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Recollections of a Long Life 1829 - 1915
Chapter XIV


Up to the autumn of 1871 the huge outlay we had made at Peshtigo on the construction of factories and mills had brought us no return. The market for woodenware appeared to be glutted and in some instances we were forced to sell our product at a loss. Moreover, the expenses of handling, transporting, and storing, in spite of the reductions we had made by the use of barges, were still excessive.

To improve these conditions our efforts had been directed toward securing the extension of the Northwestern Railroad from the city, of Green Bay to the Menominee. Mr. Ogden, so long as he remained on the directorate, was unwilling to use his influence in furthering this plan for fear his motive might be misinterpreted as a desire to advance his own interests at Peshtigo. The burden, therefore, fell principally upon me, and I made a number of trips to New York, not to speak of many to Chicago, to confer with the railroad officials and lay the case before them.

Finally we succeeded, two years alter Mr. Ogden had retired from the directorate. In 1871 the railroad company began to extend its line northward, giving us the prospect of a much-needed outlet which would enable us to distribute our products directly throughout the West without the necessity of reshipment at Chicago. In other respects also the outlook brightened and we were confident that we had reached a point at which we could make a profit on our operations.

But in our efforts to better our position we unwittingly paved the way for disaster. The summer and autumn of 1871 were unusually dry and the forests and brush were reduced to tinder. To make conditions worse, the wind blew almost continuously for day after day from the south-west. When work on the railroad was begun fires were started to clear the right of way. The contractors carelessly allowed these to spread and they ran through the country with startling rapidity, feeding on the dry forests. In some instances even the marshes and bogs were burned to a depth of four feet.

For five weeks before October 8 we had fought small fires in the woods in the vicinity of Peshtigo and the air was so murky with smoke that people went about on the streets with red and watering eyes. On afternoon of Saturday, October 7, I drove from Marinette to the village of Peshligo and went down to the harbor where the steam sawmill was situated. On my return on the evening of the same day tongues of flame darting through the woods were visible from the roadway. These were the forerunners of the great disaster.

The sporadic fires seemed only to kindle the forest and bring it to the point of inflamability to be consumed later. On the night of Sunday, October 8, about nine o'clock, the flames, fanned by a high wind, leaped into a fury and sweeping in a northeasterly direction over a path twelve miles wide encompassed the village of Peshtigo, transformed it into a smoking waste and took toll of its people to the number of eleven hundred. Gathered into a tornado of fire they rushed on incredible rapidity, vaulted the river, and died out only when they reached the impassable barrier of water which confronted them on the shore of Green Bay, north of Menominee.

In the blackened wake every form of life was obliterated. In many instances tiny heaps of white ashes marked the places where men, women, and children had fallen; and where the forest had been, gaunt disfigured tree trunks stood like sentinels of death under the low-hanging pall of smoke.

In Peshtigo a number of people took refuge in the river and stood for an hour or more in the water, all but blinded and suffocated by the intense heat and smoke, while the fiery turmoil raged on all sides of them. But most of the population had been overtaken in their houses or on the streets by the sudden outburst and were numbered among the missing. Every house was gone and only twisted ruins marked the places where the factory, mills, the supply store, and other buildings had been. Even a mile of our railroad had been burned and the locomotive and cars were a tangled mass of iron. The loss was complete.

In Marinette we were struggling with another fire which broke out later and burned everything from the middle to the lower end of the city. The path of the flames which had devastated Peshtigo lay just to the north. Between the two we struggled all night in the blinding smoke and intense heat, not knowing how soon the seething fringes of fire would close in upon us. The air itself was livid and seemed to burst into sheets of flame, and the withering maelstrom spat fiery tongues that consumed whatever they touched. In some places they overleaped piles of dry brush which a spark would have ignited, yet burned the grass to within tell of them. The fire appeared to break out spontaneously in pockets or dart forward in tortuous flashes instead of progressing with uniform pace, which accounted for the strange contrasts it left in its ruined wake. None the less its path from Peshtigo to the bay was clearly marked and varied little in width for the entire distance.

