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Great Fires History


From "Biela's Comet", Humboldt (an 1887 Chicago document):

On the 27th day of February, 1826, (to begin as M. Dumas would commence one of his novels,) M. Biela, an Austrian officer, residing at Josephstadt, in Bohemia, discovered a comet in the constellation Aries, which, at that time, was seen as a small round speck of filmy cloud. Its course was watched during the following month by M. Gambart at Marseilles and by M. Clausen at Altona, and those observers assigned to it an elliptical orbit, with a period of six years and three quarters for its revolution.

M. Damoiseau subsequently calculated its path, and announced that on its next return the comet would cross the orbit of he earth, within twenty thousand miles of its track, and but about one month before the earth would have arrived at the same spot!

This was shooting close to the bull's-eye!

He estimated that it would lose nearly ten days on its return trip, through the retarding influence of Jupiter and Saturn; but, if it lost forty days instead of ten, what then?

But the comet came up to time in 1832, and the earth missed it by one month.

And it returned in like fashion in 1839 and 1846. But here a surprising thing occurred. Its proximity to the earth had split it in two; each half had a head and tail of its own; each had set up a separate government for itself; and they were whirling through space, side by side, like a couple of race-horses, about sixteen thousand miles apart, or about twice as wide apart as the diameter of the earth. 


In 1852, 1859, and 1866, the comet should have returned, but it did not. It was lost. It was dissipated. Its material was hanging around the earth in fragments somewhere. I quote from a writer in a recent issue of the "Edinburgh Review":

 "The puzzled astronomers were left in a state of tantalizing uncertainty as to what had become of it. At the beginning of the year 1866 this feeling of bewilderment gained expression in the Annual Report of the Council of the Royal Astronomical Society. The matter continued, nevertheless, in the same state of provoking uncertainty for another six years. The third period of the perihelion passage had then passed, and nothing had been seen of the missing luminary. But on the night of November 27, 1872, night-watchers were startled by a sudden and a very magnificent display of falling stars or meteors, of which there had been no previous forecast...

But did the earth escape with a mere shower of fireworks?

I have argued that the material of a comet consists of a solid nucleus, giving out fire and gas, enveloped in a great gaseous mass, and a tail made up of stones, possibly gradually diminishing in size as they recede from the nucleus, until the after-part of it is composed of fine dust ground from the pebbles and boulders; while beyond this there may be a still further prolongation into gaseous matter.

Now, we have seen that Biela's comets lost their tails. What became of them?... Did anything out of the usual order occur on the face of the earth about this time?

Yes. In the year 1871, on Sunday, the 8th of October, at half past nine o'clock in the evening, events occurred which attracted the attention of the whole world, which caused the death of hundreds of human beings, and the destruction of millions of property, and which involved three different States of the Union in the wildest alarm and terror.

The summer of 1871 had been excessively dry; the moisture seemed to be evaporated out of the air; and on the Sunday above named the atmospheric conditions all through the Northwest were of the most peculiar character. The writer was living at the time in Minnesota, hundreds of miles from the scene of the disasters, and he can never forget the condition of things. There was a parched, combustible, inflammable, furnace-like feeling in the air, that was really alarming. It felt as if there were needed but a match, a spark, to cause a world-wide explosion. It was weird and unnatural. I have never seen nor felt anything like it before or since. Those who experienced it will bear me out in these statements. 

At that hour, half past nine o'clock in the evening, at apparently the same moment, at points hundreds of miles apart, in three different States, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois, fires of the most peculiar and devastating kind broke out, so far as we know, by spontaneous combustion.

peshtigo-fire-1871.jpg (127581 bytes) In Wisconsin, on its eastern borders, in a heavily timbered country, near Lake Michigan, a region embracing four hundred square miles, extending north from Brown County, and containing Peshtigo, Manistee, Holland, and numerous villages on the shores of Green Bay, was swept bare by an absolute whirlwind of flame. There were seven hundred and fifty people killed outright, besides great numbers of the wounded, maimed, and burned, who died afterward. More than three million dollars' worth of property was destroyed [See "History of the Great Conflagration" Sheahan & Upton, Chicago 1871, pp 393, 394, etc.].

