OCTOBER 8TH, 1871.- The Peshtigo fire was a very large forest fire that took place on October 8, 1871, in northeastern Wisconsin, United States, including much of the southern half of the Door Peninsula and adjacent parts of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The largest community in the affected area was Peshtigo, Wisconsin. The fire burned approximately 1,200,000 acres (490,000 ha) and is the deadliest wildfire in recorded history, with the number of deaths estimated between 1,500 and 2,500.

Occurring on the same day as the more famous Great Chicago Fire, the Peshtigo fire has been largely forgotten, even though it killed far more people. Several cities in Michigan, including Holland and Manistee (across Lake Michigan from Peshtigo) and Port Huron (at the southern end of Lake Huron), also had major fires on the same day, leading to various theories by contemporaries and later historians that they had a common cause.


The setting of small fires was a common way to clear forest land for farming and railroad construction. On the day of the Peshtigo fire, a cold front moved in from the west, bringing strong winds that fanned the fires out of control and escalated them to massive proportions. A firestorm ensued. In the words of Gess and Lutz, in a firestorm "superheated flames of at least 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit ... advance on winds of 110 miles per hour or stronger. The diameter of such a fire ranges from one thousand to ten thousand feet ... When a firestorm erupts in a forest, it is a blowup, nature's nuclear explosion ... "

By the time it was over, 1,875 square miles (4,860 km2 or 1.2 million acres) of forest had been consumed, an area fifty percent larger than the U.S. state of Rhode Island. Twelve communities were destroyed.

An accurate death toll has never been determined because all local records were destroyed in the fire. It's estimated that anywhere between 1,200 to 2,500 people lost their lives. The 1873 Report to the Wisconsin Legislature listed 1,182 names of dead or missing residents. In 1870, the Town of Peshtigo had 1,749 residents. More than 350 bodies were buried in a mass grave, primarily because so many people had died that there was no one left alive who could identify them.


The fire jumped across the Peshtigo River and burned both sides of the town. Survivors reported that the firestorm generated a fire whirl (described as a tornado) that threw rail cars and houses into the air. Many escaped the flames by immersing themselves in the Peshtigo River, wells, or other nearby bodies of water. Some drowned while others succumbed to hypothermia in the frigid river. The Green Island Light was kept lit during the day because of the obscuring smoke, but the three-masted schooner George L. Newman was wrecked offshore, although the crew was rescued.

At the same time, another fire burned parts of the Door Peninsula; because of the coincidence, some incorrectly assumed that the fire had jumped across the waters of Green Bay. In Robinsonville (now Champion) on the Door Peninsula, Sister Adele Brise and other nuns, farmers, and families fled to a local chapel for protection. Although the chapel was surrounded by flames, it survived. It spared the then Village of Sturgeon Bay, which at the time remained east of the village's bay.