Midwest Ablaze: Chicago and Peshtigo, 1871

We all know the story about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and the Great Fire that leveled Chicago 100 years ago. But did you know that, on the same day, a bigger, more deadly fire ripped across Wisconsin? Join Jon McGinty as he explores these parallel disasters.

On the weekend of Oct. 8 and 9, 1871, two historic fires took place in the Upper Midwest. One destroyed the heart of one of the fastest-growing cities in the world; the other killed more people than any other fire in U.S. history. One location is easily recalled: Chicago, where 300 people perished. The other seems forgotten: Peshtigo, Wis., where as many as 2,500 people perished.

Both fires were preceded by an exceptionally hot and dry summer that turned Northwoods forests and wooden inner cities into tinder just waiting for a spark.


Chicago was in the midst of unprecedented growth. Its population had increased from 30,000 in 1850 to nearly 300,000 by 1871. Almost half its residents were foreign-born immigrants. Many poor families had rapidly built cheap wooden houses covered with bare shingles and tar paper roofs, in the areas surrounding the downtown.
The Chicago Fire Department (CFD) was, by this time, a professional organization with 190 men divided among 17 steam engine companies, four hook-and-ladder companies, and six hose companies. All equipment was drawn by horses. Just a few years earlier, in the 1860s, fire protection had been provided only by independent companies organized by neighborhoods or nationalities.

The city was divided geographically by the Chicago River and its branches into three divisions – North, South and West. By 1865, 172 locked alarm boxes connected by wire to a telegraph operator in the Courthouse provided an early warning system to dispatch the proper company to a fire’s location. A watchman on duty in the Courthouse cupola, located in the square bounded by Washington, Randolph, LaSalle and Clark streets, was also on duty with a telescope to spot fires.

Many interesting books have been written about the Chicago fire. A new one by historian Carl Smith, a Northwestern University professor, is considered by many to be the most carefully researched to date. In “Chicago’s Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City,” Smith details and expands upon the following chain of events.

The night before the big fire started in O’Leary’s barn, the CFD fought a big blaze less than a mile north of the O’Leary home. After it was extinguished, one-third of the men went home exhausted, suffering from smoke exposure. Much equipment was damaged.

The first two alarms for the O’Leary fire were apparently never received, and the next two dispatched the wrong companies to the wrong address. The tower watchman spotted the fire about 9:30 p.m., but he also misidentified the location.

As a result, CFD personnel didn’t arrive at the O’Leary barn until after the fire had spread to other buildings. Fire Chief Robert A. Williams got there around 9:45 p.m. and ordered all available firemen to report. By then they were unable to catch up, as “fire devils,” tornado-like winds, carried embers aloft.

Around 11 p.m., the fire jumped the Chicago River from the West Division to the South Division. Soon the Chicago Gas Light & Coke Company was destroyed, which extinguished all the street lamps and lights in commercial buildings and hotels.

At 2 a.m., the 11,000-pound Courthouse bell, which had been ringing alarm to the city, collapsed in a fiery crash. People fled in panic, loading weaker people and possessions onto wagons, carts or their backs as they raced ahead of the flames. At least seven wooden bridges over the river burned, cutting off escape routes. Glass melted, stone buildings turned to dust and iron rails bent into wicked shapes.

The fire jumped the river again into the North Division at 1:30 a.m., and by 3:20 it reached the Water Tower and Pumping Station roof. Connected to a 2-mile underground tunnel under Lake Michigan, the station was capable of supplying water to all 300,000 residents but was unable to pump any water to its own roof. When the roof collapsed, the three steam engines inside broke down, cutting off water to the entire city, including the fire department. The standpipe in the Water Tower survived and is one of the few pre-fire landmarks visible today.

Early on Monday, Oct. 10, 36 hours after the conflagration began, the fire stopped expanding, and with the help of a gentle rain, it went out. In what became known as the Burnt District, [see map] Chicago had lost almost 2.5 square miles of the most densely populated part of the city. According to Smith, more than 18,000 buildings were destroyed, including 1,600 stores, 28 hotels, 60 factories, 10 school buildings, 39 churches and numerous government and municipal structures.

All records in the Courthouse were burned, as well as the entire collection of the Chicago Historical Society, which included an original draft of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.

More than 90,000 people – a third of the population – were made homeless. While about 300 people died in the flames, thousands more were injured.

