This may appear to be about one thing, and as I like to do, it will be about that thing and something else. I could’ve started this off with an intro about the thing that might’ve drawn you into wanting to read what I am writing about. Then I would’ve baited you with one topic only to switch you to something else. I may still do that; I just feel better about it informing you of it ahead of time.
2021 marks the 150th anniversary of a great American disaster, the “Great Chicago Fire.” I recently listened to a four-part podcast about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. To give it the proper reference, it’s called Wondery: American History Tellers, “The Great Chicago Fire.” The four episodes, each roughly 35 to 40 minutes in length, talked of various aspects of the fire. From the nervous fire chief, hopelessly lobbying for help for his undermanned fire department, the blaze starting in the O’Leary’s barn, to it spreading rapidly through town, the missteps involved with reporting its location, and some of the deadly assumptions that the city held about how safe they were from a major disaster that were, well, disastrously wrong.
The fire lasted 30 hours, from late on October 8 until the morning of October 10, 1871. It destroyed about a third of the city, killed 300 people, and left about 100,000 people homeless.
The fire burned relentlessly through the mostly wood-constructed homes and businesses. During the previous year, 700 fires had been fought and extinguished in the city. The weather had been hot and dry in 1871, with less than two inches of rain falling between July 4th and the start of the “Great Fire.” Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world, spurred by immigration from Germany and Ireland, and the city’s desirable location near the Great Lakes and fertile farm country. It was the home, through point and destination to many railroads. From its incorporation in 1833 with 300 souls as a little prairie outpost, it quickly blossomed to a sprawling metropolis of more than 300,000 nearly four decades later when tragedy struck.
The fire was pushed along by hot, dry winds. With much of the city built on and with wood, it had plenty of fuel. Residents thought they were safe, and some even started to party on one side of the river as they watched parts of the city burn on the other side, only to be horrified as sparks and debris flew over the Chicago River and ignited buildings on their side of the river.
The creator and narrator of the podcast, Lindsay Graham (not the Senator, as is clearly stated in the notes about the series) does a credible job of narrating and doing some of the voices of key characters who faced the fire and its aftermath. He includes a lot of historical context and details about the city and how one of America’s great disasters played out over the first few hours, then succeeding days and months, and by episode four, he is looking back at the fire from more than three decades removed. It’s compelling listening, and I enjoyed the series immensely.
So those four paragraphs are the bait. Here’s the switch: have you ever had someone tell you a story, a really good story, with twists and turns and details and interesting information about major characters and other people who figure into the story… all really well told and infused with a good command of the facts and told in a concise and fascinating manner? And all the while that it’s being told, you are dying to jump in and interject your story and kind of knock the first story down a bit because you have something that you feel is more compelling, worse or better in some way or just somehow, different, and since it’s from you, it’s, well, better.
That was me, the whole time I was listening to the podcast. Luckily, Mr. Graham didn’t have to deal with me interrupting him. And after a while, I realized, that what I know and what I wanted to interject really didn’t matter to this story. His story was about this fire, about this place and time, about all the things that made the Great Chicago Fire a major chapter in the history of America and the Midwest, and about a lot of things that made this an excellent summary of this awful event.
I am from Wisconsin, the state that lies just to the north of the Windy City. We have always felt a bit overshadowed by that “Toddlin’ Town.” We have less than warm and fuzzy nicknames for people of Chicago or even Illinois. You see, on October 8, 1871, Wisconsin had its own fire, and in many ways, it was much worse than Chicago’s fire. Ours was bigger, as it burned a lot bigger area, 2,400 square miles, compared to the three-square miles of Chicago. Fatalities? The Peshtigo Fire (so-called for the little town of the fire’s origin, about 250 miles north of Chicago) took anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500 lives. There is a wide berth in the death toll, as the Peshtigo Fire was a deadly, horrific combination of fire and tornado, and burned so hot that many people were likely completely immolated to the point of no traces of them being left behind.
Much of my knowledge of the Peshtigo Fire comes from the book “Firestorm at Peshtigo” by Denise Gess and William Lutz, published in 2002. In one of the pictures from the book, four piles of ashes are shown, all that remained of a rail car that had held some pine logs from area forest. The four piles of ashes had been the iron wheels, nothing else remained. With the area being somewhat unsettled in the early 1870s, it’s possible that people lived there and died in the fire with no one having knowledge of them settling there. About an hour from where I live, there is a historical marker, probably 90 miles or so from where the fire started, on the opposite side of the Bay of Green Bay, which details how some people survived the fire by climbing down into a well to shield themselves from the fire.
All this is about my angst of listening to Lindsey Graham, not the Senator, talk about how awful the Chicago Fire was. It was one of this country’s worst disasters. And I almost missed all of it because I was mentally begging him to just say something about Peshtigo…anything, “Come on, just mention it – it was 250 miles north, started on the same day, nothing, really?” Our governor, Civil War hero Lucius Fairchild, left immediately for Chicago on hearing about that fire, so his wife had to deal with logistics, aid, supplies, and relief for her home state because her husband had no idea that his own state had sustained a worse, more deadly fate than the one that he went to give aid to. Graham never once mentioned our beloved Wisconsin’s conflagration being the deadliest fire in American history. He was talking about the Chicago Fire.
My insistence that he say something about “our” fire being worse, bigger, deadlier, so unique in so many ways was more about me than about either fire.
He chose a topic and researched it and told the story in superb fashion. He spent nearly three hours looking at the Chicago fire in painstaking detail, with a plethora of historical context and lessons that reverberate to this day. If I want the world to know about the Peshtigo Fire, I can tell that story myself. Ours was worse, but my “me-tooing” it would only distract and detract from the story at hand.
This was very near sensory overload for a history geek like me. If you enjoy history as I do, you would do yourself a favor by partaking of either or both great resources regarding a few dark disastrous days 150 years ago. Chicago and Peshtigo, both sad, horrifying, and happening on the same day. Separately.