Sunday, January 27, 2019

Simultaneous fires of October 1871

Multiple movies, television shows, books, and other fictional and non-fictional stories have been told about the Great Chicago Fire which burned on October 8th, 1871, but did you know that from October 7th until the 10th, a rash of fires spread across the Mid-west?

First, a little bit about the most famous of the Mid-west fires, the Great Chicago 
Chicago Fire 1871
Fire. On the night of October 8th, 1871, at 137 DeKoven Street on the city’s southwest side in or near the barn of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary something ignited a small fire. Legend says the family’s cow knocked over a lighted lantern which set the city ablaze, but Mrs. O’Leary vehemently denied the charges. Regardless, due to a dry summer and a city full of structures built of untreated wood, the city burnt out of control until October 10th. Approximately 300 
Aftermath of the Chicago fire 1871
fatalities, 17,500 buildings and 222 million dollars in damages USD 1871. (4.593 billion USD 2018 accordingly)

Two Hundred and fifty miles away from Chicago in Peshtigo, Wisconsin another fire raged. Though historically overshadowed by the Chicago city inferno, the Peshtigo blaze was the most devastating fire in U.S history. It began in the forest, no one knows exactly how or where. Flames moved so quickly that it raced through the small town of Sugar Bush, killing every resident. High winds and dry 
Peshtigo area
 condition fed a two-hundred feet high wall of flames. Temperatures were so hot, ranging to two thousand degrees that trees exploded from the extreme heat. On October 8th, without warning, the fire reached Peshtigo. In a single tavern, two-hundred people perished. Desperate and panicked, folks ran to a nearby river for refuge—some drowned. Three unfortunate residents tried to save themselves by sheltering in a water tank. Tragically, they were boiled to death. In total, 800 – 2,500 (reports vary greatly) people were killed by this fire. The worst in history.

On October 8th, across Lake Michigan multiple fires tore through small and large towns alike. On the west coast, Holland, Michigan and Manistee, Michigan both
Manistee MI
suffered from runaway fires. Theories prevail that the high winds carried embers across the Great Lake and ignited these fires, and that may be so, but what about the simultaneous fire on the east coast of Michigan? Port Huron is located at the base of the thumb area, and on the same day, fire burned this town. Then there’s Alpena, Michigan located on the northeast coast. Another fire—on the same day as the others—burned this town. It would very improbable for embers from the Chicago fire to carry this far east. Additional fires burned towns in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on the same day. Strange, right? Unfortunately, the death toll is unknown due to the numerous lumber
Alpena, MI
operations and migrating lumberjack population.

So, what caused these simultaneous Midwest fires? Some have said embers—some say the dry conditions, warm temperatures and very high winds were the culprit. One theory that has been proposed claims that as the earth passed through the tail of a comet, the debris ignited fires through the Midwest. Apparently, including a steamship passing through the Manitou Islands in Lake Michigan which reported a spontaneous fire on the deck of the boat.

After more than a hundred years, why or how these fires started is still a mystery, but what is known is that October 8th, 1871 was a day of death, destruction and terror throughout the Midwest—one which I hope is never again repeated in history.

Thanks for stopping by Heroes, Heroines and History. Stay warm and safe until we meet again in February.


Award winning author, Michele K. Morris’s love for historical fiction began when she first read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series. She grew up riding horses and spending her free time in the woods of mid-Michigan. Married to her high school sweetheart, they are living happily-ever-after with their six children, three in-loves, and ten grandchildren in the sunshine state. Michele loves to hear from readers on Facebook, Twitter, and through the group blog, Heroes, Heroines, and History at She is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of the Steve Laube Agency.

1 comment:

  1. I had never heard of this before. What a tragic day! Thanks for enlightening us.