Sunday, September 22, 2002
On Oct. 8, 1871, a fire began that has become enshrined in American history. It swept across much of Chicago, killing as many as 300 people and doing millions of dollars' damage to the rapidly growing city.
That same day, a few hundred miles north, in Wisconsin, the deadliest fire in American history claimed more than 1,500 lives, yet few today recall that tragedy.
Denise Gess and William Lutz mined sources including local newspapers and letters from survivors to re-create that deadlier but lesser-known event in "Firestorm in Peshtigo," a colorful and moving story of the ruin of a thriving town and a human disaster.
The fires came after a long dry spell and the hot weather contributed to both blazes. Fires were common in the woods, used to clear land for farms and railroads. But by October 1871, even the ground would be seen to burn, it was so dry. Instead of burning out as usual, the flames grew, combined and moved with the wind toward the villages of Peshtigo, Marinette and Menominee, north of Green Bay. The villages were promoted at the time as the Three Edens.
When the fire came it fed itself into a firestorm, and there was little chance of escape.