Chapter 2: Sunday, October 8


The air was again full of smoke. Many people were quiet from exhaustion and fear; some had a sense of impending doom. Still others visited the saloon and had dinner parties like it was a normal day.

As the day grew darker, a strange red glow appeared in the west. The wind began to pick up at dusk, carried dust, ashes, and sparks. Father Pernin wrote:

On looking towards the west, whence the wind had persistently blown for hours past, I perceived above the dense cloud of smoke over-hanging the earth, a vivid red reflection of immense extent, and then suddenly struck on my ear, strangely audible in the preternatural silence reigning around, a distant roaring, yet muffled sound, announcing that the elements were in commotion somewhere.

Around ten o’clock, the low rumbling sound that people began noticing grew into a roar. The sound was described as like a freight train or huge rushing waterfall.

Suddenly, big sheets of flame blew out of the forest. Everything in the fire’s path was instantly consumed. Men with a premonition had gotten out the pumping engine they’d used in the past to spray water from the river on the fire saw that their efforts would be useless, and they ran. High winds blew people to the ground, and the hot air burned people’s lungs. Dust and smoke blinded them as they ran for shelter or to the river. Sparks and flames blowing through the air set hair and clothes on fire. Many died trying to escape.

whs-2778Chaos reigned. The wind, heat, smoke, combined with people heading in opposite directions—some toward the river, some the other way—created confusion and panic. Father Pernin describes the scene:

The air was no longer fit to breathe, full as it was of sand, dust, ashes, cinders, sparks, smoke, and fire. It was almost impossible to keep one’s eyes unclosed, to distinguish the road, or to recognize people, though the way was crowded with pedestrians, as well as vehicles crossing and crashing against each other in the general flight. Some were hastening towards the river, others from it, whilst all were struggling alike in the grasp of the hurricane. A thousand discordant deafening noises rose on the air together. The neighing of horses, falling of chimneys, crashing of uprooted trees, roaring and whistling of the wind, crackling of fire as it ran with lightning-like rapidity from house to house–all sounds were there save that of the human voice. People seemed stricken dumb by terror.

Photo credit: Wisconsin Historical Society

The River

whs-3728Many who reached the river’s edge were reluctant to enter. The water was cold, and many could not swim. The river was already full of thrashing cows and horses. Mothers were afraid for their small babies and children. Some stood to accept their fate as the end of the world quickly approached. With urging from Father Peter Pernin, many saw it was better to risk drowning than be burned alive. He described the scene: 

Once in water up to our necks, I thought we would at least be safe from fire, but it was not so; the flames darted over the river as they did over land, the air was full of them, or rather the air itself was on fire. Our heads were in continual danger. It was only by throwing water constantly over them and our faces, and beating the river with our hands, that we kept the flames at bay. Clothing and quilts had been thrown into the river, to save them, doubtless, and they were floating all around. I caught at some that came within reach and covered with them the heads of the persons who were leaning against or clinging to me. These wraps dried quickly in the furnace-like heat and caught fire whenever we ceased sprinkling them.

When turning my gaze from the river I chanced to look either to the right or left, before me or upwards, I saw nothing but flames; houses, trees, and the air itself were on fire. 
Above my head, as far as the eye could reach into space, alas! too brilliantly lighted, I saw nothing but immense volumes of flames covering the firmament, rolling one over the other with stormy violence as we see masses of clouds driven wildly hither and thither by the fierce power of the tempest. 

Father Pernin spent about five and a half hours in the river. Some who sought shelter in the water died from hypothermia.

Photo credit: Wisconsin Historical Society

The Sugar Bushes

whs-1881Away from town, the situation was even more desperate. Standing in the middle of a plowed field offered little protection from the sheets of flame, though some did survive. Others who crawled into wells found the water not deep enough to protect them, and died from burning wood falling on them, or suffocated when the firestorm sucked all the air from the well. Those who lay in shallow streams and covered themselves with dirt and mud were the most likely to survive. A few survived by finding shelter behind a rock or small hill as the fire roared past overhead.

Most of the people who lived in the woods did not survive.

Photo credit: Wisconsin Historical Society

Aftermath & Recovery