Whenever I'm feeling glum about the way things are going, I turn to a certain form of therapy that's pretty damned effective: nonfiction accounts of trying times or tragic events in history. It's a surefire way of ending a personal pity party.
Here's what I learned during my most recent adjustment of perspective.
On the night of October 8, 1871, Chicago burned and some 250 people perished. But . . . as spectacular as the Great Chicago Fire was, it paled beside the inferno taking place, simultaneously, just over 200 miles to the north -- a large slice of hell that became the most destructive fire in U.S. history and the nation's third worst natural-disaster of any kind.
Bad enough the two arms of this conflagration devoured well over a million acres of white-pine and hardwood forests, as well as the farms and settlements that had been carved from those forests, and left behind a colorless wasteland. But in the vicinity of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, the fire became a fire storm -- its own superheated weather system, complete with tornadoes -- that made the earth resemble the surface of the sun.
The blaze was so intense it cracked boulders, melted metal, and spun sand into glass. It lifted at least one house off its foundation and caused it to explode in midair. Firebrands shot from the trees. Fireballs fell from the sky. Sheets and waves of fire canopied the land. Buildings and bodies went up like torches, instantly engulfed in flames.
In other words, the fires that roared up both sides of Green Bay were nothing short of apocalyptic.
Estimates of fatalities range from 1,200 to 2,500. The Peshtigo River likely kept the death toll from exceeding 3,000. Clogged as it was with people, livestock, and burning logs, the river nevertheless provided the only refuge for the town's inhabitants. They endured it, if they could, for five eternal hours.
Help did not come quickly to stricken areas. Simply getting the word out was difficult. Telegraph lines had been destroyed and roads had been rendered impassable by fallen timber. Wagons had been consumed by flames and draft animals killed or crippled.
The suffering of the survivors was incalculable. Most were burned, or impaired by smoke inhalation. When the worst of the fire had passed, autumn's chill immediately returned. There was no food, no shelter, no adequate clothing to be had. And there was certainly no medical aid. In outlying areas, even water was impossible to find. Therefore, many people who'd made it through the fires subsequently died from their injuries or from starvation or renal failure. Months later, bodies were still being discovered in the scorched woods.
Slowly, Peshtigo rebuilt itself. So did the rest of the devastated region. In fact, when I was a girl, I spent part of each summer in the fire zone. There's a town just north of the city of Green Bay called Little Suamico (you can see its dot on the map above). My aunt and uncle had a primitive cottage up there, and it was my parents' vacation destination for many, many years. Little did I know as I gallivanted around those 40 acres that the most horrific fire in American history had raged over that very same patch of ground.
Right now, I'm not too inclined to complain about much of anything. ;-)