Sunday, October 09, 2011

"One Night -- Two Catastrophes"

Was the Great Chicago Fire on the night of Oct. 8, 1871, really caused by one of Kate O'Leary's cows knocking over a lantern? One hundred and 40 years later, that question remains the topic of sometimes-heated debate, at least in Illinois.

Three hundred Chicagoans died in the conflagration, and an additional 90,000 were left homeless, putting the Windy City tragedy in record books as one of the nation's worst disasters.

In an eerie quirk of fate, an inferno of even greater proportions was visited upon a village 250 miles to the north that same evening. As many as 1,200 people were killed when a massive forest fire swallowed up tiny Peshtigo. Unlike the Great Chicago Fire, the tale of the catastrophe in the remote north woods of Wisconsin is a historical footnote. Some label it America's "forgotten fire." A modern sculpture depicting flames is installed outside the Peshtigo Fire Museum, which commemorates the catastrophe 140 years ago.

(Jay Jones)

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