Peshtigo remembers deadliest fire in US history 150 years later

Local News

PESHTIGO, Wis. (WFRV)-The deadliest wildfire in United State’s history in terms of deaths happened right here in Northeast Wisconsin 150 years ago this fall.

Peshtigo is remembering all those who passed away in that fire and celebrating the ability of those who survived to rebuild the town into what it has become today.

It’s a weekend full of parades, food, drinks, kids activities, and live music in Peshtigo.

But in another part of town, a mass grave serves as a reminder of the more solemn reason why Peshtigo is having these events this weekend.

Historians says a lethal combination of wind and a drought turned small fires men were setting to clear land for a railroad into a much bigger blaze. The deadly fire happened on Oct. 8, 1871.

“It became a firestorm which is a tornado of fire,” says Sally Kahl who is curator for the Peshtigo Fire Museum.

Some people tried to take shelter from the fire in the river in town. Some drowned trying to do this and others died of hypothermia because it was October and they had to stay in the water for hours.

Kahl says about 800 people died in Peshtigo. The fire did affect other communities and historians believe between 1,200 and 2,400 people died in total and that the fire consumed about 1.5 million acres of land. 

“The buildings didn’t just burn, they were incinerated and people were cremated on the streets,” says Kahl.

“It was one of the biggest fires every recorded and it’s just really interesting to learn about all the history that came before us in the part of the world we’re living,” says Chase VanWinkle who lives in Peshtigo and attended the parade Saturday.

“Stuff like that can happen at anytime so it’s important to keep close ties with people that you know like your friends and family,” says Anikan Gracyalny who also attended the event.

The Peshtigo fire happened on the same day as the Chicago fire, a big reason historians say why it’s often forgotten in history despite its deadliness.

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