As museums begin to reopen after a world-wide interruption, and again welcome us to explore the stories of our history, art and culture, many of those stories we learn will have long-lasting impacts on us. Personal stories, with deep human emotion and interest, help close the years between us and those that came before.
Museums commemorating tragic events can help us better understand past generations and eras in history by revealing the plight of the human spirit, making it tangible and relatable. Learning their stories and seeing the artifacts from these events, however, is sometimes a sobering and somber experience.
October 8th, 1871, is a day that carries a vicious legacy in America’s collective memory. It is a day rife with horrific tales of fire, destruction, and carnage. Fortunes were lost and never regained, as were, most importantly, thousands of lives, the exact amount never to be known. It was a day that, based on the eradication of everything they knew by a fire so catastrophic nobody could believe, people legitimately thought the world was ending.
Yes, October 8th, 1871, is the day of the Great Chicago Fire, the most famous fire in American history…
But, on that very same day, and remarkably in the very same hour, another fire burned, 250 miles north, in the forests of Wisconsin. And although after the flames were out, the city of Chicago received all the nation’s attention, its sympathy, its aid, the people in and around the town of Peshtigo, WI received none of that, even though the fire in Peshtigo dwarfed the Great Chicago Fire, in the number of lives lost, by upwards of 8 times.
It is still today the deadliest fire in the history of North America and one of the worst wildfires the world has ever seen, as it is believed possibly up to 2,400 people were killed.
Yet, unless you live in Wisconsin, and really even if you do, chances are you’ve never heard of Peshtigo, or the fire that ravaged the town and 1.2 million surrounding acres. Chances are you haven’t heard the survivor accounts of people seeing their family members incinerated by an actual fire tornado, accounts of buildings being swept off the ground by 100 mile an hour winds and exploding in mid-air, or the accounts of seeing the annihilation of the town as the sun rose up the next day and noting not one building – not one - still stood. Only the partial wooden frame of a house not yet fully constructed was upright.
The Peshtigo Fire Museum commemorates this day and the spirit and perseverance of the survivors who rebuilt the city, 150 years ago.
Housed in a historic Congregational church, the first church built after the fire and later moved to the current location, the museum displays artifacts and personal histories of that fateful day, along with life in Peshtigo before and after October 8th, 1871.
My visit to the Fire Museum, which is located in downtown Peshtigo and easily accessible off of Highway 41, occurred on a recent Saturday afternoon, a few weeks after re-opening for the summer. Upon entering the museum, which is free though donations are appreciated, my eyes were first caught by a large mural running along the back wall. Hand-pained by local artist Luanne Harff-Burchinal in 1967, the mural portrays life in Peshtigo before, during, and after the fire, a striking initial visual and quickly immersing your mind into the devastation of that horrible night.
Knowledgeable staff and volunteers from the Peshtigo Historical Society are present and waiting to answer questions and talk you through the displays and personal stories of those who perished that night, as well as those who survived. Pauline King, a local Peshtigo resident and member, spent over an hour of one-on-one time and guided me through the charred artifacts exhibited in display cases, some donated by descendants of survivors, some found decades, and even over a century later, at various dig sites. Findings by the metal detecting television show, “Diggers,” which filmed an episode there in 2014, are also showcased.
The items housed here are the precious few items remaining, as virtually everything was incinerated in the inferno, while those in the ordeal could only attempt to save themselves and their loved ones.
One of the prized possessions of the museum is the tabernacle from the Catholic church that stood on the site at the time of the fire where the museum now stands. It was found three days later lying on the bank of the Peshtigo River which bisects the city, and where many of the residents fled to escape the flames, only for many of them to perish by hypothermia. It was found, miraculously, completely unscathed and with the contents still inside.
Adjacent to the museum is the Peshtigo Fire Cemetery, where many victims lie interred. In the cemetery is a mass grave containing the “ashes, bones, and bodies” of approximately 350 unidentified souls who perished that night. Many of the graves throughout the cemetery also contain informational plaques informing about their plight. The cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places and contains Wisconsin’s first official State Historical Marker, placed there in 1951.
As it is the 150th anniversary of the Great Peshtigo Fire, there are commemorative events occurring this year, information of which can be found on the museum’s website, www.peshtigofiremuseum.com.
A visit to the Peshtigo Fire Museum and Cemetery is an experience that stays with you. Its a walk through the remnants of one of the deadliest natural disasters in North American history, yes, but also a lesson in perseverance, dedication, community, and the true American Spirit.
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Scott Wittman is a professional historical landscape photographer, writer, and researcher based in Appleton, WI. A graduate of the Colorado Institute of Art in Denver, CO, Scott has created content for a multitude of publications and online platforms. Scott’s first book, “Lost Fox Cities,” was published in 2019 and he is currently researching his second book, “Finding Dairyland,” to be published by The History Press in 2022.
Scott lives in Appleton with his wife, Vicky, and three sons, Asa, Jett, and Rhodes. His work can be found at www.scottwittmanvisual.com.