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Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History [Hardcover]

by William Lutz, Denise Gess
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)

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Book Description

August 2, 2002 0805067809 978-0805067804 First Edition
A riveting account of a monster firestorm -- the rarest kind of catastrophic fire -- and the extraordinary people who survived its wrath.

On October 8, 1871 -- the same night as the Great Chicago Fire -- an even deadlier conflagration was sweeping through the lumber town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, 260 miles north of Chicago. The five-mile-wide wall of flames, borne on tornado-force winds of 100 miles per hour, tore across more than 2,400 square miles of land, obliterating Peshtigo in less than one hour and killing more than 2,000 people.

Firestorm at Peshtigo places the reader at the center of the blow-out. Through accounts of newspaper publishers Luther Noyes and Franklin Tilton, lumber baron Isaac Stephenson, parish priest Father Peter Pernin, and meteorologist Increase Lapham -- the only person who understood the unusual and dangerous nature of this fire -- Denise Gess and William Lutz re-create the story of the people, the politics, and the place behind this monumental natural disaster, delivering it from the lost annals of American history.

Drawn from survivors' letters, diaries, interviews, and local newspapers, Firestorm at Peshtigo tells the human story behind America's deadliest wildfire.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In American history books, October 8, 1871, marks the massive fire that consumed Chicago. But as Gess (Good Deeds) and Lutz (Doublespeak) document in this thorough historical narrative, it was also the night a fledgling Wisconsin mining town endured a worse fate a story often overlooked in the annals of fire. Peshtigo, with a population of nearly 2,000, was obliterated in less than an hour that night by a freakish convergence of rampant forest fires and tornado-force winds. Gess and Lutz draw on a wealth of local sources, including diaries, interviews with survivors and newspaper accounts, to enliven their story and forge a cast of main characters. While the authors go into far too much detail in describing the town's founding and its politics, they render a chilling, absorbing account of the hellish events of the night itself, perhaps due to Gess's background as a novelist: " `Faster than it takes to write these words' is the phrase every survivor used. They used it to describe the speed of a fireball hitting a house and setting it into instant flames; they used it to describe the speed with which one house was lifted from its foundation, then thrown through the air `a hundred feet' before it detonated midflight and sent strips of flaming wood flying like shrapnel.... They used it to describe the sight of a small boy, separated from his family, and how he knelt to the ground, crouching in prayer before fire lit his body." The images of the catastrophe are often as unpleasant as they are vivid, but readers will sense that they are necessary and that Gess and Lutz have done an overdue service to those who suffered.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

The same day as the Great Chicago Fire, October 8, 1871, a huge conflagration swept through the lumber town of Peshtigo, WI, north of Green Bay on Lake Superior. A summer's drought, a windy day, and possibly a tornado combined to create a firestorm. The fire destroyed 2400 square miles of timber and farmland, demolishing several towns and killing some 2000 people. Peshtigo was remote, and earlier fires had destroyed telegraph lines, so although the scale of the disaster was considerably larger than Chicago's, the loss was relatively little known and quickly forgotten. Novelist Gess (Red Whiskey Blues) and Lutz (English, Rutgers Univ.; Doublespeak) gather information from letters, diaries, interviews, and local newspapers to tell the story of this disaster. In increasingly overheated language, they re-create the politics, the economic realities of a lumber town, and the special meteorological circumstances that combined to destroy an area larger than Rhode Island. Despite the somewhat turgid writing, this work is mildly recommended for libraries with subject collections in fire prevention, disaster recovery, and regional history. Edwin B. Burgess, U.S. Army Combined Arms Research Lib., Fort Leavenworth, KS
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Series: Wisconsin
  • Hardcover: 251 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; First Edition edition (August 2, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805067809
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805067804
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #924,260 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hell on Earth September 5, 2004
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
While overshadowed by the great Chicago fire which took place on the same day, October 8, 1871, the firestorm that obliterated Peshtigo, Wisconsin was a tragedy of unprecedented proportion - one of those events evoking the reaction "why didn't I know about this"? Aside from the horror of the fire, which literally cannot be described in words (how can one adequately describe the impact of a 1,000 foot-high wall of fire moving at speeds exceeding 100 miles-per-hour), "Firestorm at Peshtigo" offers fascinating insight to life in the north-central timber forests of the mid-nineteenth century, as well as the infant science of meteorology and the physics of a true firestorm. Notwithstanding, the books primary appeal lies in the almost ghoulish detail in which the incomprehensible devastation of the firestorm is drawn. While the final loss of life will never be known, 2,200 deaths is an accepted estimate in a fire that raged over 2,400 square miles - a conflagration so intense that even the soil burned. Given the primitive state of medicine of the day, the limited communications and access to the relatively remote Green Bay area, and the total destruction of the land and infrastructure, one wonders if the survivors of the fire, scarred both physically and mentally by the fire and loss of family and community, weren't the true victims.

