The world knows of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and most Wisconsinites are familiar with the Peshtigo Fire that happened at the same time. Not as well known is the fire that destroyed the southern Door County town of Williamsonville, where Tornado Park is now located. Bob Johnson, who compiles our regular Traveling Back journey through the Door County Advocate files, researched the fire and its aftermath for this story, which will run for the next four Saturdays.
First of four parts.
On the Tornado Park memorial along Door County DK, a brass plaque reads, “Here was the village of Williamsonville, with a population of 77 persons on Oct. 8, 1871. The village was blotted out by a tornado of fire. Sixty persons sought refuge in an open field surrounding this spot and were burned to death.”
The mark sits quietly in the wayside along a once-busy road now bypassed by progress. Millions of vehicles have rushed past, giving little or no thought to the wayside. Those who have taken notice of the old wooden sign have little comprehension of the events that transpired 135 years ago – a night in October that would mark a change of life for settlers in Door County, a night filled with fear, horror and death.
In 1871 Door County was a land on the verge of prosperity. The county was certainly beautiful in the late 19th century, but it was the thick woods and rich land that brought settlers to the peninsula. The United States, still young and recovering from the devastation of the Civil War, demanded large amounts of lumber to feed its growth. At that time everything was made of wood and an enterprising man could make a good living off the timber that was thick on the land. Lumber was king in this part of the country, and Door County was no exception.
To the poor immigrants looking for a foothold in this land of opportunity, this was too good to pass up.
Door County was filling up with small pockets of isolated families struggling to create a life in this new and foreign land, a land also full in the promise of rich farmland. Many of the pioneers were Belgian and Bohemians in small clusters that had names like La Sucrerie, La Rivere Rouge, Rosiere, Brussels and Thiry Daems. Pockets of French, Irish, Danes and Norwegians also found their way to the county.
Remote farms and settlements tied together with primitive, rough roads required lumber to build houses and barns. Sawmills were built to respond to the needs of both the locals and the nation at large. After much back-breaking work the land was beginning to pay off, and the families were starting to believe the promise of a future rewarding their hard efforts.
It was this very success that would add to the tragedy to come. Trees were taken with little regard to fire prevention. When trees were cut down, the limbs and bark would be cut from the logs and left to carpet the forest floor.
Sawdust from the cuttings and sawmills, thick and dry, covered the ground as raw wood was altered into usable lumber. Pioneers began to develop the plots of land to farm and establish their homes, using the age-old practice of clearing the land with fire.
Roads were little more than rough pathways, and in the low swampland the roads had been corduroyed by using logs and covering them with dirt.
Much of the wood intended for commercial use was wasted due to the poor handling and even poorer transportation.
Woodsmen left campfires unattended. Hunters and fishermen would abandoned fires, leaving them to smolder. Homesteads used bonfires for warmth, to burn garbage, and to clear away stumps and branches. Sparks from passing trains also started small fires in the dry tinder along the tracks.
Little heed was paid to fire management, and the success of putting out smaller fires had emboldened the residents to believe that although a fire might get a little out of hand, they would certainly be able to handle it. Fires, while a constant threat, were a minor concern when faced with the day-to-day demands of existence. Daily life demanded more attention.
The summer of 1871 had been very dry, with not a drop of rain from July to mid-October. It was so dry that swamps and creeks had dried up, leaving behind thick dry foliage.
Trees had dropped their fall leaves to carpet the already powder-dry ground with the perfect combustible material. Wells were drying up, and water was becoming scarce. Everything was dry, including the wooden buildings.
The winds produced a drying effect on everything. The past winter had been usually dry, with a cold harsh wind. With the lack of rain, the drying summer winds had compounded the bone-dry conditions, sapping any available moisture out of everything. Dust was everywhere.
The Sept. 21, 1871, issue of the Door County Advocate noted, “Dry weather has been a staple all summer long. Fires have been running through the woods. We have heard of no specific damage.”
That would soon change.