As reconstruction began, rubble from the Burnt District was hauled to the lagoon between Michigan Avenue and the railroad tracks along the lakefront and used as fill. This area later became known as Lake Park and now is a part of Grant and Millennium parks.

Within days of the fire, Mayor Roswell B. Mason made two decisions that would prove controversial. He put Civil War veteran and Chicago resident Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan in charge of maintaining law and order, and he designated the Chicago Relief & Aid Society (CRAS) to compile and dispense all incoming contributions for the welfare of the people. Both decisions were seen as circumventing established groups already acting on behalf of Chicago.

Cash, goods and services poured into the city from all over the country and the world. Freeport sent fire equipment. London sent books, which led to establishing Chicago’s first public library. By replacing the more egalitarian General Relief Committee with an elitist philanthropic organization, the process of distribution of aid became problematic.

“It was attached to their ideas of deserving and undeserving recipients,” says Julius L. Jones, curator at the Chicago History Museum. “Equity was not on their radar at the time. Their philosophy seemed to be that, after the aid was distributed, no one should be worse off than they were before the fire, but also no one should be better off.” [see sidebar]

In its final report, CRAS said it distributed almost $4.9 million in cash, and millions more in food. From October 1871 to May 1873, it assisted 160,000 people and 40,000 families.

Improvements to the CFD and reforms in fire safety and prevention were slow in coming. Attempts to restrict the use of lumber in construction were opposed by the poor, who couldn’t afford to build with brick and stone as the rich class did.

Building materials were eventually restricted and rules governing the installation of electricity and gas were put into place. Other proactive fire prevention measures put into place included improved alarm systems, mandatory fire drills in schools and large buildings, sprinkler systems, wider streets and interior hallways, and the marking of exits and fire escapes.

The fire was “celebrated” at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 with a 20,000-square-foot Cyclorama depicting the event in great detail. Created by 10 master artists at a cost of $250,000 (1893 dollars), the 6-ton canvas surrounded visitors with a 360-degree view from the south bank of the main branch of the Chicago River. It was housed in its own building during the exhibition but was sold for scrap a few decades later.

In 1911, Chicago declared Oct. 8 to be Fire Prevention Day, and in 1925 the federal government established the same week as National Fire Prevention Week.

In 1961, the buildings which had been erected on the site of the O’Leary property were torn down. In their place, Chicago constructed the $2 million Quinn Fire Academy where all CFD recruits now train. Outside its walls stands a 33-foot bronze sculpture by Egan Wiener, titled “Pillar of Fire,” which commemorates the historic event.

Inside, flanked by two upright fire hose nozzles, a firefighter emblem on the floor is emblazoned with “1871.” It marks the exact location where the Great Chicago Fire began 150 years ago.

Norman Rockwell’s “Catherine O’Leary Milking Daisy.”

How Did it Start?

There’s no doubt the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 started in the O’Leary barn on DeKoven Street, but how? During the official inquiry that year, Catherine O’Leary testified she went to bed early, planning to milk her cows at 4 a.m. as usual. She and her husband were awakened by neighbor Dan Sullivan, who said he spotted the fire around 9 p.m.

The story about the cow soon emerged in the popular press, with no explanation about why Mrs. O’Leary would be milking at night. Since she was a poor, Irish-Catholic woman with few defenders, she quickly became a scapegoat blamed for causing the fire.

In 1915, newspaper reporter Michael Ahern admitted he fabricated the cow story, and in 1933, Catherine’s daughter, also named Catherine, corroborated her mother’s testimony.

In 1935, Norman Rockwell’s calendar painting, “Catherine O’Leary Milking Daisy,” (a manufactured name for the cow), seared an unforgettable image into the public’s mind, however false it may have been.

An even more bizarre theory emerged in 1882, when Ignatius Donnely suggested a meteor shower from a comet started the many simultaneous fires in the Midwest that October, including Chicago and Peshtigo. The theory was reexamined in 1985 and again in 2004, but was unsupported by any credible evidence.

In 1990, amateur historian Richard Bales thoroughly reexamined the 1871 testimonies of eyewitnesses. He concluded that Sullivan’s pipe started the fire shortly before he ran to warn the O’Learys and to rescue their calf.

In October 1997, three weeks and 126 years after the fire, the Chicago City Council officially exonerated Mrs. O’Leary and her cow “from all blame in regard to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.”

