Nearly everyone has heard about O’Leary’s cow and the Great Chicago Fire, but that wasn’t the only fire that raged that day in America. There were fires in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, in the towns of Holland and Manistee, Michigan, and Port Huron , Lake Huron, as well. The Peshtigo fire caused the most deaths by fire in United States history, with an estimated 1,500 people dying, and possibly as many as 2,500 … but that tragedy was forgotten in the shadow of the Chicago fire, where only 120 to 300 people died.
The summer of 1871 was a scorcher, with little rain. On October 8th, with winds blowing and no rain in sight, fires broke out in Chicago, Wisconsin and Michigan. The most popular building material was wood, and the forests and fields were parched and dessicated, a fire demon’s dream come true. By the time the flames subsided several days later, thousands of people were dead, and a total of four million acres of land had been razed.
The Great Michigan Fire was the fire that raged through Holland, Manistee, and Port Huron. No one was ever able to make an estimate as to how many died. By counting up missing families, a total of 500 dead was reached, but this total didn’t include all the lumberjacks spread throughout the forests and realistically the total was much higher.
In 1883, the theory was put forward that the simultaneous fires across the Midwest were caused by the impact of fragments from Comet Biela. I don’t give much credence to this hypothesis, as the timing was all wrong and comets are made of ice. It is more likely that the fires were caused by lightening strikes – or even by hot ashes drifting from the Great Chicago Fire. The winds were fierce that week, which fanned the flames and made it difficult to fight the fires.
As my Steampunk novel is set in 1871 and 1872, it is unlikely that my characters would not refer to the great fires at some point. Adding details like this to my text adds verisimilitude to the narrative. It is the build up of small, believable details that draws the reader into the story … and then you can start spinning the fantastic.