Peshtigo Forest Fire

Famous Fires In History – Peshtigo Forest Fire 1871

In the annals of American history, certain disasters are etched into our collective memory—the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 being one of the most famous. However, overshadowed by this well-known event is another, even more devastating catastrophe that unfolded on the very same day—the Peshtigo Forest Fire. This lesser-known but profoundly tragic event deserves remembrance and reflection for its sheer scale of destruction and the lives it claimed.

The Setting

Nestled in the forests of northeastern Wisconsin, the town of Peshtigo was a bustling lumber community in the 19th century. Timber was the lifeblood of the town, with sawmills dotting the landscape and a burgeoning population of lumber workers and their families. The region was experiencing a dry spell, and by the fall of 1871, the forests surrounding Peshtigo were like tinder waiting for a spark.

The Day of Devastation

That spark came on October 8, 1871. High winds whipped through the area, fanning small fires that had been smouldering in the surrounding forests. These fires quickly grew out of control, merging into a massive inferno that bore down on Peshtigo and the surrounding settlements with terrifying speed.

As night fell, the townspeople found themselves in a nightmare. The blaze engulfed everything in its path. Homes, businesses, forests, and lives were sadly lost. The intensity of the fire was such that it created its weather system, with tornado-like winds and fire whirls wreaking havoc.

Unimaginable Destruction

The Peshtigo Forest Fire’s scale of destruction was staggering. Entire communities were wiped off the map in a matter of hours. The wooden structures that made up Peshtigo and the neighbouring villages were no match for the all-consuming flames.

In the end, 1,252 lives were lost. This number is up in the air with some records stating other numbers. The exact number remains uncertain due to incomplete records and the sheer chaos of the event. To put this in perspective, the Peshtigo Fire remains the deadliest wildfire in recorded history, far surpassing the death toll of the Great Chicago Fire, which claimed around 300 lives.

Heroes and Survival

Amidst the horror, stories of heroism and survival emerged. Some townspeople sought refuge in the Peshtigo River, immersing themselves in the water to escape the flames. Others huddled in makeshift shelters, hoping against hope for the inferno to pass. The bravery of individuals who risked their lives to save others, often at the cost of their own, is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable tragedy.

Remembering the Legacy

Despite its magnitude, the Peshtigo Forest Fire has largely faded from the popular memory of American history. The attention was garnered by the Great Chicago Fire, which occurred on the same day. This overshadowed this lesser-known tragedy. However, the legacy of the Peshtigo Fire lives on in the descendants of survivors, in the scars on the landscape, and in the lessons we can learn from this catastrophic event.

Lessons Learned

The Peshtigo Forest Fire serves as a stark reminder of the destructive power of wildfires, particularly in areas prone to dry conditions. It underscores the importance of preparedness, early warning systems, and community planning to mitigate the impact of such disasters.

Moreover, the story of Peshtigo highlights the resilience of communities in the face of unimaginable loss. It speaks to the human capacity to rebuild and persevere, even when faced with overwhelming odds.


As we remember the Peshtigo Forest Fire of 1871, let us honour the memory of those who perished. The bravery of those who survived, and the resilience of the communities that rose from the ashes. It is a reminder that history is not just about the famous events that dominate textbooks but also the lesser-known tragedies that profoundly shape our collective story.

The Peshtigo Forest Fire may have been overshadowed by its more famous counterpart, but its impact on the lives of those who experienced it was no less profound. In remembering this forgotten tragedy, we pay tribute to the resilience of the human spirit and the importance of learning from the past to build a safer future.

Sources – Peshtigo Forest Fire 1871

– “The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account” by Rev. Peter Pernin

– “Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History” by Denise Gess and William Lutz

– Wisconsin Historical Society: The Peshtigo Fire of 1871

– PBS American Experience: The Peshtigo Fire

– Image 1 – Stories from the Archives: The Great Peshtigo Fire – link