The litter of the logging industry combined with careless camping practices always posed a danger of fire; even more so in the fall of 1871. Drought conditions had prevailed over the last several months. Fires burned through scattered sections of Wisconsin and Michigan days before the Peshtigo holocaust. Damage from the fires was declared â??incalculable,â?? while the smoky atmosphere produced by the blazes rendered â??everything obscure.â?? Visibility got so bad from a combination of smoke and fog that navigation at Detroit was suspendedâ??an event â??unparalleled within the memory of the oldest navigators.â??
Against this backdrop of sporadic fire and smoky haze a â??feeling of uneasiness and premonitionâ?? hung over the region. Animals behaved strangely. Dogs howled. Cats ran together in packs, while birds flocked in towns and deer ran into populated areas for safety.
On Sunday, October 8, nature provided the ingredients for disaster. A deep storm developed over Colorado with a strong trough extending from the low northeastward toward western Lake Superior (Image 2 above). The east-northeast alignment of the trough promoted a strong southwest flow of warm, dry air in the warm sector of the system toward northern Wisconsinâ??the perfect setup to fan the scattered flames of the existing spot fires into one giant conflagration.
In Peshtigo, a fiery â??hurricaneâ?? burst upon the hapless community. Father Pernin, the pastor of the Catholic Church in town, wrote later that eyewitnesses reported seeing â??a large black object, resembling a balloon, whichâ?|revolved in the air with great rapidityâ??. He went on to explain that the object rose above the tops of the trees and made a beeline for a house â??which it seemed to single out for destruction.â?? The black balloon barely touched the house and â??burst with a loud report, like that of a bombshell.â?? Immediately â??with the rapidity of thought,â?? fire enveloped the house giving no chance for its occupants to escape.
The intense blaze created its own â??tornado-likeâ?? circulation. The fierce winds reportedly blew shingles a mile out into the bay where they set fire to the sails of ships. Burning lumber was transported over miles of forest then over the Menominee River where fires sprang up on the Michigan side of the river.
The fire beast of Peshtigo, while avoiding most of Marinette-Menominee, moved northeastward parallel to Green Bay and descended upon the farming community of Birch Creek north of Menominee. Similar to Peshtigo, the rapid advance of the blaze gave residents no time to escape. One family, a husband and wife with seven children, made a mad dash for the creek. The smallest children in the family, two girls, began to stumble and fall. The father suddenly grabbed them and â??threw them both into the water and mud under roots of an overturned tree, telling them to crouch down and stay there, until he came for them.â?? They were the only ones in the family of nine to survive.
Another Birch Creek family miraculously escaped death or serious injury. Frederick Sieman saw the wall of flame approaching from the southwest. He gathered his wife and four children and beat a hasty retreat to a vacant field adjacent to the house. The crops had been harvested off this small plot of land and it had been burned over so it afforded a tiny if tenuous oasis in the sea of flame. Sieman and his wife huddled the children together and put wet blankets over them as the flames passed by. Later, they recounted how they heard the crashing of their buildings and the â??maddened cries of their dying cattle and horses.â?? Their next door neighbors â??not 40 rods awayâ?? burned to death.
An estimated 25 people died in the fire at Birch Creekâ??a quarter of its population. The count did not include some newcomers to the community. A number of immigrants were in the area working on the railroad that was being built to Escanaba, and more had come to homestead in the region. Bodies that could not be identified were buried in a common grave. Legend has it that someone later planted lilac bushes over the graves. The huge, aged clump of lilacs can still be seen just off U.S.-41 in the village.
The Great Fire of October 1871 was Michiganâ??s first recorded catastrophic fire. It occurred the same night as the Great Chicago Fire, which killed 250 persons. Besides the victims at Birch Creek, at least 175 others died in separate blazes that raged across the Lower Peninsula from October 8-18. In all, some 1,200 perished across the Upper Great Lakes in October 1871, including about 1,000 in the Peshtigo area alone. It remains the most deadly forest fire to ever occur on the North American Continent.