Oct. 8, 1871: The Day America Burned

Photo: Library of Congress.

The summer of 1871 was long, hot and dry. By the time autumn rolled around, the Midwest was nothing less than a tinderbox. On Oct. 8, with winds blowing and no rain in sight, conditions were right for a disaster. That day, three massive fires broke out in Chicago, Wisconsin and Michigan. By the time the flames subsided several days later, thousands of people were dead, 4 million acres of land had been razed, and history had been made.

Today, what became known as the Great Chicago Fire is probably the best known of these three conflagrations, but it was not alone. The Great Peshtigo Fire and the Great Michigan Fire – both of which were driven by the same forces behind the Chicago fire — remain bigger pieces of the picture of that destructive and deadly week.

No one knows the exact moment that any of the fires began, or the causes (Mrs. O'Leary's cow is a myth, fabricated by a newspaper reporter eager to tell a convincing story). What we do know is that the fires all spread quickly due to high winds, the all-wood construction of the time, and residue from years of logging, which fed the fires as they advanced.

The Great Chicago Fire really did begin in or near the O'Leary family barn — although it actually spared their house. It spread quickly, forcing 100,000 people out of their homes. Somewhere between 200 and 300 people died in the fire and more than 17,000 buildings were destroyed, including Chicago town hall. Property damage at the time was estimated at $222 million. It took days to stop the fire and count the dead.

The Great Peshtigo Fire — named after the Wisconsin city that suffered the most during the blaze — was far deadlier than the Chicago event. At least 800 people in Peshtigo perished. Survivors were forced to flee into the river, where they saw heavy winds blow the flames above their heads and on to the opposite shore. As Rev. Peter Pernin recounted in his book, "The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account": "It was about ten o'clock when we entered into the river ... Once in water up to our necks, I thought we would at least be safe from the fire, but it was not so; the flames darted over the river as they did over the land, the air was full of them, or rather the air itself was on fire."

The blaze spread across the border into Michigan. Resident G. Van Schelven recounted the events that night as the fire swept his home city of Holland: "As night advanced the wind increased in force, until at midnight it blew a hurricane, spreading the fire and the flames with an alarming velocity toward the doomed city." Holland was just one of several towns and cities almost completely destroyed by the fire. About 1.5 million acres were affected, and the death toll is estimated to be as high as 2,500 people.

In terms of sheer damage, the worst of these events was the Great Michigan Fire. Actually a collection of several fires that sprang up and fed into each other, the Michigan blaze destroyed 2.5 million acres of woodland. Thousands of people fled, and hundreds of people died. No one knows exactly how many people were killed because so many of the area's lumberjacks lived in remote regions where their bodies may have never been found.

So what caused all of these fires and the massive loss of lives, property and landscape? Some people think it may have been meteors. Others think a comet may have landed nearby. While those theories don't appear to have much basis in fact, we can say that the land practices of the day contributed to the destruction. Logging and slash-and-burn land clearing techniques left the Midwest ready to burn. Drought, meanwhile, made it impossible to stop the flames.

In a world where wildfires are becoming more and more common — and more and more destructive — these are lessons that we would do well to remember.