Many persons in Menominee and Marinette, abandoning their homes when they realized the fury of the raging conflagration, went aboard a steamer which put out into the bay. Many others, employees of the mill quartered in the big boarding-house not far away, and women and children, not knowing where to turn, took refuge with us and huddled in silent fright in my house and barns wherever they could find room. Ten or fifteen men in my garden fought back the creeping flames on edge of the path of the fiery blast which had swept upward from Peshtigo.

When the danger was greatest my brother-in-law, whose house and barn were not more than three hundred feet away from my own, ran over to tell me that they were burning. The buildings would have been consumed had it not been for one of the antics of the fire. I watched the sheet of flame sweep toward them, but when it came to the house it merely scorched one end and stopped and died out. In my own house my family had made ready to go to the river a short distance away at the moment I gave the signal.

As is usual in such crises, most of the people in a panic of fear were as helpless as children; and even under the shadow of the appalling destruction that was being wrought some of the incidents that occurred at this time were of the most ludicrous character. Two hired girls at my house were aiding the men fighting the fire, and one of them I instructed to watch over some corn which had been shocked and was standing in the rear of the garden. Her chief interest, however, was a little patch of cabbages of her own growing. I discovered that she watched solicitously over the cabbage patch and kept it drenched with water, although it could not burn. But the inflammable corn was left to its fate. It required very violent and peremptory language to bring the poor woman's wits back to her.

In the midst of our own dangers we were unaware of the fate of Peshtigo. Many of us kept our vigil until dawn without rest or respite until the roaring flames had passed and the embers had been extinguished. in the morning, not long after I had made a survey of the town, I saw coming up the road on horseback through the haze of smoke John Mulligan, an ex-pugilist, whom we had employed as boss of one of our camps at Peshtigo. He used a rope for a halter and his clothes were a shirt and trousers. At the sight of him I began to realize that while we were fighting the fire others had suffered, perhaps, greater disaster.

"Johnny, what is the matter?" I asked in alarm. "I haven't heard from Peshtigo this morning."

"Peshtigo is burned up," was Mulligan's brief reply. "There isn't a picket left in the whole village, and a great many people are dead."

In the face of this greater catastrophe our own troubles were forgotten, and I turned my attention at once to the succor of the stricken village. I directed Mulligan to go across the river to Menominee to find my brothers, - Robert, one of the owners and superintendent of the Ludington, Wells and Van Schaick Company, and Samuel M. Stephenson, one of the owners and manager of the Kirby Carpenter Company, and ask them to send men and teams to Peshtigo. In the meantime we made preparations for the care of the injured and refugees. By nightfall we had turned the Dunlap Hotel in Marinette into a hospital in which forty-three patients who had been burned were installed.

On Tuesday morning I drove over to Menominee, while the country was still overhung with a pall of smoke from the smouldering forest, to send out appeals for aid. We were isolated from the rest of the world because of the destruction of the telegraph lines and had not even heard of the great fire which had swept Chicago and laid it in ruins at the same hour that we were battling with the flames. I wrote out five messages to be taken to Green Bay by one of the Northwestern steamers which was to stop at Menominee on its way from Escanaba at noon. One of the messages was addressed to the mayor of Green Bay, one to the mayor of Oshkosh, one to the mayor of Fond du Lac, and one to the mayor of Milwaukee. The fifth was to be sent. to Governor Fairchild at Madison. All of them contained information of the disaster and requests for assistance in caring for the injured and survivors.

A man was posted on the dock with the messages who was instructed to let fall a plank when the boat approached, so that it could find its way through the smoke which was still thick on the bay. The telegrams were put on the wire at Green Bay and soon afterward a flood of money and provisions began to come in and doctors and other persons were on their way to aid us. Governor Fairchild was not in Madison at the time, but his wife, without awaiting his return, had a car loaded with provisions started for Green Bay by midnight. The following day the work of rescue was well under way. Donations began to arrive and doctors coming on the boat from Green Bay looked after the burned and injured.

After making arrangements to send out the calls for help, on Tuesday morning I drove over to Peshtigo along the edge of the path the fire had followed. First I sent men with teams into the farming country in the vicinity of the obliterated village to build bridges, repair culverts, and clear the roads of the fallen trees and debris so that communication could be restored and the transportation of food and supplies facilitated. In the progress of their work they came upon an old man named Leach, sitting on a stone smoking his pipe, the picture of desolation and despair. During the two days following the fire he had buried eleven of his children and grandchildren and remained alone with the ruins of his farm about him.

