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(authors icon)1918

BETWEEN ONE AND TWO O'CLOCK I left in one of the wagons for Marinette, and after arriving there, sojourned for some time at the residence of one of my parishioners, Mr. F. Garon, receiving under his hospitable roof all the care my condition required.

The two banks of the river respectively named Marinette and Menominee and which, united, formed another parish, were strangely changed in appearance. These two sister towns, one situated on the south and the other on the north side of the river, were no longer recognizable. Life and activity had entirely given place to silence and a species of woeful stupefaction. A few men only were to be seen going backwards and forwards, looking after their property, or asking details concerning the conflagration at Peshtigo from those who had just arrived from that ill-fated spot. No women were to be seen in the streets nor even in the houses, the latter having been abandoned. The children, too, with their joyous outcries and noisy mirth had disappeared from the scene. These shores, a short while since so animated, now resembled a desert, and it was a movement of overwhelming and uncontrollable terror that had created, as it were, this solitude, a terror which dated from the preceding night when the tempest of fire came surging on from Peshtigo, consuming all that part of Marinette that lay in its path. Intelligence of the fate that had overtaken Peshtigo farther increased this general feeling of alarm till it culminated in a perfect panic. Dreading a similar catastrophe to that of Peshtigo, many families hastened towards the Bay, embarking on the steamers, Union, Dunlap, and St. Joseph, which had been kept near the shore so as to afford a refuge to the terrified inhabitants. The consternation was indescribable, and one unfortunate man on arriving panting and breathless at the boat fell dead from fear or exhaustion. These boats afforded anything but a safe place of refuge, for if the conflagration had broken out as suddenly and raged as fiercely as it had done at Peshtigo, nothing could have preserved them from the flames, and the only alternative left to those on board would have been death by fire or water. Fear, however, is generally an untrustworthy counsellor, and the expedients it suggests remarkably ill chosen. The inhabitants of Marinette and Menominee passed the night of October eighth dispersed in the different boats, and it is unnecessary to add that few slept during those hours of strange anxiety. Terror effectually banished slumber, producing the result fear generally does on the Christian soul, turning it instinctively to prayer, even as the terror-stricken child casts itself into the arms of the mother it has summoned to its help. What are we, poor mortals, exposed to the wild fury of the unchained elements, but helpless children? The Catholics present with one accord cast themselves on their knees and prayed aloud, imploring the Ruler of the elements to stay His vengeful arm and spare His people. They prayed without shyness or human respect. Doubtless, there were present those who had perhaps never learned to pray, or who had forgotten how to accomplish that all important duty, and these latter might in other circumstances have felt annoyed at such public manifestations of devotion, but in this hour of common peril, all hearts involuntarily turned towards heaven as their only resource. There were no tokens of incredulity, impiety, or bigotry evinced by any. The Protestants who were present, being unacquainted with the Catholic formula of prayer, could not unite their supplications with those of the latter, but they encouraged them to continue their devotions, and when they paused, solicited them to recommence. Danger is a successful teacher, its influence immediate and irresistible. No reasoning succeeds so quickly in making men comprehend the greatness of God and their own insignificance, His almighty power and their own helplessness. Naught else detaches souls so completely from earth and raises them towards Him on whom we all depend.

The preceding details, furnished by individuals coming and going from the boats, were full of interest to me. During this time I remained with my kind host, Mr. Garon, being too ill even to leave the house. The kind attentions of which I was the object soon restored me in some degree to health. Tuesday evening, I was able to visit several persons who had been injured more or less grievously by fire, and to prepare the dying for their last end, as far as lay in my power, in the total absence of everything necessary on the sad occasion. Feeling strong enough, I resolved to return to Peshtigo on Tuesday night, and commenced my preparations. The clothes I wore had been greatly injured by my long sojourn in the water, and I would have willingly replaced them, but found this impossible. The storekeepers, fearing a similar misfortune to that which had overtaken the merchants of Peshtigo, had packed up the greater part of their merchandise and buried it. I could get nothing save a suit of coarse yellow material such as workmen wear whilst engaged in sawmills. In the absence of something better it had to answer, and about ten o'clock at night I went on board a steamboat about leaving for Green Bay, calling previously, however, at Peshtigo. The night was very stormy, and it was only about daybreak that we ventured to land, the water being very rough when we reached Peshtigo landing, which was about nine or ten in the morning. I remained there only a few hours, during which time I visited the sick beds of several victims of the conflagration.

About one o'clock in the afternoon a car was leaving for Peshtigo, conveying thither men who went daily there for the purpose of seeking out and burying the dead. I took my place with them. The locomotives belonging to the Company, having been burned, were now replaced by horses, and we progressed thus till we came up with the track of the fire. We walked the rest of the way, a distance of half a league, and this gave me ample opportunity for examining thoroughly the devastation and ruin wrought, both by fire and by wind. Alas, much as I had heard on the sad subject, I was still unprepared for the melancholy spectacle that met my gaze.

