In Pictures: The Great Midwest Fires of 1871

1Verifying, not Voyeurism

No image in this slideshow contains gore or excess morbidity. The purpose of this slideshow is not collecting clicks (you’ll notice this article has no ads), but to show the extent of the Great Midwest Fires of 1871, a series of cataclysmic blazes that occurred on October 8th, 1871, yet have been largely forgotten. As in any historic tragedy, all the living can do to honor those lost is to bear witness. And learn.

2The Wrongfully Accused

Illustration from Harper’s Weekly, 1871, blaming an impoverished Irish-Catholic woman, Catherine O’Leary, for the blaze. At the time, anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment burned brightly in America’s heartland.

3Haunting Before and After

“Lake Street from Michigan Ave., Before and After the Fire of 1871”

4Chicago’s Wound

Shocking statistics: >300 dead, 100,000 left homeless, 3.3 square miles of Chicago destroyed.

5Sensationalism as the City Burned

“Orgies in the Doomed City. Men and Boys Drinking from the Casks of a Burning Public-House” (Featured in The Days’ Doings, 1871)

6No Respite in the Peshtigo River

Families fled to the icy river to escape the Peshtigo Fire, but strong winds helped the fire burn across the river, surrounding the victims and trapping them. Many died from hypothermia, freezing in the cold water amidst the blaze.

7Peshtigo, Wisconsin: Afterwards

Only scorched rails and a handful of homes remained after the Peshtigo firestorm burned itself out. And then the dead were counted, with more than 70% of the town’s population gone.

8Peshtigo Traces…

A chunk of scorched lumber that survived the Peshtigo Fire.

9Whole Communities, Gone

Mass grave of unidentified Peshtigo Fire victims, today. Whole families and communities snuffed out, with no one left to identify the dead.

10Statewide Suffering

In order to rebuild towns lost in the Great Michigan Fire, citizens clear-cut the forest around Singapore, Michigan, leaving it a wasteland and causing the surrounding sand to bury the city.

11The Price of Big Business

The deadfall and abandoned trees of the lumber industry in Michigan fed the firestorm, and many of the fire’s victims were loggers, as depicted above.

12Before the Fire

One of the few images of Manistee, Michigan, before the Great Midwest Fires of 1871.