As we worked in the blackened debris and ashes, at every turn we came upon the horrible evidence of the destructive fury of the flames. For more than a week we found bodies or parts of bodies. By Monday or Tuesday we had collected and interred one hundred and thirty-nine, some of them whole, some merely ghastly fragments. In many cases, however, there was nothing left of human beings other than a streak of light ashes which would scarcely have filled a thimble. In others the bones as well as the flesh had been consumed and only the teeth remained. The only means of identification were keys, jack-knives, or other metal objects. Sometimes the bodies of the victims lay in groups. Near the factory ten men were discovered lying on their faces within a space of twelve feet, with their hands covering their eyes.

But the effects of the fire were not everywhere the same. By the side of the streaks of white ashes or charred remains were bodies that lay almost as they had fallen, untouched by flame and bearing no evidence of the consuming heat, grewsome relics of the frightful holocaust. On first day of the rescue work we came upon the bodies of a Mrs. Tanner and her two children, a boy about three years old with flaxen hair and a girl five or six years old. Mrs. Tanner, we discovered afterwards, had put the children to bed and gone down town and had evidently returned to rescue them when the torrent of fire engulfed the village. The little girl's hand was clasped in hers and the boy's body lay five or six feet away. Hers was the only body we found face upward. All the others had fallen forward, some in crouching positions, apparently trying to shield their eyes from the awful heat. The clothes had been burned from the children but their hair remained untouched, scarcely singed by the flames.

Two days after the grewsome search began we discovered, in a kneeling position with the face resting on the ground, the body of a man who had been employed on a street in the rear of the factory. It was clothed in a gray suit and heavy underwear, and the only evidence of fire was a spot as large as a man's hand burned through the coat.

These inexplicable effects of the conflagration, which seemed to avoid some objects as miraculously as it consumed others, were subsequently made the subject of close investigation by scientists from various universities; but whether they arrived at any conclusion with respect to them I do not know. The heat seemed to have moved in gusts or currents with such irregularity that in some cases persons escaped who lived not more than ten feet or more from those who had been reduced to ashes. It was not a matter of intensity alone. In our store were sixty dozens of axes which had run together in an incongruous mass. On a hand fire-engine, called the Black Hawk, heavy iron was melted at the point of the tongue, and two feet away the wood was not charred nor the paint even scorched.

With what agony of despair the victims of the awful catastrophe sought to escape the withering flames may be imagined faintly from the positions in which some of the bodies were found. A young man whom I had intended to make foreman of a camp the following winter had climbed a tree in a small grove near a church. Every day for a week I had driven by within thirty feet of the blackened trunk before I observed the charred corpse, which fell to pieces when it was taken down. Other persons took refuge in wells, where they were smothered, and one body was found in a culvert. Of many victims only traces were discovered and some, I have no doubt, were swallowed up by the obliterating cataclysm of flame as completely as if the earth had opened and engulfed them. Shortly before the fire, for example, we had engaged an expert to establish a system of ditches for the cranberry marshes in the vicinity of the village. He employed seven men, all Scandinavians, and all that was left to mark the fact of their existence was the blades of their shovels.

The work of bringing order out of the chaos left in the wake of the fire, building shelter for the survivors, and distributing supplies for the homeless fell upon me, as manager of the Peshtigo Company. The attention of Mr. Ogden was absorbed by the disaster which overtook Chicago at the same time. He first went to Springfield with a committee from the city to urge General Palmer, the governor of Illinois, to make arrangements for policing the city, a task which was performed for a time by General Phil Sheridan. Afterward Mr. Ogden came to Peshtigo and remained with me for five weeks. His moral support was of great value to me, but he had little practical knowledge of the kind required by such a situation and I was left to my own resources in directing the work of rehabilitation.

On the Sunday following the fire Governor Fairchild came to Marinette and I met him when the boat landed at noon. It was necessary for me to go to Peshtigo immediately afterward, but I saw him again in the evening and discussed relief arrangements with him. On that day we built the first shanty at Peshtigo with rough boards.

