Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History

Overview

“Novelist Denise Gess and historian William Lutz brilliantly restore the event to its rightful place in the forefront of American historical imagination.” —Chicago Sun-Times

On October 8, 1871—the same night as the Great Chicago Fire—the lumber town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, was struck with a five-mile-wide wall of flames, borne on tornado-force winds of one hundred miles per hour that tore across more than 2,400 square miles of land, ...

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Overview

“Novelist Denise Gess and historian William Lutz brilliantly restore the event to its rightful place in the forefront of American historical imagination.” —Chicago Sun-Times

On October 8, 1871—the same night as the Great Chicago Fire—the lumber town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, was struck with a five-mile-wide wall of flames, borne on tornado-force winds of one hundred miles per hour that tore across more than 2,400 square miles of land, obliterating the town in less than one hour and killing more than two thousand people.

At the center of the blowout were politically driven newsmen Luther Noyes and Franklin Tilton, money-seeking lumber baron Isaac Stephenson, parish priest Father Peter Pernin, and meteorologist Increase Lapham. In Firestorm at Peshtigo, Denise Gess and William Lutz vividly re-create the personal and political battles leading to this monumental natural disaster, and deliver it from the lost annals of American history.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
On October 8, 1871, a "tornado of fire" swept through Peshtigo, Wisconsin, killing more than 2,200 people and destroying over 2,400 square miles of forest. The Peshtigo "firestorm" would turn out to be the deadliest blaze in North American history, yet it is little known. Denise Gess and William Lutz ably rectify that with this exciting and gripping account.
From the Publisher
“Another stunning disaster read. Denise Gess and William Lutz strike a pitch-perfect balance between historical detail and writing style.” —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“A heartbreaking narrative history that captures the inferno’s full horror.” —Raleigh News Observer

“Vivid and compelling history.” —The Boston Globe

“A hot read. The story is gripping and ghastly and true.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer

