September 23, 2000

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If you were inland from Menominee, Michigan, on the evening of October 8th, 1871, and you looked eastward toward town, you might see the glow of the setting sun. Wrong direction? Of course. It was the glow of not-distant-enough flames. On this day major fires would begin raging in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. The first two (Chicago and Peshtigo) were decidedly deadly. Chicago's flames killed 300 and left 90,000 homeless. Peshtigo's dead numbered somewhat over 1200. Menominee faced the same threat.

The western Great Lakes had seen very little rain since spring. Wood frame houses in the lumber towns lined streets covered in sawdust. The surrounding land was studded with piles of scrap from the sawmills; dust filled the hot, dry air. And then. Deer were erupting out of the woods, as well as wolves, and smaller wild animals. The roads eastward were soon filled with cattle, horses and wagons as those on the small outlying farms headed rapidly toward the town and the waters of Green Bay. The passenger steamer Northern City could be seen off across the waters to the east, headed toward town. Exiles from Peshtigo were making their way into town, as well as escapees from nearby flame-killed villages. The steamer docked and the captain agreed, even as crew members stomped out wind-born sparks, to take women and children aboard. Said he'd stay moored there as long as possible.

There can be moments of humor, even under the threat of annihilation. A drayman unloaded a cargo of furniture destined for one of the mansions on the far side of town. As he moved away from the pier a passer-by told him the house wouldn't survive. He should take the furniture back to the boat. He kept going, telling the advice-giver that the insurance company would pay for the furniture if it went up in flames. But not if it were back on the ship.

The fires could be seen from village now. Men formed into crews and began digging a trench across the road that led into town, beating out flames that leapt the barrier with their shirts, laying face down briefly in the marshy water when waves of scorching heat flowed over their heads. Their efforts paid off. As dawnlight overcame flamelight, they knew they'd saved their town.

There were a two surprises left, non-threatening ones. As women began coming down the steamboats gangplank, some leading children. a few tallish forms kept their faces hidden, struggled with long skirts. A townsman walked up to one of the latter, and with a curse planted a boot firmly in the seat of the skirt and knocked a few other figures to the ground. Seems a half-dozen men of the town were more afraid of fire fighting than they were of cross-dressing. Getting in touch with their feminine side, no doubt. The other surprise? The waters of Green Bay had been lowered a bit by the intense heat. The Northern City was stuck firmly on a sandbar.

For Classical 91.5 and 90-point-3, this is David Minor

© 2000 David Minor / Eagles Byte

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