 It was no ordinary fire. I quote:

"At sundown there was a lull in the wind and comparative stillness. For two hours there were no signs of danger; but at a few minutes after nine o'clock, and by a singular coincidence, precisely the time at which the Chicago fire commenced, the people of the village heard a terrible roar. It was that of a tornado, crushing through the forests. Instantly the heavens were illuminated with a terrible glare. The sky, which had been so dark a moment before, burst into clouds of flame. 

A spectator of the terrible scene says the fire did not come upon them gradually from burning trees and other objects to the windward, but the first notice they had of it was a whirlwind of flame in great clouds from above the tops of the trees, which fell upon and entirely enveloped everything. The poor people inhaled it, or the intensely hot air, and fell down dead. This is verified by the appearance of many of the corpses. They were found dead in the roads and open spaces, where there were no visible marks of fire near by, with not a trace of burning upon their bodies or clothing. At the Sugar Bush, which is an extended clearing, in some places four miles in width, corpses were found in the open road, between fences only slightly burned. No mark of fire was upon them; they lay there as if asleep. This phenomenon seems to explain the fact that so many were killed in compact masses. They seemed to have huddled together, in what were evidently regarded at the moment s the safest places, far away from buildings, trees, or other inflammable material, and there to have died together [Ibid 372].

 Another spectator says:

"Much has been said of the intense heat of the fires which destroyed Peshtigo, Menekaune, Williamsonville, etc., but all that has been said can give the stranger but a faint conception of the reality. The heat has been compared to that engendered by a flame concentrated on an object by a blow-pipe; but even that would not account for some of the phenomena. For instance, we have in our possession a copper cent taken from the pocket of a dead man in the Peshtigo Sugar Bush, which will illustrate our point. This cent has been partially fused, but still retains its round form, and the inscription upon it is legible. Others, in the same pocket, were partially melted, and yet the clothing and the body of the man were not even singed. We do not know in what way to account for this, unless, as is asserted by some, the tornado and fire were accompanied by electrical phenomena" [Ibid 373].

"It is the universal testimony that the prevailing idea among the people was, that the last day had come. Accustomed as they were to fire, nothing like this had ever been known. They could give no other interpretation to this ominous roar, this bursting of the sky with flame, and this dropping down of fire out of the very heavens, consuming instantly everything it touched.

"No two give a like description of the great tornado as it smote and devoured the village. It seemed as if 'the fiery fiends of hell had been loosened,' says one. 'It came in great sheeted flames from heaven,' says another. 'There was a pitiless rain of fire and *sand*.' 'The atmosphere was all afire.' Some speak of 'great balls of fire unrolling and shooting forth in streams_.' The fire leaped over roofs and trees, and ignited whole streets at once. No one could stand before the blast. It was a race
with death, above, behind, and before them" [Ibid 374].

A civil engineer, doing business in Peshtigo, says:

"The heat increased so rapidly, as things got well afire, that, when about four hundred feet from the bridge and the nearest building, I was obliged to lie down behind a log that was aground in about two feet of water, and by going under water now and then, and holding my head close to the water behind the log, I managed to breathe. There were a dozen others behind the same log. If I had succeeded in crossing the river and gone among the buildings on the other side, probably I should have been lost, as many were."

In Michigan, one Allison Weaver, near Port Huron, determined to remain, to protect, if possible, some mill-property of which he had charge. He knew the fire was coming, and dug himself a shallow well or pit, made a thick plank cover to place over it, and thus prepared to bide the conflagration.

I quote:

"He filled it nearly full of water, and took care to saturate the ground around it for a distance of several rods. Going to the mill, he dragged out a four-inch plank, sawed it in two, and saw that the parts tightly covered the mouth of the little well. 'I kalkerated it would be tech and go,' said he, 'but it was the best I could do.' At midnight he had everything arranged, and the roaring then was awful to hear. The clearing was ten to twelve acres in extent, and Weaver says that, for two hours before the fire reached him, there was a constant flight across the ground of small animals. As he rested a moment from giving the house another wetting down, a horse dashed into the opening at full speed and made for the house. Weaver could see him tremble and shake with excitement and terror, and felt a pity for him. After a moment, the animal gave utterance to a snort of dismay, ran two or three times around the house, and then shot off into the woods like a rocket."

