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The most devastating fire in United States history is ignited in Wisconsin on this day in 1871. Over the course of the next day, 1,200 people lost their lives and 2 billion trees were consumed by flames. Despite the massive scale of the blaze, it was overshadowed by the Great Chicago Fire, which began the next day about 250 miles away.
Peshtigo, Wisconsin, was a company lumber and sawmill town owned by William Ogden that was home to what was then one of the largest wood-products factories in the United States. The summer of 1871 was particularly dry across the northern Midwest. Still, settlers continued to set fires, using the “slash and burn” method to create new farmland and, in the process, making the risk of forest fire substantial. In fact, the month before had seen significant fires burn from Canada to Iowa.
Peshtigo, like many Midwestern towns, was highly vulnerable to fire. Nearly every structure in town was a timber-framed building–prime fuel for a fire. In addition, the roads in and out of town were covered with saw dust and a key bridge was made of wood. This would allow a fire from outside the town to easily spread to Peshtigo and make escaping from a fire in the town difficult. On September 23, the town had stockpiled a large supply of water in case a nearby fire headed in Peshtigo’s direction. Still, they were not prepared for the size and speed of the October 7 blaze.