• Zenia Platten

A Peshtigo Chat

I don’t like surprises, and my mama taught me to treat others like I’d like to be treated, so I’m going to go ahead and tell you that I die at the end of this story. The papers aren’t sure how many other people died with me, but they figure it was over a thousand. The Great Peshtigo Fire they called it, though I don’t see much great about it unless they mean in the biblical sense. That’s probably what they mean.

We set it ourselves, though we never thought it would go so out of control. It was October, and we needed to clear farmland before spring. Burning away the forest was the done thing, and it worked well enough up ‘til then, but the winds picked up and took the fire with them. The papers would write that the storm was so strong it picked up rail cars, and though I didn’t see that myself I still half-believe it. Rooves certainly came off houses though, that I did see.

Wisconsin’s usually chilly in October. Not icey, but cool. That year though, 1871, we could still feel a little of summer. There’d been a drought, and with all the slash from clearing the railway and farms left in piles it all started up easily enough.

I say we started it, but that’s just what Mama said. No one knows for sure. It could have

been a stray spark from a train, or a lumberman’s pipe, or even an act of God. I heard a lot of yelling to God that night. A lot of ‘why?’ sent His way. I don’t think it was God. There weren’t no sins in the whole town that could have deserved that.

There are others here, from Chicago, who say they had a fire the same night. Ours was bigger, but theirs is more famous. That’s city types for you though, the center of everything. That’s a little unfair of me, no one knew that Peshtigo was gone until the first couple of survivors wandered into the neighbouring towns.

The fire ate everyone else. There’s a river runs through our town, and it’s got its own bridge. People were pushed so close to one another on that thing that you couldn’t even breathe. Not that you’d’ve wanted to. Nothing but ash in your lungs.

When the bridge broke with the strain dozens of people were dumped in the river. It should have been cold in October, a reprieve from the fire, but that inferno was the work of the devil, and the whole river was hot with it. A lot of people wound up crushed, or burned. The animals came to the river too, when they could. All kicking legs and rolling eyes to add to the confusion.

There’s a woman here, nice lady, used to smile at me on the way to church. She says she was incinerated right where she stood without even the time to fall over. Another pair, brother and sister I reckon, were cooked when they tried to hide from the flames under a metal water trough. Baked through like pie.

Myself? Well, thank you for askin’. I got hemmed in, away from the river, and didn’t fancy feeling the flames. I jumped down the well, thinking I was right clever. Got away from the hail of embers at least. Between that, and the white hot sand being whipped up by the wind, any escape was welcome. Still, boiling alive was not what I would have gone with, had I known.

We had a fella come through a short while ago, one of your folk with the little black books that don’t open. He said that no one had heard about us, even all these years later. Can you believe that? When you die in this sorta way, dramatic like, you at least figure you’ll be remembered.

When we got talkin’ with the new guy, he looked us up in that little book of his – seemed surprised it still had writing in it – and said our fire was the deadliest in American history. So there’s that at least.

Can you do me a favour? Look us up, or come on down and visit Wisconsin. Learn a little so when it’s your time to come visit, we can sit a while. It’d be nice to chat with someone who knew who we were.

Read more about the Peshtigo fires here:

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©2019 by Zenia Platten.