Thoughts & Views: The day that saw hell on earth

Oct. 8, 1871, was a really bad day for the American Midwest.

As we learned Sunday at the Kearny Fire Department’s Open House (see story p. 3), national Fire Prevention Week is held the week of Oct. 8 to mark the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

That historic blaze (which was NOT started by Mrs. O’Leary’s much-maligned cow) broke out about 9 p.m. on the 8th, consumed much of the city on the 9th, and more or less burnt itself out on the 10th, with a little help from a rainstorm.

In the 19th century, Chicago was primarily a city of wood. Not only most of its buildings, but also its sidewalks and many streets were wooden. Add to that all the tarred roofs, and a three-month drought, and numerous lumber yards and coal yards within the city limits, and strong winds blowing the embers hither and yon, and the fact that the Chicago Fire Department’s equipment amounted to 17 horse-drawn engines, and it’s a wonder the flames didn’t spread to Milwaukee.

When it was over, 300 people were dead, more than 100,000 were homeless, and 17,500 buildings were in ashes. The death toll is likely inaccurate, since there was speculation that people jumped into the Chicago River to escape the flames, drowned and were never found, and others may have been completely incinerated.

As for the O’Learys, although the blaze is thought to have begun in or near their barn, the tale of a cow kicking over a lantern while being milked has been debunked. First of all, cows are usually asleep at 9 p.m. But in any case, the Chicago Tribune reporter who originally wrote the bovine story finally admitted in 1893 that he had made the whole thing up because it made good copy. (For shame.) To this day, the actual cause is unknown.

Now, as devastating as the Chicago fire was, it could not hold a candle to another conflagration on the very same day. But aside from those living in the area, relatively few people have ever heard of it, although it claimed more lives than any fire in U.S. history.

In Peshtigo, Wisc., a logging town, woodlands were being cleared by small, controlled fires. But on Oct. 8, 1871, a cold front swept in with strong winds that, according to Wikipedia, “fanned the fires out of control and escalated them to massive proportions. A firestorm ensued.”

Described as “nature’s nuclear explosion,” a firestorm is a tornado of flames.

One book, “Firestorm at Peshtigo,” cited “a wall of flame, a mile high, five miles wide, traveling 90 to 100 mph, hotter than a crematorium.”

Though the blaze began in a forest, it spread over 1.5 million acres and consumed 12 communities. The death toll, at minimum, was 1,200, but some estimates are as high as 2,500. Many victims were buried in a mass grave, because there was no one left alive to identify them. And yet, Peshtigo is now forgotten.

That’s the history lesson for today.

Spare a thought for all fire victims. And all firefighters.

– Karen Zautyk 

The Observer Staff