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Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History Hardcover – August 2, 2002

4.4 out of 5 stars 56 customer reviews

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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.

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Product Details

  • Series: Wisconsin
  • Hardcover: 251 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1 edition (August 2, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805067809
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805067804
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.1 x 10.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,276,978 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Gary Griffiths on 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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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Paperback
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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By A Customer on August 20, 2002
Format: Hardcover
The fire at Peshtigo has been overlooked for so long. Firestorm at Peshtigo is a wonderfully reseached book, with a great bibliograghy for those wanting to read further on the subject. For those who are interested in the politics and science of the fire, this book is a five star book. However, I'm more interested in the personal accounts and case histories of the people of Peshtigo. Fire at Peshtigo by Robert W. Wells captures more of the the human interest perspective of this monstrous calamity.
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Format: Hardcover
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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