What’s the worst fire in American history?

Q. Recent fires in California have been much in the news, but I’m wondering about history. What was the worst fire in American history?


A. The deadliest fire in North American history — so far, anyway — took place in 1871 in Wisconsin and Michigan. Centered on the Wisconsin lumber town of Peshtigo, near Green Bay, the blaze killed some 2,500 people and destroyed 1.5 million acres of land. 

As if the conflagration wasn’t bad enough, the victims suffered from the further indignity of going nearly unnoticed by history. The Great Chicago Fire, which started at almost the same time as the Peshtigo blaze, was immediately able to forge a place for itself in the nation’s imagination, thanks to Mrs. O’Learys notorious cow, which, later research shows, never kicked over the lantern that started the Chicago blaze. But popular legend still prefers the O’Leary version.

By contrast, the town of Peshtigo had lost its only telegraph line in the fire and was unable to reach the outside world with its terrible news until days later.

As for Minnesota, the state’s worst fire was not the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894, but the Cloquet Fire of 1918, which burned 250,000 acres and killed an estimated 1,000 people.  Not coincidentally, the Peshtigo, Cloquet and Hinckley fires all started in early fall, following a hot, tinder-dry summer.  

(Internet resources.)


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