It is a painful thing to have to speak of scenes which we feel convinced no pen could fully describe nor words do justice to. It was on the eleventh of October, Wednesday afternoon, that I revisited for the first time the site of what had once been the town of Peshtigo. Of the houses, trees, fences that I had looked on three days ago nothing whatever remained, save a few blackened posts still standing, as if to attest the impetuous fury of the fiery element that had thus destroyed all before it. Wherever the foot chanced to fall it rested on ashes. The iron tracks of the railroad had been twisted and curved into all sorts of shapes, whilst the wood which had supported them no longer existed. The trunks of mighty trees had been reduced to mere cinders, the blackened hearts alone remaining. All around these trunks, I perceived a number of holes running downwards deep in the earth. They were the sockets where the roots had lately been. I plunged my cane into one of them, thinking what must the violence of that fire have been, which ravaged not only the surface of the earth, but penetrated so deeply into its bosom. Then I turned my wondering gaze in the direction where the town had lately stood, but nothing remained to point out its site except the boilers of the two locomotives, the iron of the wagon wheels, and the brick and stonework of the factory. All the rest was a desert the desolation of which was sufficient to draw tears from the eyes of the spectator--a desert recalling a field of battle after a sanguinary conflict. Charred carcasses of horses, cows, oxen, and other animals lay scattered here and there.7 The bodies of the human victims--men, women, and children--had been already collected and decently interred--their number being easily ascertained by counting the rows of freshly-made graves. To find the streets was a difficult task, and it was not without considerable trouble that I succeeded at length in ascertaining the site where my house had lately stood. My next care was to look for the spot where I had buried my trunks and other valuables. This I discovered by means of the shovel which I had employed in digging the trench and which I had thrown to a short distance, my task completed. There it still lay, half of the handle burned off, the rest in good order, and I employed it once again to disinter my effects. On moving the sand, a disagreeable odor, somewhat resembling that of brimstone, exhaled from it. My linen appeared at the first glance to be in a state of perfect preservation, having kept even its whiteness, with the exception of the pleats, which were somewhat discolored; but on touching it, it fell to pieces as if the substance had been consumed by some slow, peculiar process, or traversed by electricity. Whilst touching on this subject we may add that many felt a shock of earthquake at the moment that everything on the surface of the earth was trembling before the violence of the hurricane. Here again was a total loss. A few calcined bricks, melted crystal, with crosses and crucifixes more or less destroyed, alone pointed out where my house had once been, while the charred remains of my poor dog indicated the site of my bedroom. I followed then the road leading from my house to the river, and which was the one I had taken on the night of the catastrophe. There, the carcasses of animals were more numerous than elsewhere, especially in the neighborhood of the bridge. I saw the remains of my poor horse in the spot where I had last met him, but so disfigured by the fiery death through which he had passed that I had some difficulty in recognizing him.

The Peshtigo Schoolhouse before the fire

Those who have a horse, and appreciate the valuable services he renders them, will not feel surprised at my speaking twice of mine. There exists between the horse and his master a species of friendship akin to that which unites two friends, and which in the man frequently survives the death of his four-footed companion.

Whilst wandering among the ruins I met several persons, with some of whom I entered into conversation. One was a bereaved father seeking his missing children of whom he had as yet learned nothing. "If, at least," he said to me, with a look of indescribable anguish, "I could find their bones, but the wind has swept away whatever the fire spared." Children were seeking for their parents, brothers for their brothers, husbands for their wives, but I saw no women amid this scene of horror which it would have been almost impossible for them to contemplate. The men I met, those sorrowful seekers for the dead, had all suffered more or less in the battle against wind and fire. Some had had a hand burned, others an arm or side; all were clothed in blackened, ragged garments, appearing, each one from his look of woeful sadness and miserable condition, like a ruin among ruins. They pointed out to me the places where they had found such and such individuals: there a mother lay prone on her face, pressing to her bosom the child she had vainly striven to save from the devouring element; here a whole family, father, mother, and children, lying together, blackened and mutilated by the fire fiend. Among the ruins of the boarding house belonging to the Company, more than seventy bodies were found, disfigured to such a fearful extent that it was impossible to tell either their age or sex. Farther on twenty more had been drawn from a well. One of the workmen engaged in the construction of the church was found, knife in hand, with his throat cut, two of his children lying beside him in a similar condition; while his wife lay a little farther off, having evidently been burned to death. The name of this man was Towsley,8 and during the whole summer he had worked at the church of Peshtigo. Doubtless seeing his wife fall near him, and becoming convinced of the utter impossibility of escaping a fiery death, his mind became troubled, and he put an end to his own existence and that of his children. There were several other similar cases of suicide arising from the same sad causes.

These heartrending accounts, combined with the fearful desolation that met my gaze wherever it turned, froze my veins with horror!

7 All other accounts mention that in addition to the ruins noted by Father Pernin, a partially completed dwelling survived the disaster, one side of which had been burned to cinders while the side facing the fire had not even been scorched. A photograph of the house, showing one of the charred beams which was included in the final construction, appeared in the Milwaukee Journal. October 8, 1951. An appendix to the Wisconsin Assembly Journal of Proceedings, 1873, page 173, lists the following loss in property and livestock: 27 schoolhouses, 9 churches; 959 dwellings; 1,028 barns and stables; 116 horses; 157 working cattle; 266 cows and heifers; 201 sheep; and 306 hogs. The figures undoubtedly are incomplete, since many homesteads were so completely destroyed that no trace of any living thing could be found. The heaviest individual loser was William G. Ogden, the Chicago railroad magnate, who is reputed to have lost three million dollars in the Peshtigo and Chicago fires. Wells, Fire at Peshtigo, 142.

8 Although the implication here is that the bodies were found in Peshtigo, they were actually discovered in the Lower Sugar Bush. In the list of recognized bodies printed in the appendix to the Assembly Journal, 1873, the father is given as C. R. Tousley.

Pernin, Peter. The great Peshtigo fire : an eyewitness account. Madison, Wis.: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1971. Reprinted from the Wisconsin Magazine of History, 54: 246-272 (Summer, 1971).
Copyright © 1971 by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
From the State Historical Society of Wisconsin: Pam 78-4295.

"A new edition of The Great Peshtigo Fire by Reverend Peter Pernin is available from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. The edition includes a foreword by Stephen J. Pyne, new full-color maps, and numerous new illustrations."