The Great Fire of 1871, Door County, Wisconsin
From: History of Door County, Wisconsin
The County Beautiful
By: Hjalmar R. Holand, M. A.
The S. J. Clark Publishing Company
Chicago 1917

THE GREAT FIRE OF 1871

There is one event in the history of Door County which in the memory of the people of the southern half of the county stands forth like the recollection of a horrible, indescribable nightmare. This is the great fire of Sunday, October 8, 1871, when in the darkness of the night a great torrent of fire descended upon them like the crash of judgment day, which burnt their farms to barrenness and destroyed their homes, forests and lives of their friends and relatives. In describing such a cataclysm of nature, the pen of a later historian is utterly unable to picture the tragic event. To set forth in orderly narraitve the bitter terror and suffering of thbse night hours is as futile as it is to paint a sunset - only those who went through and survived that night of hell can have or give any conception of its horrors.

The year 1871 is unique in our annals for the havoc that was wrought both on sea and land. On the lakes mighty storms raged at intervals and hundreds of lives were swallowed up by the mighty waves. In Death's Door passage almost a hundred vessels were dashed on the rocks and around the lakes hundreds of other stout ships were tossed ashore or sunk On land forest fires raged throughout the fall, leveling cities, burning up scores of little settlements in Northern Wisconsin and Michigan and destroying thousands of lives. At Peshtigo more than four hundred men, women and children were burned to death within an hour. Most of these terrible events passed almost unnoticed because they were overshadowed by the greater tragedy of the destruction of Chicago which took place on October 9th.

The summer of 1871 was excessively dry. Cultivated lands became parched and cracked and the swamps dried up. By the middle of September people became very alarmed. Forest fires were raging in many different parts all over the county which could not be put out. The swamps were on fire. Corduroy roads were burning and fences were reduced to ashes. Several mills and many homesteads were from time to time destroyed. No rain came but the fire serpent kept crawling underground, frequently blazing forth, destroying timber which had stood for centuries. The atmosphere all over the county was oppressive to inhale. At night the sight was disheartening. The whole heavens around the horizon were aglow, and the dark red, as seen through the smoky atmosphere, seemed to threaten a greater calamity soon to take place. The days dragged by and the settlers fought the fire as best they could. Each day the people sighed and prayed for rain but each day's cloudless skies and restless winds only added its share to the unceasing drouth.

Sunday (or "Sadday," as it was afterward termed). October 8th, the morning dawned with no perceptible change. In the afternoon the wind was quite fresh but died down in the evening and an unnatural stillness followed. In a few minutes there came a fierce gust of wind, followed by a loud roaring. In the southwest dense clouds were noticeable. Then a flame shot up quickly followed by many leaping tongues of fire. Soon these flames were almost obliterated however by huge columns of smoke which now and then split apart showing a furnace of fire behind. The terrific roaring of the wind together with the crash of falling trees caused the stoutest hearts to flutter. The night was made more hideous by the startling cries of birds, flying frantically in every direction. Wild animals came bursting into the clearings, with whimpering voices seeking shelter among the bellowing cattle, People heard, saw and felt the terror of the lawless elements that had engulfed them, screamed with terror and fled in confusion along the highways and into their fields. Then suddenly a whirlwind of flame, in great clouds, from above the tops of the trees, fell upon them enveloping everything. It was an atmosphere of fire. People inhaled it and fell down dead. Almost all, both the victims and the survivors, had but one thought - "it is the destruction of the world!"

This tornado of fire swept up from Brown County, overrunning the towns of Union, Brussels, Forestville, Gardner, Nasewaupee, Clay Banks and Sturgeon Bay. In Gardner and Nasewaupee a number of big swamps with a thick growth of timber had previously, in September, burned out, leaving large areas where this greater forest fire found but little to feed on. Because of this earlier destruction the fire was hindered and the Village of Sturgeon Bay and the northern towns were saved. The next day, October 9th, the long looked for rain finally came, drenching everything for hours and the fire ceased.

The people of Sturgeon Bay had watched with great terror this approaching storm of fire and knew that down there in the smoke wrapped forest country of Brussels and Gardner a terrible calamity had taken place. On Monday supplies and provisions were collected and a relief expedition started out to give aid. The following account is from a member of the party telling what they found:

"We started for the tornado district with a mule team well loaded with supplies for the destitute ones. The road was filled with burnt and burning trees and at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon a distance of only four miles had been made toward Williamsonville. It was evident that to get the team to Williamsonville (six miles distant) would consume the time of at least another day; hence a portion of the crowd loaded themselves with what they could carry, and set out on foot, while the team retraced its steps. The journey was dreadful! The odor of wild birds and animals, together with that of hogs, cattle and horses that had been roasted alive, mingled with the dense smoke of burning timber, was almost stifling, Some portions of the road were blocked with trees nine deep - burning and smouldering, making the journey both slow and difficult.

