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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Phillips Aflame


On Friday, July 27, 1894, the city of Phillips in Price County was wiped off the map.

The summer of 1894 had been much like our current one. Hardly a drop of rain fell between June first and the end of July, with blazing sun and abnormally high temperatures. Phillips was a lumber town, and for miles in every direction all the trees had been cut down. The ground was covered as far as the eye could see with dead branches, dry leaves, and naked stumps.

The horizon was dotted with plumes of smoke from distant forest fires, so residents sprayed as many buildings as possible from their new water main, as a precaution. But it was all in vain. On the afternoon of July 27th their worst fears came true.

The Fire Approaches

Ten miles west of town, a kitchen fire got out of control during a family argument. About 1:00 p.m., smoke could be seen approaching and a crew of volunteers went out to meet the fire in a swamp southwest of the city. They could do nothing against the well-fed inferno, however, and raced back into town to save whatever they could.

The first wave of flame reached downtown about 3:00 p.m. on Friday and cut a swath three blocks wide clear through to the Elk River. As the fire hit the wooden shops, oily tannery, and huge lumber yards, smoke and flames exploded 300 feet into the sky. Some residents fled north, seeking refuge in the river. Others ran south out of town, while some headed directly into the lake, where a dozen eventually died beneath falling ash and clouds of hot smoke.

Lost Cause

To everyone's horror, the first onslaught burned down the city's power plant, making it impossible to pump water. Realizing that nothing now stood between them and the hungry fire, the railroad company hooked up 15 boxcars and carried 2,000 women and children to the town of Prentice, 10 miles down the line.

The residents who remained formed bucket brigades, but they were no match for the blaze, which steadily burned outward in both directions from the center of the city. By 11:00 p.m., nearly every building had been consumed. A lone chimney stood silhouetted against the glowing night sky. Thirteen people had been killed, more than 2,000 were homeless, and virtually all the community's food, shelter, and clothing had been burned up.

Aftermath

In the depth of the night, a light rain began to fall, sizzling in the embers and turning the city into mud.

As the sun came up on Saturday morning, a tiny hand-car could be seen pumping into town with the first relief supplies. About 10:00 a.m., a train arrived from Milwaukee carrying not only food and clothing but also Gov. George Peck, who stayed two days and personally oversaw the distribution of necessities. In the weeks that followed, people all over the state contributed money and tangible goods, and the residents of Phillips began cleaning up.

Within days, temporary shacks had been built for people to live in and a shop dubbed The Calamity Drug Store had opened. The first new permanent building went up in August, and by the following spring the downtown had been largely rebuilt in brick.

On July 27, 1895, residents held a one-year anniversary celebration to thank donors around the state for their help, and to show that Phillips could rise Phoenix-like from its own ashes.

Learn More

These pages from the 1891 Historical and Biographical Album of the Chippewa Valley describe Phillips before the fire.

These two photographs taken from the same spot show downtown Phillips before and after the fire.

Three decades later the Phillips Times ran this retrospective article, which includes many more details.

Other disastrous fires in Wisconsin are listed in the Dictionary of Wisconsin History.


:: Posted in Curiosities on July 25, 2012
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