October 8, 1871–Fire rampaged through northeastern Wisconsin, wiping out the city of Peshtigo and claiming the lives of an estimated 2,400 people. Though the fire occurred on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, with greater loss of life, very little is known about it outside of Wisconsin.
That conundrum (How can something so devastating be so forgotten?) led me down many paths over the course of my career. My imagination first got caught up with the fire in fourth grade, when I wrote about it in an illustrated manuscript that took a prize at the Wisconsin State Fair. But later on, when I became a reporter in that same region, covering the city government for the city and towns of Peshtigo, I was able to dig deeply into that history and report about it in a series of stories that ran the week that began with Monday, Oct. 7, 1996, commemorating the 125th anniversary of the fire.
I started looking through the clips of the series recently, which I’ve kept as examples of enterprise reporting and as groundwork for more potential research. I wrote the story in five parts, one for each day that week, with Tuesday’s pieces focusing on the story of the fire itself and published on its anniversary. Those pieces were edited together and picked up by the Associated Press for national distribution, one of the few of my early works for which that happened.
The entire week also represents the first time I allowed myself to spread my wings as writer, using descriptive language to tell a story that few knew well, and fewer still know well today.
“Modern day Peshtigo bustles with life and industry. People in the city smile as others pass. A thriving industrial park attracts the cream of business and industry. Badger Park beckons the lunch-hour patron as well as the children of the nearby elementary school … It’s such a pretty town. With such a horrifying history.” (Lauters, EagleHerald, Oct. 7, 1996)
I went on to describe the town, the drought, and the lack of communication lines from the north to the south because of wild fires that were breaking out due to construction of railroad lines through the dry woods. I used original source material that included local residents’ recollections of survivor stories, survivor diaries, and my own newspaper’s archives. I finished that day with the line from an editorial by 1871 Eagle editor Luther Noyes: “Fires are still raging all over the country. The raw air of autumn is being well-cooked by fire.” (Eagle, Sept. 24, 1871)
Noyes’ words were prophetic. On Tuesday, Oct. 8, 1871, as the Rev. Peter Pernin writes in his diary, a muffled roaring sound came from the west. He knew instantly that he needed to head to the Peshtigo River. Mill workers on the east side of the river already were battling sparks and flames there, but by 9 p.m., most workers’ families were in bed.
Then flames rose from the rest along Oconto Avenue, and engulfed everything in their path. Bells rang all over town. As many as could do so headed for that same river, hoping that the water, shallow with the drought, could save their lives. Pernin writes about struggling on the bridge over the River, as people from both sides of it tried to get to the other, hoping for safety, and that he managed to push himself and his cart–containing the Tabernacle that housed the Sacrament–into the water itself, immersing them both.
“I came out of that river about half past three in the morning, and from that time I was in a very different condition, both morally and physically, to that in which I had previously been,” Pernin wrote.
Pernin wasn’t alone. Fire conditions were said to be so hot, many people simply blazed up when the flames hit them. A final death count would be impossible for this reason, and because no one knew just how many people were in the region at the time. A census would show only homesteaders and citizens; the area, however, was filled with railway workers and others who’d just arrived from Chicago for the work promised in the region.
Nothing but ashes, and a single green-timber framed house, remained in the entire city.
I interviewed numerous descendants of fire survivors, and their stories ran the next day. I wrapped the series with what amounted to an annotated bibliography of sources for those who were interested in learning more.
The experience fired my imagination. Resources were sent from Wisconsin to Chicago, to aid residence there, before the state government even knew about their own devastation. The governor’s wife, in residence in Madison while her husband headed to Chicago, commandeered an aid train and sent it north when word reached her.
The papers covered Chicago.
The history illustrated numerous things for me, but one thing was made manifestly clear: Coverage of events can only occur if someone knows the event is happening, and if that event is judged to be significant enough to an audience.
Chicago as a large city, wiped out, remained the story of the day. The small town wiped out in northern Wisconsin hardly rated, in comparison, despite the loss of life. Already in 1871, regional differences in urban and rural markets for coverage became apparent.
But it’s important to remember the tragedy at Peshtigo for numerous reasons. The city today, is small, but it thrives. The region prospers. Out of the ashes, hope survived.