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Sunday, May 17, 2009

The 1871 fires

Did you know that on the night the Great Chicago Fire started, October 8, 1871, there were many more fires across the Upper Midwest?

There were fires that night in Grand Rapids, South Haven, Port Huron, Muskegon, Wayland, Big Rapids, Lansing, Saginaw, Sturgeon Bay, and Menominee. A steamship in the lake said that the Manitou Islands were afire. Smaller fires occurred in Ohio, southern Canada, and Minnesota, No cause was ever found for any of them, except poor Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, and that explanation was a fraud.

Find out the most plausible explanation in Mrs. O'Leary's Cow Was Innocent, by Barbara D'Amato, a great Chicago crime writer.

Here's a map in case anyone is inclined to take a driving tour of the fires.

Posted by Marie at May 17, 2009 3:13 PM


Weirdly wonderful. I'll try to work this in to my second screenplay somehow…

Posted by: swanksalot Author Profile Page at May 17, 2009 8:18 PM

Oh, is there a link for your quoted article?

Posted by: swanksalot Author Profile Page at May 17, 2009 8:21 PM

Hm, I guess my links don't show up? Maybe I need better colors. Here it is:


Posted by: Marie at May 17, 2009 8:24 PM

Fascinating, Marie. I only learned of the Michigan fires last year when we vacationed in Saugatuck. We spent our summers in Holland when I was a child, too.

Posted by: Kath at May 17, 2009 9:43 PM

Not only that, but ...

One of those Upper Midwest fires was the Peshtigo Fire, considered the deadliest fire in U.S. history. About 1,100 people died as the fire swept remote towns and lumber camps in far northern Wisconsin. One of the big landowners up there was William Butler Ogden, who also built much (and owned much) of pre-Fire Chicago (among other things, he was a railroad baron; Ogden, Utah, is named after him).

Posted by: Dan at May 17, 2009 11:22 PM

Here's a snippet on the Peshtigo Fire from Donald Miller's wonderful history of early Chicago, "City of the Century":

"Approaching Peshtigo by wagon, [Ogden] stoppedat a high point overlooking the village, now an ash-covered clearing in a blackened forest of oak, pine, and tamarack, with the fast-running Peshtigo River coursing through the swath of destruction. Charred carcasses of horses, cows, bears, and deer lay on dirt roads radiating out into the forest, and smoke was still ascending from the well where villagers had thrown their belongings--and in a few tragic instances, their children--in the first terrible minutes of the most destructive fire in North American history, a fire that hit the village so suddenly that many of its victims never knew what killed them.

"The previous Sunday evening, at around eight o'clock, most of the townspeople of Peshtigo were walking home from evening church services when they heard a strange noise coming from a place somewhere in the forest. Then, with a deafening roar, a swirling fireball a hundred feet high swept into the town. The fire moved faster than life could run away from it, and in an instant, scores of people in the street were reduced to ash. Those who had some warnng tried to get to the river. From the western end of town about three hundred people made it, grabbing hold of logs to stay afloat, but those coming from the east were hit full in teh face by the 'swirling blasts.... Inhalation was annihilation,' wrote a New York reporter who interviewed the survivors."

And I'll just add: If you're in Chicago and in a little bit of an exploring frame of mind, you can find a little memorial to Peshtigo. Off Illinois Street, just east of Tribune Tower and just north of the Chicago River, there's a little alley called Peshtigo Street. That's it.

Posted by: Dan at May 18, 2009 12:43 AM

Interesting and kind of cool theory. (manual trackback)

Posted by: Dave E. at May 26, 2009 8:58 PM

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