The work of distributing supplies was especially difficult. They came from all parts of the country, even as far away as Vermont, where a minister who had formerly been stationed at Peshtigo gathered together a carload coming with it to Green Bay in person. Relief committees were organized at Peshtigo, Green Bay, and Marinette; but. as always happens in cases of this kind, the great problem was to give aid only to those who were in need of it. Taking advantage of the general distress, many worthless persons, the shiftless, the idle and vagrant, lived on the commissary all winter, while the worthy, in many instances, were reluctant to urge their claims or seek assistance and consequently were sometimes overlooked. We did the best we could and gradually conditions were restored to a normal basis. There was no lack of money. The responses to our pleas for aid were ready and generous, and our funds were greater than our needs required, the remnant being turned into the state treasury. Had it not been for the Chicago fire the cash contributions would probably have exceeded one million dollars.

The buildings of the Peshtigo Company situated in the village were, of course, in ashes or ruins, and although we made no attempt to resume operations on the same scale as before it was imperative that the sawmills be started without delay. We were in a helpless plight. All of our oxen and most of our horses, about one hundred and fifty in all, had shared the common fate, and there was not an animal left alive in the entire town. I built sheds and houses, and a temporary supply store of rough boards - which was afterward replaced by the permanent store, still standing, for the construction of which I made a contract in five minutes - and restored the bridge across the river.

In the meantime men were set to work making yokes, sleighs, and wagons, and we added to our stock by purchase. Horses and oxen were bought to take the place of those burned. From the Northwestern Railroad we obtained a locomotive and a mile of rails, which enabled us to transport from the steam mill at the harbor the lumber for rebuilding the town. At the same time there were large quantities of dead and charred timber that had to be sawed without delay to forestall the ravages of worms. We established logging camps and during the ensuing winter hauled something over fifty million feet of lumber. The situation called for rapid and decisive action and comprehensive management. Every day for six weeks I was at Peshtigo directing all these operations, the multiplicity of which may be gathered from the fact that during this period our telegraph bill alone totaled four hundred and ninety dollars.

At Chicago the Peshtigo Company also fared badly. The lumber yard on the lake shore north of the harbor with the offices and buildings was completely destroyed. A new barge called the "Green Bay," which had just been built at Trenton and placed in commission and had carried but one load of lumber to Chicago, was burned at the dock with a loss of thirty-five thousand dollars. Our total losses there were approximately one million dollars.

The second week after the fire the foundry and machine shop at Peshtigo resumed operations. During the winter we built a water-mill on the west side of the river. The sawmill, flourmill, and sash and door factory on the east side were not rebuilt nor did we take up again the manufacture of woodenware. The industry upon which we had founded our hopes was effectually and permanently snuffed out.

The work of reconstruction had its unexpected difficulties. Instead of clamoring for employment, as might have been expected, many persons, too lazy to work, collected around the commissary and did nothing. Others who had been overwrought by the ordeal through which they passed seemed to have lost their senses and for weeks were of no aid whatever. Under these conditions two of the men upon whom I relied much were Ferdinand Armstrong, foreman of our logging operations, and Tom Burns, a young man who had been assistant in the pail factory. They hired men, went about inspecting the progress of the work, reported to me, and carried out my orders.

The strain I underwent at this time was a severe one and during the following spring, upon the advice of my associates, I took a respite from work for the first time since my arrival in Wisconsin, a dozen years before, and with five of my friends made a trip down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and Mobile.

As an aftermath of the catastrophe which had cost so many lives and so much property, the Peshtigo Company withdrew the subscription of twenty thousand dollars it had agreed to make toward the seventy-five thousand dollars to be paid as a bonus for the extension of the railroad, although I gave individually $3500. If the railroad company were not content with the right of way alone, Mr. Ogden said, he would bring suit to recover damages for the losses we had sustained, the fire having been directly due to the carelessness of the contractors. This proposition they accepted. The work was pushed to completion and on December 27, 1871, the contractors turned over the road to the directors. Thus, at length, Marinette, after passing through the ordeal of fire and narrowly escaping complete destruction, was placed in direct communication with the outer world, and the days of travel on Green Bay over the ice during the winter and by vessel during the summer were over.