"Williamsonville was finally reached - the sight was the most horrible imaginable! Dead bodies were strewn in all directions, and most all burned beyond recognition. Something like thirty five lay in one heap! Some had one or both legs burned off ; another was minus an arm while still another had the head or other parts burned to a crisp - men, women and children composing the pile. The fleshy portion that remained uncharred was cooked through and when moved would fall to pieces! Added to the most affecting sight was the almost unbearable odor that arose from the burned bodies that had been moistened by the drenching rain! Nearly ten years have elapsed since that terrible sight, yet it is as fresh in memory today as the date it was witnessed - the great black trees stand out now as visionary mourning statues as they stood in reality October 11, 1871." (1)

1) From C. H. Martin's account in Martin's History of Door County, pages 103, 104. A few miles west of Williamson's mill was a new shingle mill just erected by Scofield & Co. Fourteen men were here at work installing the machinery. When the avalanche of fire swept down upon them the fourteen men made a dash for a point where a small flume had been built in a creek. The water course had been dry for some time owing to the long continued drouth but there was a little water and mud left in a hollow. Ten of the men were struck down by the fire at the top of their speed and were all burned to death. Four of the men reached the mudhole and threw themselves face downward in the puddle. Even here two of the men were scorched to death.

Williamsonville was a little settlement established by the Williamson brothers in the dense forest a few miles south of Little Sturgeon - the manufacture of shingles being the main pillar upon which rested the foundation for forming the settlement. A mill, store, boarding house, large barn, blacksmith shop, eight dwelling houses, and minor buildings made up the settlement - all of which were reduced to ashes. About eighty persons were in the settlement at the time of the fire and all perished except seventeen. Of the eleven members of the Williamson family but two escaped - Thomas Williamson and his mother. The village lay in a small clearing of six or seven acres. For a week or two they had been fighting the flames, setting back fires, and began to feel quite safe. In the evening of the fateful day a violent windstorm came up leveling trees in all directions. This was followed by a sheet of fire that rolled over the treetops. Then came a shower of sparks, large and thick as rain drops. In a moment the buildings were all on fire and a rush was made for a vacant part of the clearing used as a potato patch. Here thirty five persons huddled together, several hundred feet from the woods, hoping here to be safe from the fire. However, not one of them escaped. Ten feet from them sat old Mrs. Williamson with a wet blanket over her and she was saved. A woman partly covered by the same blanket was roasted to death. Thomas Williamson saved himself by wrapping himself in a wet blanket and rooting face downward into an old ash bed. Seven men jumped into a well but two of these were burned to death. Two men suffered such intense agony from their burns that they dashed out their brains by pounding their heads against a stump. Besides the three score human begins who were cremated in this spot, there were also burned to death 16 out of the 17 horses, 5 out of the 6 oxen and 40 swine.

While Williamsonville lost more lives than any other settlement in Door County because of its comparatively large population, the awful scenes that were here enacted were repeated in scores of other places. Throughout almost the entire southern half of the county the fire raged like a hurricane and almost everywhere the humble but superstitious people believed that judgment day had come. Certainly no judgment day could come more swiftly, more unmercifully, more terribly. The ominous warning sound coming from the distance when the sky, so dark just before, burst into great clouds of fire, the beasts of the forest running for succor into the midst of the settlements, and the great, consuming, roaring hell of fire engulfing all was an experience never encountered by man or beast. The dreadful scene lacked nothing but the sounding of the last trumpet and, indeed, the approach of the awful roaring and the premonitions from the distance supplied even that to the appalled imagination of the people.

Below is given a list from the Door County Advocate of October 26, 1871, of the loss of life and property in Door County on the night of October 8th:

The following is a list of the dead:

BRUSSELS

M. Schwerger, father-in-law, wife and five children.
____ Schiller, wife and one child.
Jos. Darti, mother, wife and five children.
George Colbeck, wife and two children.
Mich. Mellerey, wife and four children.
Louis Weis, wife and one child; body of one child not found.
Frank Moulton, wife and two children.
One child of C. Powlect.
Joseph Schwat and a daughter of Louis Weis.
A German family of four persons, names unknown.
John McNamee, John Doherty, Sarah Connors, Mary Disotel, John McWilliams, John Wood, John Crow, Paulette Legat.
An adopted child of G. J. Gilson.

