Inferno burned some 2,400 square miles of land, killed at least 1,500 people
GREEN BAY — On Oct. 8, 1871, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed four square miles of the city and killed 250 people.
That same night, the storm system that fueled the Chicago fire also spawned the Peshtigo Fire. This series of blazes, firestorms and fire tornadoes destroyed 2,400 square miles — roughly the size of the state of Delaware — and killed 1,500 to 2,500 people.
Two people affected by that fire — who later met and shared their stories — were Adele Brise of the Chapel at Robinsonville (now Champion) and Fr. Peter Pernin, a Canadian missionary priest serving as pastor at St. Mary in Peshtigo and Our Lady of Lourdes in Marinette. (Marinette and its neighbor, Menominee, Mich., were also extensively damaged in the fires.)
Fires had been burning in the area around and north of Green Bay for months that year. Drought conditions had dried up local creeks and marshes, and the flourishing lumber industry had left huge amounts of tree debris and branches — called slash — from local forests. Peshtigo was a city built, literally, on sawdust.
Sr. Pius Doyle, one of the foundresses of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross, recorded events of late summer and fall 1871, noting how immigrant farmers were also clearing surrounding timberland for fields. Prairie fires resulted.
“Early in August in the afternoon,” Sr. Pius wrote, “the sun would be obscured, owing to the fire which steadily worsened so that, towards the end of the month, it was becoming frightful.”
Nothing, though, can describe the horror of the firestorm that hit — including fire tornados and whirlwinds that witnesses described as sounding like freight trains. The fire was so intense that it had the power of a thermonuclear bomb and temperatures so high that people were cremated as they fled.
Fr. Pernin managed to save the tabernacle from his church and carry it, while dragging his wagon to the river. In the jostling and bedlam, the wagon was pushed into the water and the tabernacle floated away. The next day it was found, resting upright and dry, on a log in the river — with the sacred species safe inside.
Fr. Pernin described the scene at the river in his memoir, “The Finger of God Was There.”
“I chanced to look either to the right or left, before me or upwards, I saw nothing by flames … I saw nothing but immense volumes of flames covering the firmament, rolling one over the other with stormy violence …”
Fr. Pernin survived that night by staying in the river, though his eyes were damaged by the heat and he became sick from the chill of being soaked in the cold water.
Further south and east of Peshtigo, lower Door County and northern Brown and Kewaunee counties were also burning. (The town of Brussels was destroyed by the fire.) Adele Brise and her companions at the chapel knew they could not escape the fire. So they took up the statue of Mary and bore it in procession around the grounds. They were joined by local people fleeing to the site. Fr. Pernin, in recording what Adele told him later, said they processed on their knees, praying the rosary.
“When the flame and wind blew so strongly in the direction of the chapel as to prevent their farther progress, unless they exposed themselves to suffocation,” Fr. Pernin wrote, “they awaited a lull in the storm or turning in another direction continued to hope and pray.”
By morning, he continued, all “the houses and fences in the neighborhood had been burned with the exception of the school, the chapel and fence surrounding the six acres of land consecrated to the Blessed Virgin.”
Fr. Pernin noted that the area not burned by the fire, a “winding path surrounding the enclosure being only eight or ten feet wide… now shone out like an emerald island amid a sea of ashes.”
The priest, who rebuilt his two churches, stopped short of calling either the salvaging of the Peshtigo tabernacle or the survival of the chapel grounds a miracle. But he “earnestly counseled” anyone who could do so to visit Adele to question her about the events and “return edified and happy at heart.”
The Peshtigo tabernacle was later moved to Marinette and its whereabouts became a mystery. In the 1970s, Auxiliary Bishop John Grellinger of the Green Bay Diocese began a search for it. Today, the Peshtigo Fire Museum houses that tabernacle. The museum, located in the former church building of St. Mary Parish, built in 1927, is at 400 Oconto Ave. It is open from Memorial Day to Oct. 8.