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Great Fire mural.
Great Fire mural.

Great Peshtigo Fire Museum and Mass Grave

Field review by the editors.

Peshtigo, Wisconsin

America's worst recorded forest fire ripped through the northeastern Wisconsin town of Peshtigo (and 2,400 square miles of surrounding woods) on the night of October 8, 1871. Called a "fire cyclone," the Great Peshtigo Fire killed half the town residents -- estimates of at least 800 souls -- and destroyed all of its 800 buildings. When people build a town in a forest, most of it is made of wood. The fire raged until it burned out naturally, consuming a million acres (with fatalities, including nearby villages, totaling at least 1,500).

Sculpture outside the museum.
Sculpture outside the museum.

This horrible tragedy is barely known outside the area though, due in part to a bizarre coincidence: that same night in 1871 is when the Great Chicago Fire (of clumsy cow fame) occurred, effectively sucking up the firestorm of media coverage.

Today what remains in Peshtigo is a historical marker, a well-marked mass grave of 350 unidentified victims, other fire victim graves, and a small museum in an old church. We've been inside the museum and recall seeing a glass cabinet of charred artifacts, some period photos and newspaper clippings, and a painted triptych providing before-during-after views of Peshtigo life and death-styles.

Helpful sign at the cemetery.
Helpful sign at the cemetery.

A drug store in town, Peshtigo Pharmacy, Crafts and Gifts, has an elaborate fire mural running around the interior of the building over the dental hygiene aids. That may still be there, and when the museum is closed it's a good alternative stop during business hours.

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Also see: Great Hinckley Fire

Great Peshtigo Fire Museum and Mass Grave

Peshtigo Fire Museum

400 Oconto Ave., Peshtigo, WI
Peshtigo Fire Museum. From US-41 coming from the south, turn left on Ellis Avenue. The museum is at the corner of Ellis and Oconto with the cemetery adjacent. Several signs in the town point the way.
Museum: May-Oct. daily 10-4. Cemetery gated after hours. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Free, donations welcome.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
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In the region:
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