On Sunday, October 8, 1871, fire leveled a broad swath of Michigan and Wisconsin, including the cities of Peshtigo, Holland, Manistee, and Port Huron. At least 1,200 people died (possibly twice as many) as a result of the fire. Approximately 800 fatalities occurred in Peshtigo, Wisconsin. That same night, the Great Chicago Fire erupted in nearby Illinois.
Conditions were ripe for major conflagrations that year. Rainfall during the preceding months totaled just one-fourth of normal precipitation; early October was unseasonably warm; and winds were strong. Vast tracts of forest burned for a week in parts of Michigan and Wisconsin and Chicago firefighters battled blazes daily. Contributing to Chicago’s Great Conflagration were the facts that the bustling midwestern city was built primarily of wood and several woodworking industries operated within the city limits.
Holland, Michigan, resident G. Van Schelven witnessed the fire’s advance on his small, prosperous city:
At 2 o’clock in the afternoon the wind turned southwesterly and began gradually to increase. The fire alarm was rung, and from this time on the fighting of the fire all along the timbered tracts south and southwest of the city, was kept up uninterruptedly.
As night advanced the wind increased in force, until at midnight it blew a hurricane, spreading the fire and the flames with an alarming velocity toward the doomed city. The huge bark piles at the Cappen & Bertch tannery in the western and the Third Reformed Church in the southern part of the city, were among the first points attacked; from thence on, the devastating fire fiend had a full and unmolested sway.
“The Burning of Holland, October 9, 1871.” In Collections of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan Together with Reports of County Pioneer Societies. Volume IX: pp334-41. Lansing, Michigan: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford, Co., State Printers, 1908. Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820 to 1910. General Collections
No one knows for certain how the Chicago fire started, though an eyewitness did see the beginnings of the blaze in Catherine and Patrick O’Leary’s barn. One widely circulated rumor held the O’Leary’s cow responsible for knocking over an oil-burning lamp and setting the straw afire. Whatever the cause, chaos resulted as hundreds fled their homes to escape the rapidly spreading flames.
One Chicagoan described his experience on the night of the fire:
I jumped out of bed and pulled on my pants. Everybody in the house was trying to save as much as possible. I tied my clothes in a sheet. With my clothes under my arm and my pack on my back, I left the house with the rest of the family. Everybody was running north. People were carrying all kinds of crazy things. A woman was carrying a pot of soup, which was spilling all over her dress. People were carrying cats, dogs and goats. In the great excitement people saved worthless things and left behind good things. I saw a woman carrying a big frame in which was framed her wedding veil and wreath. She said it would have been bad luck to leave it behind.
[Pack on My Back]. Hilda Polacheck, author; Illinois, 1937-38. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division
By the time the fire was extinguished, 300 Chicagoans were dead, and 90,000 of 500,000 residents were left homeless. Four square miles, including the business district, were completely leveled. Chicago rapidly rebuilt in conformance with new fire regulations. Hosting the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, Chicago again reigned as the “Queen of the West.”
- Consult the database of historic American newspapers, Chronicling America, to find newspaper coverage of the Chicago fire as well as the other fires in the Midwest. Start with Great Chicago Fire of 1871: Topics in Chronicling America to see a selection of articles and tips on searching this extensive collection of digitized newspapers.
- Search across the collections on the words fire engine, fire house, or fire department to see all manner of firefighting equipment, and read stories about other disastrous fires in history.
- Search across the pictorial collections on the keyword fire to access images including fire fighting equipment, firehouses, and fire fighters.
- Search on Chicago fire in the collection Making of America External to access several books on the subject, such as Chicago and the Great Conflagration, by Elias Colbert and Everett Chamberlin (1871) and The lost city! drama of the fire fiend! or Chicago, as it was, and as it is! and its glorious future! a vivid and truthful picture of all of interest connected with the destruction of Chicago and the terrible fires of the great North-west.
- Search the collection Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1870 to 1885 on Chicago Fire to find a variety of songs on the theme.
- Search across the collections on World Columbian Exposition for images and print materials on the World’s Fair. Similarly, search on Chicago to access hundreds of images of the rebuilt city.