Today, the other great fire. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
After I did a program about
the great Chicago fire of 1871, a listener wrote.
He asked why I hadn't mentioned the other, far
worse, fire on that same October evening. So I
The summer of 1871 had been one of driest on
record. Chicago's wooden buildings were bone-dry
tinder, but so too were the forests of northern
Wisconsin and Michigan. That's why, at the same
time Chicago went up in flames, the north woods did
so as well.
The Chicago fire broke out at 9:00 PM, October 8,
1871, in Mrs. O'Leary's
barn while she slept in her adjacent house.
(How it was started, we don't know.) At the same
time, citizens of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, were
anxiously watching a copper-colored night sky
northwest of town. All day, smoke and stillness had
hung over Peshtigo. Now fire was bearing down upon
it faster than anyone realized.
Peshtigo was a young,
burgeoning logging center with well over two
thousand people in it. It lay near the west shore
of Green Bay, next to Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
The citizens had been fighting nearby forest and
grass fires, and they seemed to be winning. But not
until nine o-clock did they realize that a
gale-driven fire of epic size was bearing down on
them. When the firestorm struck, it did so with
appalling speed. People could only run for the
Peshtigo River. Some died of asphyxiation. Others
ignited like Roman candles as they ran. Eyewitness
accounts tell of children flashing into flame, as
their mothers tried to hurry them into the water.
One man went mad when he found that the burning
wife he'd dragged to river was a stranger.
The death toll in Peshtigo was eight hundred, but
the fire touched many other towns in the area. The
total was nearer twelve hundred. All told, it was
five times worse than the Chicago Fire.
So I went back to old microfilms of the New York
Times. Starting on October ninth, the day after
the fire, and continuing for two weeks, Chicago was
front-page news. The paper counted the dead and
homeless. It reported property losses. It described
A few articles mention forest fires in Wisconsin
and Michigan. One report says a hundred and fifty
people lost their lives in the larger port of Green
Bay. One article mentions more fires in Windsor,
Canada. But it's only a sidebar against the theater
of the Chicago fire, and legends about Mrs. O'Leary
and her cow.
I suppose Peshtigo was kin to Ruanda or Biafra -
too far from the public's mind, too far out in the
wilderness of our new country. The importance of
Chicago in 1871 can't be minimized - a rail center,
a marketplace, a gateway to the West. That Fire
interrupted the flow of 19th century America. Of
course Chicago was on everyone's mind. But the far
worse slaughter took place to the north, outside
our national line of sight.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds