(PCM) Over the years all of us have surely heard some version of the story about how the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 broke out. The devastating blaze killed more than 250 people, left over 100,000 homeless, destroyed 17,400 buildings and burned more than 2,000 acres of land, but did you know that the Great Chicago Fire was not the deadliest blaze to break out on that fateful day of October 8.
While the Great Chicago Fire is the most well-known blaze to start on this day there was actually a bigger and more deadly fire that broke out in Northeast Wisconsin. The Peshtigo Fire also broke out on October 8, 1871 and has been referred to as the most devastating forest fire in American history. The Peshtigo fire killed 1,152 people, burned through 16 towns and over 1.2 million acres of land before it was finally extinguished.
There are many legends about how both of these fires actually began, as the popular story of Mrs. O’Leary’s jumpy milking cow kicking over a bucket started the Great Chicago Fire or that railroad workers clearing land for new tracks unintentionally started a brush fire that led to the Peshtigo blaze. Others lean towards the myth that a very large and fiery meteorite fell from the sky on this day, hence explaining why deadly blazes popped up not only in Chicago and Wisconsin, but in parts of Michigan as well.
The Holland Fire, the Port Huron Fire, and the Manistee Fire all broke out in Michigan on the night of October 8th. Drought like conditions in the area are to blame for these three fires spreading much the same way as both the Great Chicago Fire and Peshtigo as well. The Holland, Port Huron, and Manistee fires were also rumored to be sparked from debris left around by railroad workers that were ignited.
While the Michigan fires did not reach the same devastation level as both Chicago and Peshtigo, they are each responsible for the deaths of between 50 to 100 people. However, due to the fact that the blaze too place in the Michigan wilderness, the true death toll was unable to be completely determined and some say that closer to 1,000 people lost their lives.
The survivors of the Great Chicago Fire, the Michigan fires and the Peshtigo fire never forgot what they’d been through; both blazes produced countless tales of bravery and heroism. But the fires also changed the way that firefighters and public officials thought about fire safety. On the 40th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, the Fire Marshals Association of North America (today known as the International Fire Marshals Association), decided that the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire should be observed not with festivities, but in a way that would keep the public informed about the importance of fire prevention. The commemoration grew to be official over the years and this spurned the birth of National Fire Prevention week as we know it today!