Making sense of a deadly inferno in Wisconsin

A modern sculpture depicting flames is installed outside the Peshtigo Fire Museum, which commemorates the catastrophe 140 years ago.
(Jay Jones)

Was the Great Chicago Fire on the night of Oct. 8, 1871, really caused by one of Kate O’Leary’s cows knocking over a lantern? One hundred and 40 years later, that question remains the topic of sometimes-heated debate, at least in Illinois.

Three hundred Chicagoans died in the conflagration, and an additional 90,000 were left homeless, putting the Windy City tragedy in record books as one of the nation’s worst disasters.

In an eerie quirk of fate, an inferno of even greater proportions was visited upon a village 250 miles to the north that same evening. As many as 1,200 people were killed when a massive forest fire swallowed up tiny Peshtigo. Unlike the Great Chicago Fire, the tale of the catastrophe in the remote north woods of Wisconsin is a historical footnote. Some label it America’s “forgotten fire.”

Each summer, as the outdoors beckons tourists, volunteers from the local historical society work to keep the story alive at the Peshtigo Fire Museum, inside a former Congregational church. Ironically, it’s a house of worship that was built to replace one incinerated that Sunday evening in October 1871. Glass cases house the few artifacts that survived the searing heat and flames..

As in Chicago, no one knows with certainty what kindled the Peshtigo blaze.

“It had been terribly dry. There had been almost no rain that summer,” said Margaret Wood, secretary of the historical society and a descendant of one of the people who died in the fire.

Even though it was foolish — at least in hindsight — folks in the surrounding countryside continued to set fires to clear brush despite the dry conditions.

“That was just the way they lived,” Wood said.

It was, apparently, also the reason so many died. High winds joined together several small fires, creating a red glow in the night sky. Around 9 p.m., sensing danger, Father Peter Pernin, the local Catholic priest, sounded the alarm by repeatedly ringing the bell in his church tower.

“The wind, forerunner of the tempest, was increasing in violence, the redness in the sky deepening, and the roaring sound like thunder seemed almost upon us,” Pernin later recalled in an account of the horror.

Within minutes, the priest said, the wind was hurricane strength. When the fence surrounding his church — pickets and gate included — soared skyward, he took it as a sign from God that it was time to flee. Despite his haste, he managed to grab the small white tabernacle in which the consecrated Host was kept.

“The air was no longer fit to breathe, full as it was of sand, dust, ashes, cinders, sparks, smoke and fire,” Pernin wrote. “It was almost impossible to keep one’s eyes unclosed, to distinguish the road or to recognize people....”

He and the others who managed to escape the swift-moving fire sought refuge in the only somewhat-safe place around: the Peshtigo River. They stood in the chilly waters for hours until the sea of flames swept away the entire town. In the chaos, the priest was separated from his holy tabernacle.

The morning of Oct. 9 never really dawned; thick smoke still blanketed the town. When the dazed survivors left the water, they found that almost nothing remained. A house in the process of being framed still stood, only some of its timbers charred. It and the local lumberyard’s kiln and vault — both built of brick — were the only structures not reduced to ash.

A blackened 2-by-4 and a badly scorched Bible are among the remnants displayed in the museum. When you visit Wisconsin next year (the museum is closed for the season) you’ll also see a huge mural, where the church altar once was, depicting local residents huddled in the river, along with their prized possessions and their livestock.

Pernin’s treasure — the tabernacle — was later found, unscathed, on the riverbank. It now is one of the Peshtigo Fire Museum’s prize possessions.

“When he found the tabernacle … on a log, glistening white after everything around it was charred, in that he found the finger of God,” said Bob Couvillion, a past president of the Peshtigo Historical Society. “He had to find God in this holocaust, some reason to make sense of it all.”