The greatest fire in American history, in terms of loss of life, occurred in the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin in 1871. Most people haven’t heard of it, and even people who live in the region today aren’t aware of the disaster which happened in their own backyard.
150 years later, there is speculation that the cause of the fire might have come from a highly unusual source, and some data from other fires might help solve the mystery.
Learn more about the deadliest fire in American history and its possible caused on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
It is astonishing that so few people know about one of the greatest disasters in American history, yet it is true.
Peshtigo is a small community that is situated in Northern Wisconsin near the border with Michigan and about 6 miles from the shore of Lake Michigan. As of the 1870 census the town had a population of 1,749.
On the day of the fire, the area had been suffering from hot and dry conditions in the preceding weeks, and that day colder temperatures and high winds came into the area.
It is difficult to give a description of what happened because there were so few survivors to tell the tale. What we do know is that between 1,200 and 2,500 people were killed in the fire.
The fire was so hot that it became a firestorm. A firestorm is a fire that burns so hot that the updraft of heat creates its own self sustaining winds. It was estimated that temperatures in the Peshtigo fire might have reached 2,000F or 1,100C, with winds as high as 110 miles per hour, 177 kilometers per hour.
The fire sparked a fire whirl, which is basically a tornado made of fire, so strong that it tossed rail cars and houses into the air.
If you’ve seen footage from recent wildfires in California or Australia, as horrible as they were, they were not firestorms.
Firestorms were also known to occur after bombing cities in World War II such as Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo, and after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
People had to survive by jumping into the Peshtigo River or into wells, some of whom drowned.
Over 300 people had to be buried in a mass grave because there weren’t enough survivors to identify them, and many people who lived further outside of town may have been burned so completely that their bodies were never discovered.
News of the tragedy didn’t reach the rest of the world for several days because the telegraph cables going out of Green Bay, Wisconsin were destroyed.
The total damage from the fire scorched an area 50% larger than the state of Rhode Island.
However, this is not the only fire I want to talk about.
Another fire also happened in Wisconsin, not from from the Peshtigo Fire. This one occurred across Green Bay in the southern part of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula. This fire also occurred in 1871 and thankfully wasn’t as destructive as the fire in Peshtigo. The area of the fire wasn’t highly populated and the fire missed the village of Sturgeon Bay.
There was yet another fire in 1871, this time across Lake Michigan that was known as the Great Michigan Fire. This was a collection of several forest fires that affected the towns of Alpena, Holland, and Manistee, all located on the eastern shored of the great lake.
The fire wasn’t as deadly as the in Peshtigo, but several hundreds of people died and several small towns were totally destroyed. The total number of deaths isn’t known because there were thousands of lumberjacks in the forest at the time, and no one knows how many were there or died.
There is yet another fire from 1871 that needs to be mentioned. This was the Port Huron Fire. Port Huron is on the opposite side of the state of Michigan, near the Canadian border along Lake Huron.
The towns of White Rock and Port Huron, Michigan were heavily damaged and it is estimated that 50 people died in this fire.
There is one last fire from 1871 that needs to be discussed. The Great Chicago Fire.
If there is one disaster from this list which you’ve probably heard of, it is this one. Legend has it that the fire was started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern. However, this was really nothing more than anti-Irish scapegoating from the period. In fact, in 1893 a reporter from the Chicago Tribune admitted that the story was a fabrication.
The fire left over 100,000 people homeless and killed over 300 people, in a city with a population at the time of only 300,000.
The fire basically caused Chicago to be completely rebuilt and was the cause for the creation of the strictest fire codes in the country, led by Frederick Law Olmsted.
What do all four of these Midwestern fires from 1871 have in common? Is there some common thread which ties them all together?
The answer is yes, and it is a pretty big thread.
You see, the fires didn’t just happen in 1871, they all took place on the same night. October 8, 1871. Several of the largest fires in US history, all took place in the same evening in the same geographical area around the Great Lakes.
Either this is one heck of a coincidence, or there was something which caused massive fires separated by hundreds of miles.
One of the theories which have been put forward is that there was a single cause of all the fires, and that cause was extraterrestrial in origin. On October 8, 1871, fragments of a comet or a meteor broke up and rained down upon the Midwest around Lake Michigan.
This isn’t impossible. Comets often have frozen flammable materials in them including methane and acetylene. With the high heat created from entry into the atmosphere, plus being put into contact with oxygen, there would be a potential for fire. Add to this the conditions which were in the area in the days leading up to the fire, and it is certainly plausible.
Recent video evidence from Russia of meteors that have hit the Earth has shown massive fireballs that are burning all the way until contact.
It would also be consistent with some of the eyewitness accounts which described fire raining from the sky, and entire blocks igniting at once.
There is little direct evidence of any sort of fire from the sky, nor should we expect to find any 150 years after the fact.
However, what happened on October 8, 1871, are consistent with it not only being one of the greatest disasters in American History but perhaps the first such disaster to have been come from space.