AT WILLIAMSON'S MILL

Joseph Married, wife and three children.
Nelson Dimrow, wife and two children.
Michael Adams, wife and three children.
John Williamson, wife and one child.
Jos. Marcoix, wife and two children.
James Williamson and wife.
Mrs. Buckland and two children.
Unknown French woman and two children.
Thomas Crane, Thomas Whelan, John O'Conners, Dan Nicholson, Chas. Duncan, Frank Borway, Emery Jervis, Jason Williamson, John Conlan, George Buckland, Unknown woman, J. Williamson, Sr., Henry Jervis, James Whelan, Maggie Williamson, James. Donlan, Freddy Williamson, Mike Rogan, Maggie 0 'Neil, John Ahearn, Patrick Ahearn, Frank Donlan, Charles Weinbeck, Louis Longley, Peter Bordway, Maggie Heaney, Joseph Verbonker.
Unknown woman.
Four unknown bodies found in the woods.

AT SCOFIELD & CO'S MILL

Twelve unknow

NASEWAAUPEE

Casper Lorch and two sons.

WOUNDED

The following is a list of the wounded at the Williamson's Mill fire:
Joseph Buckner, both legs burned off.
John Marshall, feet slightly burned.
Michael Whelan, feet badly burned.
Benjamin WallLorcheyes badly burned.
J. Collins, face and hands badly burned.
M. Carmody, feet and eyes burned. Owen Collins, hands slightly burned.
C. M. C. McCusker, face and feet burned.
John Mullan, eyes injured.
Boyd Merrill, face, Lands and feet badly burned.
Serlie Jervis, face and hands slightly injured.
J. Donlan, feet burned.
Capt. Richmond, hands 'and face slightly burned and a Frenchman, whose name has not been ascertained, had his feet slightly burned.

The following is a list of those who had lost barns, crops, houses or other property:
FORESTVILLE

J. Buckholz, house, barn, grain and feed.
Samuel Perry, house.
John Stoneman, house, barn and fourteen head of sheep.
And. Paul, house and wearing apparel.
William Miller, barn and hay.
Ernest Walski, house and contents.
Anton Theiron, grain and hay.
Anton Lindaucr, house and grain.
John Combers, house and contents.
John Wolf, barn and grain.
John Merrill, barn and hay.

NASEWAUPEE

Fred Monk, house and contents, barn, farm crops, cattle and farming tools.
D. Greenwood, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
C. Feldmann, house, barn, crops and farming tools.
L. Schumacher, house and contents, barn, crops, cattle and farming tools. George Senft, house, barn, crops and farming tools.
Joseph Harris, Jr., house and barn on farm.
S. Malony, house and contents, two barns, crops and farming tools.
John Murray, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
John Bink, house and contents, barn, crops, cattle and farming tools.
John Lang, barn and crops.
C. H. Stephan, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
Caspar Lorch, house and contents, barn, crops, horses and farming tools.
Casper Lorch, house and contents, barn, crops, horses and farming tools.
Peter Lorch, house and contents, barn, crops, cattlc and farming tools.
P. Delmbach, house and contents, barn, crops, cattle and farming tools.
Peter Leonhardt, house and contents, barns, crops and farming tools.
A. Goettelman, barn, crops and farming tools.
John Mullane, house and contents, crops and farming tools.
John Mann, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
Richard Kinney, house and contents, crops and farming tools.
William Davis, house and contents, crops and farming tools.
B. Kinney, house and contents.
Noel Langlois, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
M. Daley, barn and crops, six cattle and farming tools.
M. Curry, barn and crops.
M. Reardon, house and contents.
John Broderson, house and contents and barn.
Barney Cavanagh, house and contents, barn, crops, cattle and farming tools.
John Pfisterer, barn and crop.
Francis Donlan, barn and crop.
Barney Donlan, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
Mrs. Burdeau, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
John Rogan, barn and crops.
P. Gormley, barn and crops.
D. 0 'Hearn, furniture and wearing apparel.
J. Baumgarden, house and barn, premises leased by Thos. Davis, who lost crops on same
and one cow.
Wm. Mulverhill, house, barn and hay.
Ed. 0 'Ream, house, barn and hay.
John Gallach, house, barn and crops.
Gotlieb Magler, and brothers, house and contents and crops.
H. Buschmann, barn and part of crops and horse power of threshing machine.
Three school houses.

UNION

G. Fabrey, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
J. Johnson, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
Francois Delvaux, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
William Laluzerne, house.
Wm. Girondel, house and contents.
Emil Befay, barn, crops and furniture.
Gustav Pensis, house and contents.
P. Geryais, barn, crops and furniture.
Frank Evrard, barn, crops and farming tools.
Martin Coullard, barn and crops.
Francis Counard, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
Gaspard Duvy, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
Gullaine Lenais, household goods, barn, crops and farming tools.
Charles Gulette, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Jean Dejean, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools and part of cattle.