John N. Maclean
A vivid telling of the most spectacular epic in American wildfire. New material and the best of the historical record make for an authoritative, fresh account of an overlooked epic.
author of Fire on the Mountain
From The Critics
People will always associate October 8, 1871, with the Great Chicago Fire, in which 300 people lost their lives. It is barely remembered now that the deadliest fire in American history occurred that same night, 260 miles to the north, in Peshtigo, Wisconsin: In just an hour, 2,000 people burned to death in a cyclone of flames that reduced that logging town to ash. From survivors' letters, diaries and newspaper accounts, Gess and Lutz have pieced together a terrifying account of Peshtigo's last weeks and the many warning signs its residents failed to heed. The great North Woods had been smoldering for months due to an unprecedented drought; where they didn't ignite the dry trees like kindling, flames often traveled literally under the feet of loggers—spreading, silent and unnoticed, under the carpet of pine needles, but filling the air with ominous smoke. The encroaching fires received scant mention in Peshtigo's newspaper, remaining buried amid cheerful community news and advertising. By the time Peshtigo's citizens grasped their peril, there was no way out. This is a riveting and wrenching book about nature's fury, human folly and a forgotten American disaster. Author—Eric Wargo
Eric Wargo
People will always associate October 8, 1871, with the Great Chicago Fire, in which 300 people lost their lives. It is barely remembered now that the deadliest fire in American history occurred that same night, 260 miles to the north, in Peshtigo, Wisconsin: In just an hour, 2,000 people burned to death in a cyclone of flames that reduced that logging town to ash. From survivors' letters, diaries and newspaper accounts, Gess and Lutz have pieced together a terrifying account of Peshtigo's last weeks and the many warning signs its residents failed to heed. The great North Woods had been smoldering for months due to an unprecedented drought; where they didn't ignite the dry trees like kindling, flames often traveled literally under the feet of loggers—spreading, silent and unnoticed, under the carpet of pine needles, but filling the air with ominous smoke. The encroaching fires received scant mention in Peshtigo's newspaper, remaining buried amid cheerful community news and advertising. By the time Peshtigo's citizens grasped their peril, there was no way out. This is a riveting and wrenching book about nature's fury, human folly and a forgotten American disaster.
Publishers Weekly
In American history books, October 8, 1871, marks the massive fire that consumed Chicago. But as Gess (Good Deeds) and Lutz (Doublespeak) document in this thorough historical narrative, it was also the night a fledgling Wisconsin mining town endured a worse fate a story often overlooked in the annals of fire. Peshtigo, with a population of nearly 2,000, was obliterated in less than an hour that night by a freakish convergence of rampant forest fires and tornado-force winds. Gess and Lutz draw on a wealth of local sources, including diaries, interviews with survivors and newspaper accounts, to enliven their story and forge a cast of main characters. While the authors go into far too much detail in describing the town's founding and its politics, they render a chilling, absorbing account of the hellish events of the night itself, perhaps due to Gess's background as a novelist: " `Faster than it takes to write these words' is the phrase every survivor used. They used it to describe the speed of a fireball hitting a house and setting it into instant flames; they used it to describe the speed with which one house was lifted from its foundation, then thrown through the air `a hundred feet' before it detonated midflight and sent strips of flaming wood flying like shrapnel.... They used it to describe the sight of a small boy, separated from his family, and how he knelt to the ground, crouching in prayer before fire lit his body." The images of the catastrophe are often as unpleasant as they are vivid, but readers will sense that they are necessary and that Gess and Lutz have done an overdue service to those who suffered. (Aug.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The same day as the Great Chicago Fire, October 8, 1871, a huge conflagration swept through the lumber town of Peshtigo, WI, north of Green Bay on Lake Superior. A summer's drought, a windy day, and possibly a tornado combined to create a firestorm. The fire destroyed 2400 square miles of timber and farmland, demolishing several towns and killing some 2000 people. Peshtigo was remote, and earlier fires had destroyed telegraph lines, so although the scale of the disaster was considerably larger than Chicago's, the loss was relatively little known and quickly forgotten. Novelist Gess (Red Whiskey Blues) and Lutz (English, Rutgers Univ.; Doublespeak) gather information from letters, diaries, interviews, and local newspapers to tell the story of this disaster. In increasingly overheated language, they re-create the politics, the economic realities of a lumber town, and the special meteorological circumstances that combined to destroy an area larger than Rhode Island. Despite the somewhat turgid writing, this work is mildly recommended for libraries with subject collections in fire prevention, disaster recovery, and regional history. Edwin B. Burgess, U.S. Army Combined Arms Research Lib., Fort Leavenworth, KS Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 breathcomes 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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805072938
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/1/2003
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 435,133
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Denise Gess, author of two critically acclaimed novels, is the visiting assistant professor of fiction writing at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

William Lutz is a professor of English at Rutgers University and the author of fifteen books, including the bestseller Doublespeak. They live in Philadelphia.

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Table of Contents

Dramatis Personae XIII
Prologue 1
Part 1 False Prophets 3
Part 2 Eden Burns 63
Part 3 Revelations 127
Epilogue 221
Afterword 223
Notes 225
Bibliography 243
Acknowledgments 253
Index 257
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2012

    Well written history of a tragic and amazing event

    Firestorm at Peshtigo is a concise but thorough story-telling of the people and events leading up to the fire, during, and after. The authors introduce you to the people and the places involved so that you begin to know them, making this disaster all the more real to the reader. As I read the accounts of people attempting to escape the fire I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat, hoping they would make it - but of course they didn't. They've been dead for 140 years. This book is a historical account of events, but one that puts you in the middle of it. It tells you the scientific and historical facts, but brings the stories of the people affected to life. A great read for anyone who loves history and the human element.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 10, 2008

    5 ALARM BOOK

    This was a very difficult book to put down. It caught my attention from the start. This was an extremely well written account of the fire, it's buildup, and aftermath. The research was phenomenal. In addition to the story I particularly liked the notes section in the back of the book that explained where the authors got their resarch. I was surprised to learn that the information and weather patterns from the Peshtigo firestorm were used as resarch data for the Allied forces during WWII. A must read for anyone who enjoys American history and non-fiction weather related stories.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2010

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