The Great Fire of 1871

               The same time when Chicago burned.

The same fire where Richard Kenny and Bartholomew Kenny lost their farms and houses in Nasewaupee, WI

      Peshtigo Wisconsin


This article is from, "History of Door County, Wisconsin, The County Beautify", by Hjalmar R. Holand, M.A. Volume 1 - Copy write 1917
There is one even in the history of Door County which in the memory of the people of the southern half of the county stands forth like the recollection of a horrible, indescribable nightmare. This is the great fire of Sunday, October 8, 1871, when in the darkness of the night a great torrent of fire descended upon them like the crash of judgment day, which burnt their farms to barrenness and destroyed their homes, forests and lives of their friends and relatives. In describing such a cataclysm of nature, the pen of a later historian is utterly unable to picture the tragic event. To set forth in orderly narrative the bitter terror and suffering of those night hours is as futile as it is to paint a sunset - only those who went through and survived that night of hell can have or give any conception of its horrors.

The year 1871 is unique in our annals for the havoc that was wrought both on sea and land. On land forest fires raged throughout the fall, leveling cities, burning up scores of little settlements in Northern Wisconsin and Michigan and destroying thousands of lives. At Peshtigo more than four hundred men, women and children were burned to death within an hour. Most of these terrible events passed almost unnoticed because they were overshadowed by the greater tragedy of the destruction of Chicago which took place on October 9th.

The summer of 1871 was excessively dry. Cultivated lands became parched and cracked and the swamps dried up. By the middle of September people became very alarmed. Forest fires were raging in many different parts all over the county which could not be put out. The swamps were on fire. Corduroy roads were burning and fences were reduced to ashes. Several mills and many homesteads were from time to time destroyed. No rain came but the fire serpent kept crawling underground, frequently blazing forth, destroying timber which had stood for centuries. The atmosphere all over the county was oppressive to inhale. At night the sight was disheartening. The whole heavens around the horizon were aglow, and the dark red, as seen through the smoky atmosphere, seemed to threaten a greater calamity soon to take place. The days dragged by and the settlers fought the fire as best they could.

Sunday (or "Sadday," as it was afterward termed), October 8th, the morning dawned with no perceptible change. In the afternoon the wind was quite fresh but died down in the evening and an unnatural stillness followed. In a few minutes there came a fierce gust of wind, followed by a loud roaring. In the southwest dense clouds were noticeable. Then a flame shot up quickly followed by many leaping tongues of fire. Soon these flames were almost obliterated however by huge columns of smoke which now and then split apart showing a furnace of fire behind. The terrific roaring of the wind together with the crash of falling trees caused the stoutest hearts to flutter. The night was made more hideous by the startling cries of birds, flying frantically in every direction. Wild animals came bursting into the clearings, with whimpering wolves seeking shelter among the bellowing cattle. People heard, saw and felt the terror of the lawless elements that had engulfed them, screamed with terror and fled in confusion along the highways and into their fields. Then suddenly a whirlwind of flame, in great clouds, from above the tops of the trees, fell upon them enveloping everything. It was an atmosphere of fire. People inhaled it and fell down dead. Almost all, both the victims and the survivors, had but one thought - "it is the destruction of the world!"

This tornado of fire swept up from Brown County, overrunning the towns of Union, Brussels, Forestville, Gardner, Nasewaupee, Clay Banks, and Sturgeon Bay. In Gardner and Nasewaupee a number of big swamps with a thick growth of timber had previously, in September, burned out, leaving large areas where this greater forest fire found but little to feed on. Because of this earlier destruction the fire was hindered and the Village of Sturgeon Bay and the northern towns were saved. The next day, October 9th, the long looked for rain finally came, drenching everything for hours and the fire ceased.

The people of Surgeon Bay had watched with great terror this approaching storm of fire and knew that the smoked wrapped forest country of Brussels and Garnder a terrible calamity had taken place and many must have lost their lives. The people of Sturgeon Bay had finally reached Williamsonville and the sight was the most horrible imaginable! Dead bodies were strew in all directions, and most all were burned beyond recognition. Something like thirty-five laid in one heap! Some had one or both legs burned off; another was minus an arm while still another had the head or other parts burned to a crisp--men, women and children composing the pile. The fleshy portion that that remained un charred was cooked through and when moved would fall to pieces! Added to the most affecting sight was the most unbearable odor that arose from the burned bodies that had been moistened by the drenching rain!

While Williamsonville lost more lives than the other settlement in Door County because of its comparatively large population, the awful scenes that were here enacted were repeated in scores of other places. Throughout almost the entire southern half of the county the fire raged like a hurricane and almost everywhere the humble but superstitious people believed that judgment day had come...The dreadful scene lacked nothing but the sounding of the last trumpet - and, indeed, the approach of the awful roaring and the premonitions from the distance supplied even that to the appalled imagination of the people.

A large list of people were listed below on this article that had lost their lives. Another list that was reported to the Door County Advocate of Oct. 26th, 1871 of loss of property in Door County on the Night of October 8th. In that list was:

Richard Kinney, house and contents, crops and farming tools.
B. Kinney, house and contents.
Wm. Mulvihill, house, barn, and hay.

(Note that there was a long list of casualties and farms that burned)