It had been a long, dry summer in 1871. The fields and trees were all tinder dry, just waiting for a spark to ignite them. On a windy, Fall day, 8-October- 1871, a fire started which ended up killing over 1,500 people and burning up acres upon acres of land and everything on it.
You may think I am speaking of the Chicago Fire, but I am not. The very same day as the Chicago Fire – 8-October-1871 – a fire was sparked in Peshtigo, Wisconsin that killed anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500 people. When it was all done, over 1,875 Square Miles were burned – an area twice the size of Rhode Island. A total of twelve communities in Wisconsin were completely destroyed with most or all of their residents. By comparison, the Chicago Fire burned about 3.3 Square Miles, and took the lives of a few hundred people.
On that same day fires also raged across Michigan’s lower peninsula. Fires burned in places from Holland on the Lake Michigan shoreline in the West to Port Huron at the mouth of the St. Clair River in the East. Because of inaccurate record keeping, and the sheer loss of life, exact death tolls from the fires that day will never be known.
The story of the Chicago Fire lives on in pop culture, including legends of cows and lanterns. But today, on this 142nd anniversary, let us not forget that the story of the fires of 1871 don’t end in Chicago. That day thousands lost their lives, miles of forest were burned, entire communities were wiped off the face of the earth, and sand was turned to glass. And all that happened across a three state area of the Upper Midwest.