The Peshtigo Fire in Williamsville

Drawing of the Peshtigo Fire, showing people seeking refuge in the Peshtigo River. Image courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society WHS 3728.

The village of Williamsonville was first founded by brothers Fred and Tom Williamson who ran Door County’s largest shingle mill. The village was home to 77 residents and sat on less than 10 acres of land at the time of the fire. Most of the residents were either members of the Williamson family or were employees at the mill.

Of the 77 residents, 60, including Miss Maggie Haney, were killed by the Peshtigo fire. The 17 survivors were left with burnt hands, eyes, and feet. The village they once called home, as well as their family members and friends, were gone.

Williamsonville was never rebuilt after the devastation of the Peshtigo Fire. In 1927, Tornado Memorial Park was established at the site of a well where 7 men hid from the fire tornadoes that ravaged through the village. The fire tornadoes or fire vortices were created by the winds over northeastern Wisconsin at the time of the fire. The vortices contributed greatly to the speed of which the fire spread.

Although the fire was incredibly devastating to those who called Williamsonville home, it also transformed the economy in that region. The area that was once used for lumbering eventually became rich farmland. The fire cleared any remaining forests and opened the land to farmers who were able to grow crops. Today, the Peshtigo Fire is seen as the main cause of southern Door County’s quick transition from lumbering to agriculture. In the 1870 and 1880 censuses of the southern Door County townships most affected by the fire, there were great increases in overall population, number of farmers, and cultivated land area.

Written by Morgan Zdroik


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OBJECT HISTORY: Peshtigo Fire Breastpin

Two Fires


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Object history created July 2020


ADDITIONAL SOURCES:

“Benchmarks: October 8, 1871: The Deadliest Wildfire in American History Incinerates Peshtigo, Wisconsin.” Benchmarks: October 8, 1871: The deadliest wildfire in American history incinerates Peshtigo, Wisconsin | EARTH Magazine. Accessed December 5, 2019. https://www.earthmagazine.org/article/benchmarks-october-8-1871-deadliest-wildfire-american-history-incinerates-peshtigo-wisconsin.

“From First Americans to Euroamericans: The Fire of 1871 and Williamsonville: A 19th Century Euroamerican Settlement in Door County.” Wisconsin Historical Markers. Accessed November 11, 2019. http://www.wisconsinhistoricalmarkers.com/2014/05/from-first-americans-to-euroamericans_64.html.

History.com Editors. “Chicago Fire of 1871.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, March 4, 2010. https://www.history.com/topics/19th-century/great-chicago-fire.

Moran Joseph M. and E. Lee Somerville “Tornadoes of Fire at Williamsonville, Wisconsin, October 8, 1871.” Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters (Volume 78), Carl N. Haywood, 1990. http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/WI/WI-idx?type=turn&entity=WI.WT1990.p0027&id=WI.WT1990&isize=M

National Geographic Society. “The Chicago Fire of 1871 and the ‘Great Rebuilding’.” National Geographic Society, October 15, 2012. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/chicago-fire-1871-and-great-rebuilding/.

Pauly, John J. “The Great Chicago Fire as a National Event.” American Quarterly 36, no. 5 (1984): 668-83. doi:10.2307/2712866.

“Peshtigo Fire.” Wisconsin Historical Society, August 3, 2012. https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS1750.

Peshtigo Fire Museum. Accessed December 5, 2019. http://peshtigofiremuseum.com/.

Peter Pernin. “The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History 54, no. 4 (1971): 246-72. www.jstor.org/stable/4634648.

Skiba, Justin. “The Fire That Took Williamsonville”. doorcountypulse.com, September 2, 2016. https://doorcountypulse.com/fire-took-williamsonville/

US Department of Commerce, and Noaa. “The Peshtigo Fire.” National Weather Service. NOAA’s National Weather Service, November 19, 2015. https://www.weather.gov/grb/peshtigofire.

US Department of Commerce, and Noaa. “The Peshtigo Fire.” National Weather Service. NOAA’s National Weather Service, November 19, 2015. https://www.weather.gov/grb/peshtigofire.