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Today is the 149th anniversary of the 1871 Chicago fire that destroyed so much of what was then a rapidly growing area of commerce. It had been incorporated as a city in 1837, only 34 years before it was ravaged by The Great Chicago Fire.

🌎 But did you know that on the same night (and starting two days earlier), there was a Wisconsin fire that burned the town of Peshtigo to the ground, killing 1/3 of its 2,000 residents? (This number is from the Russian River Flag, October 19, 1871, although TIME’s website says that there were as many as 2,500 dead—there are several possible reasons for the difference.) The problem was that the Chicago fire distracted from the Wisconsin one, and although the property destruction was less in Peshtigo, the loss of life was higher, as it “killed more people than any other fire in America’s history.” (TIME, “Top 10 Devastating Wildfires: The Peshtigo Fire, 1871”)

📰 Peshtigo suffered a “fire tornado”, and “balls of fire were soon seen observed to fall like meteors in different parts of the town, igniting wherever they touched.” A member of the Relief Committee from Milwaukee said the only ones who survived were those who threw themselves into a mill pond. (Russian River Flag, October 19, 1871)

📜 In a letter between a brother and half sister, the brother answers how some of the family survived while others died. “When the tornado struck the village they started for the river, but before they could reach it, everything was in flames.” In the letter, it says the lucky family member who survived didn’t believe the fire alarm at first because there had been so many false alarms that week. However, when another alarm sounded, he was able to get children out of the building and then headed back into the burning building to put on shoes before running from it again. He fell while carrying a child, but someone picked him up and put him in the water, where they stayed for four and a half hours while the fire swept around them. (Daily Wabash Express, November 21, 1871)

🧠 There is so much history we know nothing about and so many amazing life stories we don’t hear. They’re just as important as famous ones, and hearing their stories is something I’ve found to be important to me. ❤️

🖋 If you use this blog post as a reference for your own work, please cite it as a source. Thank you!


  1. “The Wisconsin Fires.” (1871, October 19). Russian River Flag, p. 2. Retrieved October 10, 2020, from https://cdnc.ucr.edu/.
  2. “Editor Terre Haute Express.” (1871, November 21). Daily Wabash Express, p. 4. Retrieved October 10, 2020, from https://newspapers.library.in.gov/.
  3. Rosenfeld, Everett. “Top 10 Devastating Wildfires: The Peshtigo Fire, 1871.” (2011, June 8). TIME. Retrieved October 10, 2020, from http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2076476_2076484_2076503,00.html.

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