The most fantastic aspect of the Great Chicago Fire is that it was not the worst fire of the era, nor even the worst fire on that particular date. While much of Chicago's central business district was burning, a much larger, more destructive fire was raging at the same hour at Peshtigo, Wisconsin, 250 miles north of Chicago. It devastated 400 square miles and caused more than four times as much human misery as the Chicago fire (2,682 dead versus 250 dead). The Peshtigo fire was the worst fire in U.S. history. It is sometimes called a "forest fire"because the forest is where it started, but its ultimate impact was that it was an urban fire that wiped out not just Peshtigo but 23 other towns as well.
The locus of the tragedy was Peshtigo. Before its immolation Peshtigo was a woodworking town of 2,000 dependent on the bounty of the nearby forests. On the night of October 8, a forest fire propelled by high winds swept through the town, turning it in a matter of minutes into a raging inferno. Brick buildings exploded, people's clothing burst into flames, and trees were consumed down to their roots. Even the river running through the center of town offered no refuge as the heat was so intense it sucked the oxygen out of the air and cooked anything above water.Those citizens who lived to see the dawn on October 9 forever remembered their ordeal as a "night of hell."As for Peshtigo, it had been wiped off the map.Yet the nation's attention and sympathy focused on Chicago, so much so that the governor of Wisconsin had to beg for medical and other forms of aid for the Peshtigo survivors. It was not until weeks later that the full story of the night Peshtigo died was relayed across the country, and by then it was old news.
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