On October 8, 1871, a massive firestorm broke out in the woods near Peshtigo. Dubbed the “Peshtigo Fire”, the inferno consumed about 1,875 square miles of land – 1.2 million acres – along a wide strip from north of Menomonee, Michigan through Peshtigo down towards Green Bay. It is still the largest loss of life due to fire in U.S. history; estimates range from 1,200 to 2,500 lives lost.
It’s sometimes called the “Forgotten Fire” since the Great Chicago Fire happened the very same day and grabbed more attention. Other fires broke out on that dry, hot, very windy day in the Door Peninsula and a few areas in Michigan, but the Peshtigo Fire was the largest in terms of area and deaths.
The Peshtigo Fire Museum opened in 1963 to showcase some of the few items that survived. One featured item in the museum’s collection is a Church tabernacle, saved by submerging in the Peshtigo River by a local priest. Other items include a small burned Bible and a melted glass dish discovered by a construction worker in 1995. You can read several letters written by survivors with accounts of the fire and cleanup, including one that describes the burial of up to one thousand people. Also included are several maps of Peshtigo, including before the fire and one showing the extent of the fire. Murals depict the area before, during, and after the fire. Other items that the museum features include a collection of antique items showing the history of the area since the fire.
The Peshtigo Fire Museum is open from May through October. You can call 715-582-3244 to arrange a visit during other times of the year. Admission to the Museum is free, but donations are gratefully accepted.
U.S. 41 runs on a bypass around Peshtigo; following either of the exits into town brings you to the original U.S. 41 through town. You’ll find the Peshtigo Fire Museum just off the main street, on Oconto Avenue. Signs will point you there, and the sculpture out front looking like flames (or french fries, depending on how hungry you are) indicates the Museum, located in a former church. The Peshtigo Fire Cemetery is right next door.
Photo above is © 2001 by Deana C. Hipke of peshtigofire.info. We’re looking for the photos we took!
400 Oconto Avenue
Peshtigo, WI 54157