During the following year work was undertaken on the gap that still remained between Marinette and Escanaba. This was done in as haphazard a fashion as the work on the extension from Green Bay. While contractors seemed to have neither credit nor money, and for a time it appeared that the railroad would not be able to comply with the condition upon which the State of Michigan had based its grant of land: the completion of the road by January 1, 1873. In June, 1872, the directors of the Northwestern came to Marinette and I went through with them to Marquette, remaining for three days. Beset with misgivings they asked me if the road would be finished by the end of the year. I told them frankly it would not be half completed by that time because of the inefficiency of the contractors. Thereupon Colonel James H. Howe and other directors proposed that I take up the work, guaranteeing me against loss in addition to the payment of a large salary. This I declined to do.

The task was then turned over to contractors from other railroads, and Marvin Hewitt, who had just become superintendent, of the Northwestern, came to Green Bay to obtain horses and equipment to facilitate the work. Every resource was taxed to the utmost. Every influence was brought to bear upon the contractors, and the rails were laid with reckless haste. The road was pushed over hills which afterward had to be cut down and across boggy sink holes that were filled with trees. When the final test came, however, fortune smiled on the railroad. Shortly before the arrival of the commissioners who were to pass upon the work on behalf of the State of Michigan, a period of cold weather set in, and the marshes through which the route lay were frozen solid, making an excellent foundation. A foot of snow generously hid all traces of the half-finished work on roadbed. On test run the train was pushed to a speed that would have ended in disaster at any other season of the year. From the car windows the commissioners, surrounded with every possible comfort, gazed upon the snow-covered landscape; and when the journey was completed they pronounced the conditions complied with, and the grant was made. For two years afterward the company was at work cutting down the excessive grades, and making fills in the low places and replacing twisted iron rails.

But the gap was bridged, the railroad now extended from Lake Superior to the south, and the end for which I had labored for ten years was attained.

This was not my last experience with railroads. When the Northwestern built the line from Escanaba to Negaunee and Marquette in the sixties, a piece of work which represented, according to Hewitt, the useless expenditure of at least a million dollars, I had proposed to the directors that they follow the old supply road which had led to my camps on the Upper Escanaba River. This I pointed out, would give them a direct route to the mining region, stimulate logging, and, after the forests had been cleared, provide all for the farms that would inevitably take the place of the wilderness. The plan, although it was rejected, did not fall on altogether deaf ears. Mr. Tilden, who was listening to my portrayal of the development that might be expected in future years, dropped his knife and fork and exclaimed: "What a magnificent conception!" At the time I declared that I would myself build a railroad along the route I proposed if there were no one else to do it. This I did many years later, and the prophecy I made bids fair to be realized.

In 1872 General Phil Sheridan, who was an ardent angler, came up to Peshtigo with Daniel Wells, Governor Ludington, George Walker, of Chicago, General Strong, secretary of the Peshtigo Company, and several others, for a fishing trip. I took charge of the expedition and established a camp for them at the junction of the Peshtigo and Thunder rivers, in the heart of what was then virgin country. Here they remained for seven days, during which time they fished for trout, which abounded in these streams, and abandoned themselves to the pleasure and relaxation of the out-of-doors.

As a precaution I had directed a farmer, John Seymour, who lived several miles away, to be on hand at the camp with his team in case there was any hauling to be done. He and General Sheridan, who knew nothing of each other's presence, met face to face in the brush on the banks of the Thunder River while fishing.

"Who are you?" asked General Sheridan, surprised at the sight of a strange face in the wilderness.

"I'm John Seymour," was the reply. "And who might you be?"

"I'm General Sheridan," was the equally frank answer.

"Hell!" said Seymour. "You ain't Little Phil! You couldn't command a hundred thousand men."

Sheridan was more amused at Seymour's scepticism than anyone else and many times afterward recalled the unexpected meeting in the wilderness.

General Sheridan and I became very, good friends and he afterwards sent me two army tents as a reminder of this expedition up the Peshtigo River. When I was in Congress he came to see me in the House of Representatives and I visited him frequently at the War Department, and we rehearsed again the incidents of his fishing trip.


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