"Not long after this the fire came. Weaver stood by his well, ready for the emergency, yet curious to see the breaking-in of the flames. The roaring increased in volume, the air became oppressive, a cloud of dust and cinders came showering down, and he could see the flame through the trees. It did not run along the ground, or leap from tree to tree, but it came on like a tornado, _a sheet of flame reaching from the earth to the tops of the trees_. As it struck the clearing he jumped into his well, and closed over the planks. He could no longer see, but he could hear. He says that the flames made no halt whatever, or ceased their roaring for an instant, but he hardly got the opening closed before the house and mill were burning tinder, and both were down in five minutes. The smoke came down upon him powerfully, and his den was so hot he could hardly breathe.

"He knew that the planks above him were on fire, but, remembering their thickness, he waited till the roaring of the flames had died away, and then with his head and hands turned them over and put our the fire by dashing up water with his hands. Although it was a cold night, and the water had at first chilled him, the heat gradually warmed him up until he felt quite comfortable. He remained in his den until daylight, frequently turning over the planks and putting out the fire, and then the worst had passed. The earth around was on fire in spots, house and mill were gone,
leaves, brush, and logs were swept clean away as if shaved off and swept with a broom, and nothing but soot and ashes were to be seen" [Ibid 390].

In Wisconsin, at Williamson's Mills, there was a large but shallow well on the premises belonging to a Mr. Boorman. The people, when cur off by the flames and wild with terror, and thinking they would find safety in the water, leaped into this well. "The relentless fury of the flames drove them pell-mell into the pit, to struggle with each other and die - some by drowning, and others by fire and suffocation. None escaped. Thirty-two bodies were found there. They were in every imaginable position; but the contortions of their limbs and the agonizing expressions of their faces told the awful tale" [Ibid 386].

The recital of these details, horrible though they may be, becomes excusable when we remember that the ancestors of our race must have endured similar horrors in that awful calamity which I have discussed in this volume.

James B. Clark, of Detroit, who was at Uniontown, Wisconsin, writes:

"The fire suddenly made a rush, like the flash of a train of gunpowder, and swept in the shape of a crescent around the settlement. It is almost impossible to conceive the frightful rapidity of the advance of the flames. The rushing fire seemed to eat up and annihilate the trees."

They saw a black mass coming toward them from the wall of flame:

"It was a stampede of cattle and horses thundering toward us, bellowing, moaning, and neighing as they galloped on; rushing with fearful speed, their eyeballs dilated and glaring with terror, and every motion betokening delirium of fright. Some had been badly burned, and must have plunged through a long space of flame in the desperate effort to escape.

Following considerably behind came a solitary horse, panting and snorting and nearly exhausted. He was saddled and bridled, and, as we first thought, had a bag lashed to his back. As he came up we were startled at the sight of a young lad lying fallen over the animal's neck, the bridle wound around his hands, and the mane being clinched by the fingers. Little effort was needed to stop the jaded horse, and at once release the helpless boy. He was taken into the house, and all that we could do was done; but he had inhaled the smoke, and was seemingly dying. Some time
elapsed and he revived enough to speak. He told his name - Patrick Byrnes - and said: 'Father and mother and the children got into the wagon. I don't know what became of them. Everything is burned up. I am dying. Oh! is hell any worse than this?'" [Ibid 383]

When we leave Wisconsin and pass about two hundred and fifty miles eastward, over Lake Michigan and across the whole width of the State of Michigan, we find much the same condition of things, but not so terrible in the loss of life. Fully fifteen thousand people were rendered homeless by the fires; and their food, clothing, crops, horses, and cattle were destroyed. Of these five to six thousand were burned out the same night that the fires broke out in Chicago and Wisconsin. The total destruction of property exceeded one million dollars; not only villages and cities,
but whole townships, were swept bare.

But it is to Chicago we must turn for the most extraordinary results of this atmospheric disturbance. It is needless to tell the story in detail. The world knows it by heart:

"Blackened and bleeding, helpless, panting, prone,
 On the charred fragments of her shattered throne,
 Lies she who stood but yesterday alone."