But the legend lives on.

Chicago History Museum Exhibit

The Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St., has opened a new addition to its permanent exhibits on Oct. 8, the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire. Titled “City on Fire: Chicago 1871,” the family-friendly interactive displays will include the story of the fire itself, as well as the humanitarian disaster it caused, and how Chicago arose from the ashes.

“We want it to be an immersive experience that’s fun and educational for the whole family,” says Julius L. Jones, museum curator. “Displays include a replica fire pumper, for example, so kids can see what it was like to fight a fire in 1871.”

More than 100 artifacts and documents relating to the fire show its effects, including a mound of melted glass marbles, a fused conglomeration of nails from a burned-up barrel, and a sign posted outside the temporary shelter of a burned-out resident named Kerfoot. It reads: “All gone but WIFE, CHILDREN and ENERGY.”
A one-tenth scale replica of the study (draft copy) of the original 1893 Cyclorama will also be on display. It measures about 40 by 4 feet.

“We found it in our collections,” remarks Jones.

The exhibit also explores the aftermath and recovery process, including the role of the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, and how the fire underscored existing divisions of ethnicity, economics, politics and religion.

“We tie it to the current situation with the pandemic,” says Jones. “When you experience a disaster, do you try to re-create society as it was before, or do you take that moment to correct inequities that were already there, but were brought into sharper focus as a consequence of the disaster?”

Hoping for an impactful experience for families, Jones believes the exhibition will stimulate conversations about fire safety and preparedness in the homes and businesses of present-day Chicagoans and others.

The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Admission: Adults $19, students $17, children 8 and younger free. The public is encouraged to pre-purchase tickets online at chicagohistory.org.

The Fire Museum of Greater Chicago

Located at 5218 S. Western Ave., this museum is housed in the 1916 former fire station of Engine Co. #23.

“It was one of the first firehouses built without accommodations for horses,” says Jeff Stern, a member of the Board of Directors. “It had no stables or provisions for harnesses that could drop from the ceiling.”

The museum was founded in 1996 by a group of retired firefighters who saw a need to preserve the history of the Chicago Fire Department, and to honor the memory of fallen comrades.

Among vehicles in the collection is a 1928 Ahrens Fox Pumper, which, in its day, could deliver 1,000 gallons of water per minute at a fire scene.

“It was considered the Rolls Royce of fire engines at the time,” says Stern.

A replica sliding pole stands in for the three authentic ones that were removed during renovations. The hose tower, where canvas hoses were hung to dry after use, is still visible, though it’s now used for storage. Also on display is a section of wooden water mains.

“In those days, mains were made of wood. Firemen would use a gadget to cut open the pipe at a fire, then suction out the water into the pumping apparatus,” says Stern. “When they were done, they plugged the pipe back up. That’s why hydrants are sometimes called fire plugs.”

Stern is not a retired fireman but has been a Chicago Fire Department “fan” since childhood. By the time he was 13, he had visited all 141 fire stations in the city. There are now 98 stations.

Upstairs, where the sleeping quarters for firefighters used to be, is an extensive collection of books and periodicals about Chicago Fire Department history. The collection includes numerous logbooks from various fire companies, documenting their fire runs.

In a logbook from Engine Company #4, dated Oct. 9, 1871, is the entry: “Returned to station to remove furniture.”

The fire was headed their way.


Peshtigo, Wis., is located near the north shore of Green Bay on the Peshtigo River, about 40 miles northeast of the city of Green Bay and just south of Marinette, Mich. [see map]. In the fall of 1871, it was a company town of about 2,000 people in the midst of a timber industry boom.

Ironically, it was Chicago’s first Mayor, William Ogden, who owned 200,000 acres of the surrounding pine and hardwood forests, as well as the local sawmill, boarding house, general store, blacksmith shop and what was then the world’s largest wooden ware factory.

His workers would fell trees in the woods, strip off the branches, then float the logs downstream to the sawmill. There the logs were cut into lumber, loaded onto steamships in Green Bay, then transported to ports along Lake Michigan, such as Milwaukee and Chicago.

Local farmers, many of whom were recent immigrants from Europe, cleared their land for cultivation by using a slash and burn method, whereby brush and unwanted trees were piled up and burned after removal. A newly constructed railroad used similar methods when clearing right-of-ways, as did lumberjacks.

