With that title one could be thinking of many conflagrations in
the history of the United States. Surely California bursts to
the top of the chart; and what about the Great Chicago Fire?
There are too many to even think about, and along with fires,
come floods, hurricanes and other disasters that have been with
us from the beginning. Before so many dams were built along
large rivers and tributaries to control flooding and provide
hydroelectric power, damaging flooding was an annual occurrence
along the Ohio, Missouri, Mississippi, Red River of the North, as
well as many others, and some still remains. Man cannot control
everything.

The subject of this thesis is, however, the Great Peshtigo Fire.
The great what? Ah, too long ago in memory, but it still haunts
the minds of many whose ancestors either perished in the great
conflagration or who managed to survive and pass down through the
ages horrifying stories of the utter chaos of those days.

Beginning in the fall of 1871, extreme drought was pervasive
throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois especially
and precautions were limited concerning fire danger. Households
would utilize small fires to burn trash and other debris in their
yards. Records tell us that the result of so many fires caused
such dense smoke even over Lake Michigan, that ships on the vast
lake had to employ their fog horns constantly away far out to the
east. There is much speculation as to what actually culminated
in the explosive conditions which came to be called “The Great
Peshtigo Fire,” but one thing is certain: nothing is certain!

There were meteor showers also, during this time in October 1871,
and one hot chunk even crashed through the roof of a house. It
is quite possible that others may have started fires in the dry
forest beds of thick pine needles and even in the dry peat bogs
and then spread from there. The fires ranged from slightly north
of Green Bay, all the way up into Michigan and even apparently
jumped the bay to spread up the peninsula on the east side of the
bay.

The fire was so extensive and so hot, estimated to have reached
up to 2000 degrees, that it literally wiped clean everything in
its path. Houses, buildings, and whole cities were wiped clean.
Records were destroyed; infrastructure gone. In terms of lost
lives, only estimates are available but it is, to this day, the
worst disaster in our collective history, with the numbers of
dead and missing estimated to be around 2000. Even the Chicago
fire of the same time, though gaining more news, was far less
destructive than the Peshtigo fire. In numbers of square miles
and lives lost, it ranks at the top of the worst disaster
recorded. Peshtigo was the site of vast forests, saw mills and
lumbering operations fueling the building of America and the
industry drew thousands of workers and their families to a steady
world of employment. Nothing remains of the original, but
Peshtigo finally rebuilt and today stands as a reminder of, not
only what disasters can do and, possibly, how to prevent them,
but also the tenacity of the human spirit to get up, stand up,
and start all over. That was in the 19th century; has the
welfare world of the 21st wiped that spirit out as clean as
Peshtigo?