On this date in 1871, the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, and several smaller surrounding communities were obliterated by fire. The “booming town of 1700 people was wiped out of existence in the greatest fire disaster in American history,” according to the memorial marker that still stands in Peshtigo as silent sentinel watching over the graves of more than 1,100 of the fire’s victims. The fire, which destroyed more than $5 million in property and 2,400 square miles, was overshadowed by the Great Chicago Fire, which occurred the same day and annihilated that city’s core. News of the Peshtigo fire didn’t even reach the state capital for two days. And when it did, Wisconsin’s governor was in Chicago with other state leaders trying to aid that stricken city and had to hurry home to help his own constituents.
Though still little known by the general public today, Peshtigo looms large in forest history and fire history circles. For example, several articles in the Fall 2008 issue of Forest History Today reference Peshtigo as an example of fire in the wildland-urban interface, and one looks at it in the context of wildfire and civil defense.
To mark the 140th anniversary, we have just finished processing a related archival collection, the Peshtigo Fire Centennial Collection, 1970-1990. In 1970, the town held a commemoration event marking the centennial of the fire. The new collection features event programs, commemorative items, publications, letters, newspaper clippings, photographs, and other materials. A few things that caught our eyes were the commemorative stickers and the postage cancellation mark, which you can see on the finding aid page, and a bumper sticker and wooden coins. All materials were kindly donated by Karl W. Baumann.