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Denise Gess is the visiting assistant professor of fiction writing at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

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Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Professor [Rowan University]



A little slow taking off, but gets better after Chapter 8 when the fire begins. The author does a pretty good job describing a play by play of what people were doing the minute up to the fire when they realized they had to run. The stories were collected from a variety of sources, which are all listed in the “Notes” section at the back of the book for further reading if interested. There are photos of a few of the survivors and town officials who played a huge part in the recovery efforts.

This fire was part of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which was the main headlines in all the newspapers. It destroyed “America’s” town and killed around 300 people. Chicago boasted that this was the greatest fire in history; therefore, they received the majority of the news coverage.

But, the greater hell was in Peshtigo and the surrounding towns in Wisconsin where thousands of people lost their lives, survivors witnessed their loved ones, friends and neighbors burned alive in an instant. And those who made it to the river, burned and drowned in the river. Those who walked out of the river were badly burned. Of Peshtigo's 2000 residents, approximately 1,800 of them died on that day. All their stories are collected in these pages. Plus, more people died in the surrounding towns. The exact number of people who died will never be known. Charred remains were found even a few years after the fire. There was no official count ever taken.

It was always snowing ashes from the fires all around. The people were somewhat accustomed to this kind of atmosphere. In 1871, new arrivals were constantly clearing their land and burning the timber. This created a constant haze of smoke polluted air. Citizens walked around with hankies over their noses and mouths. They were constantly fighting off small fires that ignited here and there and were only a little more concerned when the snow of ash became so heavy, one couldn’t see their neighbors face. This was the norm for the lumber mill town of Peshtigo.

What they couldn’t see was the sleeping giant burning between Chicago and Michigan. When the low pressure from Galveston and the cold front from Canada merged over Lake Michigan area, it turned all the clearing fires and other surrounding raging fires into one great firestorm, much like an atomic bomb, with temperatures reaching up to at least 1800 degrees and fire tornadoes with speeds up to 100 mph.
… (més)
MissysBookshelf | Hi ha 9 ressenyes més | Aug 27, 2023 |
I had never heard of Peshtigo, Wisconsin before reading this book, and now I will never forget it or its people. A friend lent me this book as we struggled to come to grips with the 3rd huge fire in less than 2 years to ravage California; and two of those fires had burned homes of my extended family.
In 1871 the Peshtigo fire destroyed the town, farms, forests, and parts of Chicago, even burning towns into Canada. But what most people remember is only the Chicago Fire. The loss of life was immeasurable; some accounts were over 2500 men, women and children perished. The survivors not only dealt with recovering from horrific burns, they also had nothing to come back to having lost members of their families and their homes. The town of Peshtigo was built around a farming community whose main industry was lumber, and the forests were plentiful—huge trees, by lakes, rivers to move the logs. Railroads being built, telegraph lines, new roads being cleared; but the push for rapid expansion left waste like sawdust, and timber piles in a town where everything was made out of wood, even the sidewalks. This created hazards, which were helped by a long drought and extreme weather conditions that ignited a devastating firestorm. So many things contributed to the fire, but only a few saw the danger, and those few had only small pieces of the bigger picture. It is good that we have their accounts, because a lot of what we know now about fires, weather, and fire science came from those few people. Unfortunately we are still making mistakes when it comes to helping people recover after these types of disasters. The authors did a magnificent job telling this part of America’s history, it is well researched and the writing isn’t boring or cumbersome: I was pulled in and touched emotionally, so I’m strongly recommending it with a little caution because there are some graphic accounts about the people and animals in the fire. 4 stars… (més)
PamelaBarrett | Hi ha 9 ressenyes més | May 4, 2018 |
I started reading this over Labor Day weekend of 2017. That seemed appropriate, because some idiot 15 year old with firecrackers had just started a fire on the beloved Eagle Creek trail in the Columbia River Gorge. Similar conditions prevailed - a long hot summer, near record drought, and the air choked with smoke all summer from fires all around the area. Reading this book with smoke in the air, and with daily updates on the Eagle Creek fire and other fires on inciweb, made the Peshtigo story even more vivid.

