An ominous and quietly thrilling account of the 1871 fire that burned thousands of square miles and likely killed more than 2,000 people in a Wisconsin lumber town.
It had been a long, dry summer, write Gess (Fiction Writing/Univ. of North Carolina) and Lutz (English/Rutgers). Peshtigo stood hard by woods so thick with white pine you had to feel your way through the forest from trunk to trunk. It had more than its fair share of sawdust from the mills; slash, duff, and sap were everywhere. Fires had been cooking throughout the region for weeks before making their way to Peshtigo. They came slithering around the bases of trees, “red-headed and golden-tongued threads, moving fast, coiling back on themselves before they disappeared again, darting under the cedar needles.” Working from newspaper reports, letters, diaries, and meteorological reports, the authors recreate the genesis of the firestorm that exploded in Peshtigo and the surrounding sugar bush, killing more than 1,800 of the town's 2,000 inhabitants and many more in the backcountry. It was a fire so fierce it whipped up a tornado, so incandescent that “hot sand had been spun into a glass sheet around a tree trunk.” Human beings simply spontaneously combusted where they stood. And this thriving town, rich in churches and saloons, jewelers and lawyers, had no fire department. Gess and Lutz do an excellent job of telling the personal stories of numerous town inhabitants, from factory owners to the man and woman on the street, and in chronicling the aftermath, when a plague of army worms and parasitic flies descended on the survivors. Yet they well know the main player was the firestorm, an elemental wild character whose hot breath comes off the page.
Chicago’s more famous fire on the same day overshadowed Peshtigo’s tragedy, but Gess and Lutz restore it to historical memory with an operatic quality it richly deserves.