Tuesday, October 7, 2014

October 8: Anniversary of the day the Midwest caught fire

Currier & Ives lithograph obtained from the Chicago Historical Society

You probably remember that October 8 is the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire.

State and Madison after the Fire
School children are probably not required to memorize the gruesome statistics of the fire anymore, but they are readily accessible on Wikipedia: The fire destroyed an area about four miles long, averaging averaging 3/4 of a mile in width. Roughly 17,500 buildings were destroyed; property damage was estimated at $222 million. One in every three Chicago residents -- roughly 100,000 of the City's total 300,000 population -- was made homeless by the fire. There were 120 bodies recovered after the fire, but authorities estimated the actual death toll at up to 300.

Most folks don't remember this, but the Chicago fire destroyed the records of two Illinois counties -- Cook, of course, but also DuPage. In 1871 Naperville and Wheaton were literally up in arms over which town should be the seat of DuPage County and the county records were removed to Chicago for safekeeping.


And yet -- believe it or not -- the Great Chicago Fire was, in many ways, the smallest of three major fires in the Midwest on October 8, 1871. Over on the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, a number of cities, including such widely scattered burgs as Holland, Manistee, and Port Huron, were damaged or lost entirely in a series of fires collectively referred to as the Great Michigan Fire. There were not as many lives lost in the Michigan fires, but more land and timber was damaged in these fires.

Mass grave at Peshtigo. © Deana C. Hipke.
There may have been 300 people killed in the Great Chicago Fire, but the mass grave shown in this picture, in a picturesque cemetery next to the converted church that serves as the Peshtigo Fire Museum, is the final resting place of roughly 350 unidentified victims of the Peshtigo Fire.

At least 1,200 people died in the Peshtigo Fire, roughly 800 in the town of Peshtigo alone (roughly half the population of the town); the total death toll may have been as high as 2,500. Whole families were wiped out; in many cases there was no one left, after the fire, to remember who'd been lost.

The firestorm was so intense that the flames jumped right across Green Bay, damaging large portions of the Door Peninsula. It also spread into the nearby Upper Peninsula of Michigan, ultimately damaging an area twice the size of Rhode Island.

One area that was not involved in the Peshtigo Fire, though it was in the path of the flames, was the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, in New Franken, Wisconsin.

Many believe that the Virgin Mary appeared at this site on October 9, 1859 to Adele Brise, a young Belgian woman. A church and school were built there because the Virgin told Brise to teach religion to children. According to the website of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay:
When the Peshtigo Fire spread across Green Bay on Oct. 8, 1871, area residents walked around the chapel grounds all night praying the rosary and carrying a statue of Mary. Everything outside that five-acre area was burned.

Every year on Oct. 8 people reenact the procession at the Shrine.
A church was also saved from disaster in Chicago, too, but the story is less impressive.

Fr. Arnold Damen, S.J. founded Holy Family Church in 1860 and St. Ignatius College in 1870 in what was then the middle of nowhere. But that isolated location was uncomfortably close to the infamous O'Leary barn when the Great Chicago Fire broke out, only about 3/4 mile away. Cecil Admams picks up the story in a Chicago Reader Straight Dope column from 2009 (emphasis in original):
When the Great Fire began, the wind was blowing out of the southeast. Holy Family and Saint Ignatius were directly west, and arguably would have escaped the flames had conditions remained unchanged, but Father Damen was taking no chances. In the version of the story I initially heard, he stood on the front porch of Saint Ignatius and prayed to the Almighty to spare his life's work. This was embroidery. In reality his prayer was offered up in Brooklyn, where he was preaching at the time. No matter; the Lord could hear him there just as well. Father Damen vowed that if his prayers were answered, he would keep seven vigil lights burning before an image of the Virgin.

The wind shifted. Formerly it had been driving the fire toward the outskirts of town; now it began to blow out of the southwest, pushing the fire northeast. You see the implications of this. The church and school were saved. Instead, the conflagration burned down the rest of Chicago.
But, Adams adds, the City Council did not hold a grduge: Damen Avenue was eventually renamed in Fr. Damen's honor.

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