PESHTIGO (NBC 26) — It was the deadliest fire in U.S history. On October 8th, 1871, the Peshtigo Fire devastated northeast Wisconsin. Now, almost 150 years later, the Peshtigo Fire Museum is keeping the memory of that day alive.
"There had been drought-ridden years prior to that and it wasn't just Wisconsin. It was Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota," said museum curator Helene McNulty. "That night a windstorm came from the southwest. They believe it was the same weather system that was going to the Chicago area."
It was the same windstorm that caused the Great Chicago Fire. But while Chicago immediately began receiving aid, the damage done to northeast Wisconsin was far more extensive.
"The Chicago area lost about 300 people. We lost anywhere from 1,200 to 2,000 people. We will never know the exact amount," McNulty said.
The fire spread into the Upper Pennisula of Michigan and to southern parts of Door County. In total, 1.3 million acres of land were devastated by the fire.
According to the U.S census, the year prior in 1870 there were 1,750 people in the populous of Peshtigo. Historians believe only about 800 people survived the fire. Those who did survive mainly did so by seeking safety in the Peshtigo River.
"There was nothing once they came out of the river," McNulty said. "If they saved their lives, they came out to nothing just piles of ashes."
Now, the Peshtigo Fire Museum is keeping this part of Peshtigo's history alive. The museum, which is located at the first church that was rebuilt in Peshtigo after the fire, is also the site of a mass grave for 350 victims of the fire who couldn't be identified.
Museum curators say some have traced their ancestors who were lost in the fire.
“We get quite a lot of people that are interested in genealogy and things like that," said museum curator Paige Frappier-Potkay. "They will come here and they will even leave flowers. I’ve noticed that when I walk into work I see flowers left just silently. A lot of people will come in here on their own.”
Curators say they hope to honor the memory of the victims whose names we’ll never know.
"We'll never know those people's names," Frappier-Potkay said. "We won't know their stories or their faces but it's sort of a symbolic gesture to say that those people were here and they lived here and we're honoring them by having that here for them."