The result was numerous smoldering fires in local forests, many left to burn themselves out. They produced a continuously smoky atmosphere.

“Some fires burned underground in the peat,” says Sally Kahl, curator of the Peshtigo Fire Museum, “but winter snow usually extinguished them by spring. The winter before, however, we had very little snow in the area. At night, you could see the fire glowing underground. The kids called them ‘fire snakes’.”

Nobody knows for sure, but the big fire probably started when winds from a rapidly moving cold front whipped the smoldering fires into a large conflagration somewhere near Sugar Bush, a small community near Peshtigo, on Oct. 8. Because the smell of smoke was normal to them, few people seemed to notice the coming blaze.

“Our local priest, Father Pernin, said Mass in St. Mary’s Church in Peshtigo,” says Kahl. “When the parishioners came out of the church, the skies were gray with smoke, but by evening they had turned red and people heard a loud roar in the woods. Father Pernin urged them to get to the river for safety.”

The fire jumped across the Peshtigo River and burned both sides of the town, consuming everything, including at least 800 people, in about an hour. By then it had developed into a fire storm, a tornado-like funnel of flames that rose hundreds of feet into the air, with 100-mile-an-hour winds rushing in to replace the rising air.

One couple with five daughters, the Lemke family, tried to escape in a wagon pulled by two horses. When one horse was hit by flying embers and collapsed, the father, Charles, tried to free it from the harness, but the frightened animal escaped. After running to recapture the fleeing animal, Lemke returned to the wagon to find his family incinerated.

“Charles survived the fire, later remarried and raised a new family,” says Kahl. “His descendants still live in town.”
Temperatures were later estimated at nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Boxcars exploded into flames, their wheels melting beneath them. Many residents in town rushed into the river to escape the heat, Father Pernin included.

He also tried to save the church tabernacle, a locked white box which contained the Eucharist and chalice from the church, by pushing it into the swirling waters on a cart.

“Two days later, when he returned to the burned-out church, a couple of lumberjacks called him to come to the river,” says Kahl. “There, floating on two burned logs, was the tabernacle, untouched by the fire. We now call it the White Miracle. The tabernacle is still on display in our museum.”

But the river didn’t save everyone who reached it.

“One young man held his two younger brothers in his arms in the water overnight for 5 hours,” says Kahl. “He held them so they wouldn’t drown, and thought they were asleep. In the morning, he discovered they had died from hypothermia.”

The fire spread rapidly north along Green Bay to the Menominee River, burning several villages and part of Marinette. It then continued more than halfway to Escanaba, Mich. Another part of the fire, possibly started by wind-driven embers across the bay, spread across the southern part of the Door County peninsula.

The staggering death toll, estimated between 1,500 and 2,500, was due in part to the rural isolation of the population and the apparent lack of alarm until it was too late. People had become too accustomed to the constant smell of smoke. Also, the one telegraph wire connecting the villages had been burned early in the fire.

Seventeen villages were destroyed completely, including Peshtigo, as well as 1.2 million square acres of forest containing two billion trees and untold amounts of wildlife. Some 1,500 people were seriously injured, many disfigured for life, and 3,000 people were made homeless. Ogden lost many friends and employees, and one-third of his fortune.

Father Pernin’s Peshtigo church was rebuilt in 1873, only to be struck by lightning in 1927 and burned down again. That same year, the Catholics bought an abandoned Congregational Church building on the other side of the river.

“They used a winch and a team of horses to move it to its present location,” says Kahl. “The process closed the bridge for three days. After the church closed in 1963, it became the Peshtigo Fire Museum.”

The museum’s collection features Father Pernin’s rescued tabernacle, as well as a wall mural depicting events before, during and after the fire. The building is adjacent to the Peshtigo Fire Cemetery, where the unidentified remains of more than 350 victims of the fire were buried in a mass grave.

During World War II, U.S. military personnel studied the Peshtigo fire to learn how to create firestorms by bombing enemy cities. The result was the destruction of cities like Dresden, Hamburg and Tokyo.

The Peshtigo Fire Museum is open every day, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., from Memorial Day until Oct. 8, the anniversary of the fire. This year the closing is postponed until after Oct. 9, to accommodate a visit by members of the Forest History Association of Wisconsin, who are attending their 46th annual fall conference.