Having obliterated the forests of the northeastern US, after the civil war the logging industry moved into the upper Midwest in pursuit of Pinus strobus, eastern white pine. Business interests promoted the development of railroads through the region. After cutting their way through the dense forest, the railroad crews would pile the logs and slash alongside the rail line, and burn them. The summer of 1871 was exceptionally hot and dry, and people who worked in the woods had been reporting fires burning on the ground in the peat.

Many of the settlers in the area were recent immigrants, living in homesteads scattered across the area. Lacking the communication technologies and the weather forecasts we take for granted today, they had no warning of the approaching disaster. Something ignited a larger fire, and tornado strength winds devastated a wide area, killing approximately 250 people in Chicago and an estimated 2500 in the area around Peshtigo. The authors combine news stories from the time, family histories, and interesting tangents into early weather forecasting and other topics, to make this a compelling story.
… (més)
oregonobsessionz | Hi ha 9 ressenyes més | Oct 16, 2017 |
Four generations on its hard to reconstruct what happened that fall in eastern Wisconsin just north of Green Bay; this is a pretty good effort. Its the personal accounts and remarks that make it a gripping horror story. Though it has three maps, and a list of principal players, there are many others mentioned and not all of them are identified by the places they lived or worked, so it was still confusing. Ms. Gess organized the narrative in chronological order. She started with August, and I think the tension would have built better in late September, if the fire date of October 8, 1871, had been shared with the readers earlier. I got tired of reading quotes of silly newspaper boosterisms, and advertisments. The photos of the woodworks, if placed earlier in the book, would have helped erase the image of Peshtigo being a woodsy parallel of a one-horse town.

I did however totally relate to the mentality of the pioneers -- lumbermen, immigrants, and farmers like my uncle. How did anyone manage to avoid the flames during that terrible hot, dry, smoky summer and fall? Scary how close my ancestors were to the firestorm. Fifty years on, the mere whiff of smoke from a wildfire anywhere in northern Wisconsin, and a town would be deputized and mobilized to put out the flames-- shirking the call would be cause for immediate arrest. The State's fire fighting command center was in my hometown and we knew many employed there full time. Like Peshtigo, my hometown is surrounded by bogs and peat marshes, with a river running through it. Clearly the State's attitudes and measures were a response to the disaster -- how long did it take to get organized? If the humus was burnt out over two feet below the surface, what has happened since? How long before it was viable? What's there today?

The conclusion: the weather, drought, topography, and the continued presence of unchecked fires that fall, all combined to generate the firestorm. I would have liked more details on topography, and a better description of just what "Sugar Bush" is like, what the Peshtigo River was like .. how big, how wide,.. and most of all, where were the peat bogs that caught fire earlier and never went out? Nothing illustrated what was going on better than the descriptions by survivors of lines of wooden fenceposts spontaneously bursting into flames like giant matchsticks. It is still common for farmers to build a "root cellar" near the house to store potatoes, carrots, cabbage, in the winter.. a cool place, normally. But with the sod and peat underneath them on fire, they could literally turn into oxygen-less ovens.

Even being from Wisconsin, with immigrant grandparents who were loggers and farmers whose children grew up just to the west of Peshtigo, I didn't know the story. The biggest surprises: the connection between Chicago, and Peshtigo -- the first mayor of Chicago was the principal investor in the sawmill, logging and woodworking businesses in Peshtigo. There is scarcely a mention of the Menominee peoples who lived there before the white settlers moved in. Surely there would be stories from that community that would have been passed on even if they didn't have a newspaper, and finally, I found it creepy that during WWII that the military studied firestorms so they could create them in Germany and Japan.
… (més)
Lace-Structures | Hi ha 9 ressenyes més | Sep 13, 2015 |


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