ALLOUEZ — This summer and into fall has seen some of the worst wildfires in U.S. history, all along the West Coast and even in Minnesota. However, the worst fire in terms of loss of human life — and one of the worst in terms of lost forests — remains the Great Peshtigo Fire of Oct. 8, 1871.
Less was reported about it at the time because Chicago also had a catastrophic fire on the same night and Peshtigo was small and isolated. It did not help that the only telegraph wire was quickly burned and even the metal railroad tracks were twisted and melted by the heat. Word did not get out as quickly as it did about Chicago.
During the summer of 1871, extremely dry conditions covered Wisconsin and smaller wildfires were common as summer turned toward fall. A potent storm system developed over the western Plains and targeted the Great Lakes on Oct. 8, spawning fires in Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and other spots in the Upper Midwest.
The Chicago Fire killed 300 people. In Peshtigo and the surrounding lumber area, 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.
This year, the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, then known as “the Chapel” at Robinsonville, marked the anniversary of this tragedy with prayer and remembrance. The shrine and its founder, Adele Brise, played a role in the story of the fiery night.
Brise and Fr. Peter Pernin lived through that night of fire.
While Brise did not write about the experience, Fr. Pernin, a Canadian missionary priest serving as pastor at St. Mary Parish in Peshtigo and Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Marinette, did. In a book entitled “The Finger of God Was There!” not only did he journal about his own experiences, he later visited the Chapel and spoke with “Sr. Adele,” as she was known, to record what she lived through.
While the Chapel, where many gathered to pray that night, was spared by the flames, Peshtigo was not. Fr. Pernin’s St. Mary Church, as well as the rest of the town, were destroyed. Marinette and its neighbor, Menominee, Mich., were also extensively damaged in the fires, as was Fr. Pernin’s Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Marinette, where many survivors were evacuated.
Fires had been burning in the area around and north of Green Bay for months. Drought conditions dried up creeks and marshes, and the flourishing lumber industry had left the region strewn with huge amounts of tree debris and branches — called “slash.” 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 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.
On Oct. 11, 1871, the Marinette and Peshtigo Eagle newspaper reported what happened to some: “Crowds pushed for the bridge, but the bridge, like all else, was receiving its baptism of fire. Hundreds crowded into the river, cattle plunged in with them, and being huddled together in the general confusion of the moment, many who had taken to the water to avoid the flames were drowned. A great many were on the blazing bridge when it fell.”
Back at the church, Fr. Pernin had dug a trench in his garden and buried his books and “church ornaments” in it and covered them with sand.
He then returned for the tabernacle, which was in his house since the church builing was to undergo interior painting that coming week. Since he could not get his key to work, he took the entire tabernacle to his wagon. Going back for the chalice, he noted “a strange and startling phenomenon met my view. It was that of a cloud of sparks that blazed up here and there with a sharp detonating sound like that of powder exploding and flew from room to room. I understood then that the air was saturated with some special gas, and I could not help thinking if this gas lighted up from mere contact with a breath of hot wind, what would it be when fire would come in actual contact with it.”
Fr. Pernin managed to save the tabernacle from his Peshtigo church and carry it, while dragging his wagon to the Peshtigo River. In the jostle 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. Today, the tabernacle spends part of the year at St. Mary, Peshtigo, and the summer at the Peshtigo Fire Museum.
IN THE RIVER
Fr. Pernin described the scene at the river: “When turning my gaze from the river, I chanced to look either to the right or left, before me or upwards, I saw nothing but flames; houses, trees, and the air itself were on fire. Above my head, as far as the eye could reach into space, alas! too brilliantly lighted, I saw nothing but immense volumes of flames covering the firmament, rolling one over the other with stormy violence as we see masses of clouds driven wildly hither and thither by the fierce power of the tempest.”
Nearly 10 miles away, in Marinette, as recorded in a special edition on Oct. 9, 1871, the Marinette Eagle reported the night scene: “At this time the direction of the wind changed rapidly blowing from several points of the compass alternately. First from the southwest, then from the west, then from the northwest, then back again to the south, during which time we were visited by a series of whirlwinds which showered cinders and sparks in every conceivable direction. … From the rear of J.S. Dickey’s store in the direction of the Bay all was one broad lurid sheet of flame as far as the eye could reach.”
Fr. Pernin survived that night by staying in the river, though his eyes were damaged by the heat — leaving him blinded for a time — and he became sick from the chill of being soaked in the cold water. Many people stayed in the river that night.
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 as were other small communities in the region called “the Sugar Bush.”
On Oct. 10, the editors of the Marinette Eagle went to the remains of Peshtigo:
“Yesterday morning … we visited the site of what was once the beautiful and thriving little village of Peshtigo. It contained about 1,500 people, and was one of the busiest, liveliest and one of the most enterprising communities along the Bay shore. Standing amid the charred and blackened embers, with the frightfully mutilated corpses of men, women, children, horses, oxen, cows, dogs, swine and fowls; every house, shed, barn, outhouse or structure of any kind swept from the earth…”
Further south, Adele Brise and her companions at the Chapel, knowing that they could not escape the fire, had spent that night carrying a statue of Mary in procession around the grounds. They had been joined by local people fleeing to the site, all praying the rosary all night.
Fr. Pernin wrote of the event he had heard from Adele: “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, they awaited a lull in the storm or turning in another direction continued to hope and pray.”
MORNING MIRACULOUS SIGHTS
By morning, as he later saw for himself, the entire neighborhood around the shrine had lost houses to the flames, but not the school, chapel or even the fence around the six acres of the chapel grounds had been touched.
Fr. Pernin noted that the area not burned by the fire, a “winding path surrounding the enclosure being only eight or 10 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 as miracles. 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. Today, St. Mary Parish in Peshtigo keeps the tabernacle in a special room next to the sacristy of the church building most of the year. It is at the Peshtigo Fire Museum during the summer months.
The museum is open from Memorial Day until Oct. 8 each year. Located in the former church building of St. Mary Parish, built in 1927, the museum is at 400 Oconto Ave. The nearby cemetery contains the graves of many of the fire’s victims, some with their stories engraved on monuments. There is a mass grave of 350 people who could not be identified, as well as plaques telling the stories of some Peshtigo residents’ last moments in the fire.
A plaque by the mass grave reads: “This mass grave contains the ashes, bones and bodies of some 350 people who perished in the Peshtigo Fire. Approximately 75 of them lost their lives in the Peshtigo Company’s boarding house on the east side of the river. They were so completely consumed by the fire that one could not tell man from woman, or child from adult. All, however, in the mass grave were not ashes. Many of the dead were found bearing no traces of burns and those unidentified bodies are also buried here.”
Sources: The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account; Firestorm at Peshtigo; State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1971; The Finger of God Was There!; Peshtigofire.info; Peshtigofiremuseum.com; Green Bay Diocesan Archives; and archives of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross, Green Bay.