In short, a brutally fascinating nugget of American history, proving again that fact is indeed stranger, and in this case, more lurid, than fiction.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fire in the woods March 31, 2004
Galveston, Johnstown, and Peshtigo rank as the greatest `natural' disasters in American history. Excellent books on the first two tragedies are now joined by another great study of the third.
Galveston suffered from a hurricane over one hundred years ago, perhaps 8,000 people died. The dam bursting in Johnston even earlier killed over 2,000 people in western Pennsylvania. The terrible fire that howled through northeastern Wisconsin on October 8, 1871 killed over 1,000 people and, by some estimates, killed more than the flood in Pennsylvania.
Gess and Lutz provide good background to the tragedy. This area of Wisconsin was booming due to the strong demand for lumber and the massive forests that covered the northern half of the state. Times were pretty good and getting better until the summer of 1871, when the lack of rain foretold a horrific fall. In hindsight, the inevitable, terrible combination of wood and fire may have been foreseeable. But not likely preventable.
Fire is an especially nasty force. Combined with extremes in the weather - low pressure, high winds, low humidity, lightning and a tornado - this was an especially pernicious threat and the cause of rapid, terrible death for hundreds and hundreds of poor, unsuspecting, fleeing people, some of them very recent immigrants.
The date of the event, its relatively rural location and the somewhat primitive communication and media of the time makes a complete understanding of the tragedy difficult yet Gess and Lutz work hard and admirably to dig up and re-construct weather reports, personal accounts, old newspapers, and other primary sources of information. There are fifteen pages of detailed and highly readable footnotes and scores of source documents cited.
There is always a tone of overwhelming sadness to such tales. Peshtigo is no exception. But it is fascinating history and well worth reading.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Fire Every American Should Know About August 7, 2002
The moment I picked this book up I couldn't put it down again. I felt the same way about THE HOT ZONE and INTO THIN AIR. It's a gripping account of an event every American should know about. In human terms the Peshtigo fire was the most destructive in our history, very like the Civil War was our most destructive war. Gess and Lutz tell this story in a way to make the reader feel like he or she is present as each moment unfolds. My senses were tuned to the taste and smell of the air and as events began to build I too began to wonder where I could find shelter. This was one of America's greatest tragedies but it would be a bigger tragedy if the victims and their story remain obscure. These people deserve the same attention from us as the victims of 9-11. And one more thought. There are monsterous fires in the news every day. They remind us that nature can overpower our most heroic efforts. This account of Pestigo can to a degree
teach us things we need to prevent it from happening again.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A faithful acount of a true American tragedy July 25, 2002
Some 2,500 people died at Peshtigo and surrounding counties in the terrible firestorm of October 8, 1871. By today's standards, it would have been examined, recorded, and memorialized, but that particular carastrophe was first ignored and then almost completely forgotten. Denise Gess and William Lutz painstakenly reconstruct the events leading to that fateful weekend, and literally bring the reader into that hell on hearth. It should become a required reading for American History students.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This story needed to be told August 7, 2002
This book had much of the same effect on me as Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire. This is a beautiful tribute to the more than 2,500 people who lost their lives in Peshtigo and the surrounding countryside. I always think one of the worst/best things about a good book is that you want more. And I wanted more. I wanted to know all of the people who died and know all the things we don't know. The townspeople who are depicted come alive on the page. The events are related so well, so beautifully, that of course it seems deceptively simple. What happened in October, 1871 is a story so big, so terrible, it needed a wider audience. The people who died,those who were horribly injured, the countless lives that were changed forever deserve to have their story told. And here, it is told honestly,thoughtfully and with attention to research. Peshtigo is also a parable for our times. It is possible lives could have been saved if our actions had been different, if we had not ignored some of the science available at the time.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars "Meine Frau, Meine Frau"
"An old man of seventy-six thrashed on his cot after losing his wife, daughter, son, and eight grandchildren, crying out, 'Meine Frau, Meine Frau.'" (p. Read more
Published 16 days ago by Mike DePue, OFS
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome book to read about our history
Exceptionally well written tragedy. I would highly recommend reading this book, especially if you are into our histories of how communities come together in tragedy.
Published 4 months ago by Kathleen
5.0 out of 5 stars get it
One of those little know but hard to resist stories. Captures what happened admirably. Give it a try and you will get to learn about the other big Midwest fire.
Published 4 months ago by Bob HYN
3.0 out of 5 stars Ok
It was an ok read but was at times a little unevenly constructed. Some of the facts are in error as written The authors state that the U.S. Read more
Published 6 months ago by JimmyLong
5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary
This is a gem. What a tragedy and almost unknown by everyone. Even though I live in Wisconsin I appreciated the detailed maps to comprehend the scope of the fire and tornado.
Published 10 months ago by Roberta H. Matzke
5.0 out of 5 stars very interesting
knowing alittle about the area I found it very informative and interesting. Not one page of boardom.We view our forests differently today
Published 15 months ago by debra wiertalla
5.0 out of 5 stars Firestorm at Peshtigo, Wisconsin
The story of this fire, the biggest in American history, has not been given enough recognition in history. Read more
Published 17 months ago by Mary Meulbroek
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent nonfiction read
I was completely engrossed in this book. I wanted to know more and more. It is an amazing story and is told in a way that keeps you turning the pages. Read more
Published 21 months ago by Maxine B. Jones
5.0 out of 5 stars Little Known Fire Was Worst in History
I searched for this book for three years in bookstores and so was absolutely thrilled when I found it on I ordered it immediately. Read more
Published on December 21, 2011 by Emory Daniels
4.0 out of 5 stars FIRE TSUNAMI
The 1871 Peshtigo fire is one of history's most devastating and puzzling catastrophes. It killed more than any other forest fire has, and it is still not clear just how it was so... Read more
Published on May 21, 2011 by Severin Olson
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