I have only space to refer to one or two points,

The fire was spontaneous. The story of Mrs. O'Leary's cow having started the conflagration by kicking over a lantern was proved to be false. It was the access of gas from the tail of Biela's comet that burned up Chicago!

The fire-marshal testified: "I felt it in my bones that we were going to have a burn."  He says, speaking of O'Leary's barn:

"We got the fire under control, and it would not have gone farther; but the next thing I knew they came and told me that St. Paul's church, about two squares north, was on fire" [Ibid 163].

They checked the church-fire, but - "The next thing I knew the fire was in Bateham's planing-mill."

A writer in the New York "Evening Post" says he saw in Chicago "buildings far beyond the line of fire, and in no contact with it, burst into flames from the interior."

It must not be forgotten that the fall of 1871 was marked by extraordinary conflagrations in regions widely separated. On the 8th of October, the same day  the Wisconsin, Michigan, and Chicago fires broke out, the States of Iowa, Minnesota, Indiana, and Illinois were severely devastated by prairie-fires; while terrible fires raged on the Alleghenies, the Sierras of the Pacific coast, and the Rocky Mountains, and in the region of the Red River of the North.

"The Annual Record of Science and Industry" for 1876, page 84, says:

"For weeks before and after the great fire in Chicago in 1872, great areas of forest and prairie-land, both in the United States and the British Provinces, were on fire."

The flames that consumed a great part of Chicago were of  an unusual character and produced extraordinary effects. They absolutely melted the hardest building-stone, which had previously been considered fire-proof. Iron, glass, granite, were fused and run together into grotesque conglomerates, as if they had been put through a blast-furnace. No kind of material could stand its breath for a moment.

I quote again from Sheahan & Upton's work:

"The huge stone and brick structures melted before the fierceness of the flames as a snow-flake melts and disappears in water, and almost as quickly. Six-story buildings would take fire and disappear for ever from sight in five minutes by the watch... The fire also doubled on its track at the great Union Depot and burned half a mile southward in the very teeth of the gale - a gale which blew a perfect tornado, and in which no vessel could have lived on the lake... Strange, fantastic fires of blue, red, and green played along the cornices of buildings" ["History of the
Chicago Fire" 85, 86].

Hon. William B. Ogden wrote at the time:  "The fire was accompanied by the fiercest tornado of wind ever known to blow here" [Ibid 87].

"The most striking peculiarity of the fire was its intense heat. Nothing exposed to it escaped. Amid the hundreds of acres left bare there is not to be found a piece of wood of any description, and, unlike most fires, it left nothing half burned... The fire swept the streets of all the ordinary dust and rubbish, consuming it instantly" [Ibid 119].

The Athens marble burned like coal!

"The intensity of the heat may be judged, and the thorough combustion of everything wooden may be understood, when we state that in the yard of one of the large agricultural-implement factories was stacked some hundreds of tons of pig-iron. This iron was two hundred feet from any building. To the south of it was the river, one hundred and fifty feet wide. No large building but the factory was in the immediate vicinity of the fire. Yet, so great was the heat, that this pile of iron melted and run, and is now in one large and nearly solid mass" [Ibid 121].

The amount of property destroyed was estimated by Mayor Medill at one hundred and fifty million dollars; and the number of people rendered houseless, at one hundred and twenty-five thousand. Several hundred lives were lost.

(From )

"What eyewitnesses described was more like a holocaust from heaven than an accidental fire started by a nervous cow. And in fact, according to a theory propounded by Minnesota Congressmen Ignatius Donnelly, the devastating fires of 1871 did fall from above, in the form of a wayward cometary tail. During it's 1846 passage, Biela's comet had inexplicably split in two; it was supposed to return in 1866, but failed to appear. Biela's fragmented head finally showed up in 1872 as a meteor shower.

"Donnelly suggested the separated tail appeared in 1871 and was the prime cause of the widespread firestorm that swept the Midwest, damaging or destroying a total of twenty-four towns and leaving 2,000 or more dead in its wake. Drought conditions that fall no doubt contributed to the extent of the conflagration.

"History today concentrates on the Chicago Fire alone and largely overlooks the Peshtigo Horror, as it was then called. It ignores altogether Biela's comet and it's unaccounted-for tail.

(from )


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