GARDNER

William Delsipee, barn and crops. D. Coffin, barn and crops.
S. D. Welden, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
I. Gigot, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
J. B. Tricot, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
A. Corbisier, house and contents, barn, crops, cattle and farming tools.
J. Colignon, house, barn, contents and farming tools.
J. Henquinet, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
J. Corbisier, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
P. Farley, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
J. Robin, house, farm and crops.
C. Lavalette, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
J. Lalune, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
H. Neuville, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
L. Laluzerne, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
J. Dalemont, barn and crops.
Wm. Claflin, house and crop.
J. Neuville, house and crops.
Williamson's shingle mill and all buildings (12 to 15) connected with it.
Three school houses and two churches.

BRUSSELS

Boarding house, mill and other buildings of Scofield and Leatham.
Toussant Dachelet, barn, crops and furniture and clothing.
Francis Denis, house and contents, barn and crops and stock.
Eugene Renquin, house and contents, barn and contents.
Oliver Dedecker, house and contents, barn, crops and stock.
Chas. Piette, house and contents, barn, crops and stock.
Alexander Meunier, house and contents, barn, crops and part of stock.
Eli Simons, house and contents, barn and crops.
Frank Legreve, house and contents, barn and crops.
Louis Coisman, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and part of cattle.
Theodore Labotte, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Louis Caspart, barn and crops.
Adrian Francois, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Joseph Francois, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Peter Francois, two barns, crops and farming tools.
M. B. Englebret, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Joseph Englebret, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Desire Englebret, house and contents, part of crops and farming tools.
J. F. Flemal, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Charles Mignon, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
N. Mignon, house and contents, barn, crops, farming utensils and cattle.
Antoine Mohemont, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Clement Bassine, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
J. B. Denamur, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Unknown, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
J. B. Dewitt, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Chas. Dewitt, barn, farming tools and part of crops.
Constant Flemal, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Leonard Leclou, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Eugene Delforge, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Francis Martin, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
J. J. Lemay, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
C. Massart, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Dr. Antoine, house, contents and pharmacy.
Chas. Rouer, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Jos. Rouer, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Louis Mignon, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Peopold Lefebvre, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
John B. Staubaus, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
P. J. Rinier, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Fillician Marcaux, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
Joseph Piette, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Francis Gaspart, house, barn and crops.
J. J. Bero, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
E. Vandengendertalen, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
A. Naniot, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Alex. Pierre, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Prosper Naze, house and contents, blacksmith tools, barn, crops and farming tools.
John Fauville, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Isidore Tremble, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
Chas. Tibone, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
Pascal Francois, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
J. G. Gilson, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Antoine Verlee, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
Francis Springlier, house and contents, barn, crops, farming tools and cattle.
Eloi Meunier, house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
A Bohemian family lost house and contents, barn, crops and farming tools.
One school house.
The nine families in this town, the members of which were all burned to death, also had everything burned.

STURGEON BAY

Geo. Leaser, house and contents.
One school house.
Bradner, Charnley & Co., on timber and logs, $15,000.00.
C. L. Chase, on tan bark, $2,000.00.
Furniture and wearing apparel of H L. Oleson. Furniture and wearing apparel of Aug. Cocagne. O. Oleson, clothing and bedding.

SEVASTOPOL

Luke Coyne, barn and crop.

CLAY BANKS

W. H. Horn, store and contents, saloon, boarding house and barn and contents.
John Polinsky, clothing and bedding.
Peter Stephane, clothing
Wenzel Setwosky, clothing.
Ed. Lawton, clothing.
A. Blasier, clothing Levi Blasier, clothing
William Busky, clothing.
B. F. Murphy, clothing and bedding.
____ Burmeister, clothing and bedding.
____ Burmeister, clothing and bedding.
Anton Stern, clothing and bedding.
John Hunt, clothing and bedding.
W. Heimbecher, clothing, provisions and shoemaker tools.
A. Streich, clothing, bedding and provisions.
James Fronsoe, clothing, bedding and provisions.
Aug. Nemeyer, clothing, bedding and provisions.
F. Lutman, clothing.

The list gives 128 persons burned to death, and fourteen severely burned. Many others in the different settlements were burned of which record has been lost.

One hundred and sixty seven families and single persons were rendered homeless, in most cases losing clothing, houses, barns, crops, furniture, farming tools and everything they had but the bare land and the clothes on their backs. In addition to these, nine families in Brussels and the families at Williamson's mill also lost everything and their lives. A small proportion, probably a tenth, were partially burned.

About two hundred other farms suffered by the destruction of their fences, timber and in some cases parts of their crops burned over while in the ground.

The total loss in the county by the fire was about $700,000. The insurance did not exceed $40,000 in the whole county.

Two mills, 2 boarding houses, 3 churches, 6 schoolhouses, 3 stores, 2 saloons, 148 dwelling houses and an equal number of barns were swept away.


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