsin Historical Society. Materials from this project may be copied freely by individuals or libraries for personal use, research, teaching (including distribution to classes), or any “fair use” as defined by copyright laws. Anyone interested in any other use of this material is expected to contact the University of Wisconsin-Madison General Library System for permission.

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