08 October 2009

After the fire

I was reminded this morning (courtesy of The Writer's Almanac) that both the great Chicago fire and the Peshtigo fire started today in 1871.

The Peshtigo fire is much less famous the the Chicago fire, though by all accounts it was the greater disaster, both in terms of loss of life and loss of property. I wouldn't know about it except that I remember my Grampa telling me a story, when I was very little, about how his Grampa, a Swedish immigrant, had survived the Wisconsin fire, with his pregnant wife and young son, by standing up to his neck in the river all night while the fires raged.

'And it was cold!' Grampa told me, as I'm sure his grampa had told him. 'Cold! Can you imagine that, standing all night in the cold river while everything around you burned?'

I couldn't. Still can't.

I am not sure if my great-great-grandfather actually lived in Peshtigo or if he lived in another of the Wisconsin villages burned that night. I do know that after the fire, he and his family packed up and moved to Chicago. My guess is that, in addition to the greater opportunities in Chicago, they also figured that it had already burned down, and they'd be relatively safe from another firestorm.

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