Peshtigo Court: Why is a Chicago street named after a small Wisconsin town?

July 29, 2011

Almost any Chicago street name tells a story. Take Peshtigo Court. It's the last street you cross on the way to Navy Pier, before you duck under the Lake Shore Drive viaduct.

Peshtigo Court is one block long. The street is named for a Wisconsin village north of Green Bay, about 250 miles from Chicago.

In 1871 Peshtigo was a booming lumber town of 1700 people. The summer that year had been hot and dry. Now, in the early days of October, many small fires had been breaking out in the surrounding forest. The locals thought nothing of it.

October 8 was a Sunday. Just as Peshtigo was getting ready for bed, a heavy wind suddenly whipped in from the southwest. Then a wall of flame swept down on the town.

Within minutes everything was burning. People ran out of their homes in night clothes. Most of them headed for the river. Others took refuge in stone cellars or jumped down wells. Those who weren't fast enough, or lucky enough, were incinerated. The air temperature pushed past 1000 degrees--about as hot as a crematorium.

Chaos reigned at the river. Some people simply gave in to fatigue and sank beneath the water. One man discovered that the burned woman he'd carried to safety was not his wife, and became hysterical. A teenage girl stayed afloat by hanging onto the horn of a bull.

In an hour the flames moved on. Before it burned itself out, the blaze destroyed an area as big as Rhode Island and took over 2,000 lives. Peshtigo alone lost 800. Though many theories have been advanced, the cause of the fire has never been determined.

So what's this have to do with Chicago, and why do we have a street named Peshtigo Court?

On that very same October 8, 1871--at the very same hour--the Great Chicago Fire began. Almost everything east of the Chicago River, from Taylor up to Fullerton, was destroyed. The death toll was 200.

A major city had been destroyed, and that was big news. But the Peshtigo fire was barely noted, even though ten times as many people had been killed. To the average American of 1871, backwoods Wisconsin was about as remote as Africa or India. Yeah, 2,000 people died out there--too bad, let's move on.

Today the town of Peshtigo maintains a museum in memory of its 1871 fire victims. And we in Chicago remember them, too.