The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account

By Reverend Peter Pernin

Paperback: $12.95

ISBN: 978-0-87020-310-7

64 pages, 8 illus., 2 maps, 8 b&w photos, 6 x 9 E-book edition available


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On October 8, 1871, a massive firestorm destroyed the small village of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, in the deadliest fire in US history. It engulfed far more than the village after which it is named: 2,400 square miles burned that night, killing families and livestock and burning whole communities to the ground. Local priest Peter Pernin witnessed the devastation. In 1874, Father Pernin first published this dramatic eyewitness account of what happened that day. In no other testimony is the Great Peshtigo Fire so vividly recounted. Pernin's words offer an invaluable and enduring record for historians, scientists, and everyday citizens alike.

Also available: The Great Peshtigo Fire: Stories and Science from America's Deadliest Firestorm, a study of the fire for upper elementary and middle school readers, by Scott Knickelbine.

Reverend Peter Pernin was the Catholic priest in the village of Peshtigo, Wis., and was there on the day of the Great Peshtigo Fire in 1871. He survived to vividly recount the devastation of that day, saving the church's wooden tabernacle, and the Holy Eucharist it contained, by taking it with him in a large wagon. Pernin later served churches in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., and LaCrescent and Winona, Minnesota before his death.

In this excerpt, Peshtigo, Wis., Reverend Peter Pernin describes the fire and how he and others survived The Great Peshtigo Fire in 1874 by throwing themselves in the Peshtigo River.

"Above my head, as far as the eye could reach into space, I saw nothing but flames covering the firmament, rolling one over the other with stormy violence ... clouds driving wildly hither and thither by the fierce power of the tempest."

..."I pushed the persons standing on each side of me into the water. One of these sprang back again with a half smothered cry, murmuring: "I am wet"; but immersion in water was better than immersion in fire. I caught him again and dragged him out with me into the river as far as possible. At the moment I heard a splash of the water along the river's brink. All had followed my example. It was time; the air was no longer fit for inhalation, whilst the intensity of the heat was increasing. A few minutes more and no living thing could have resisted its fiery breath. . . Once in water up to our necks, I thought we would, at least be safe from fire, but it was not so; the flames darted over the river as they did over land, the air was full of them, or rather the air itself was on fire. Our heads were in continual danger. It was only by throwing water constantly over them and our faces, and beating the river with our hands that we kept the flames at bay."

In all, Pernin's detailed account of the disaster and immediate aftermath comprises more than 50 pages.

The Oct. 8, 1871, Great Peshtigo Fire remains the deadliest firestorm in United States history, and even many of those who sought refuge in the river did not escape the deadly heat and flames.

The firestorm happened on the same day as the more famous Chicago Fire but engulfed far more acres and claimed more lives. An estimated 2,500 people throughout an area of more than 2,400 square miles.

In addition to Pernin's account published in this Wisconsin Hisorical Society Press book, the Wisconsin Historical Society also maintains radio interviews done with some of The Great Peshtigo Fire survivors in its sound archives, including this one with Amelia Desrochers, who was 5 at teh time of fire. Listen to an excerpt of her interview in a book trailer video for the companion account of the fire for young readers The Great Peshtigo Fire: Stories and Science from America's Deadliest Firestorm by Scott Knickelbine.