The Peshtigo Fire: October 8, 1871

The Peshtigo Fire: October 8, 1871

The deadliest forest fire in American history swept through Northeast Wisconsin on October 8, 1871. The Peshtigo fire, named after the small town it obliterated, claimed 1200 lives. The Peshtigo fire has been somewhat ignored by history because it started the same day as the great Chicago fire.

Painting from Peshtigo Fire Museum
It was an unusually dry summer that year. Small fires used to clear land for farming and railroads had been smoldering, but didn’t cause alarm. That all changed on the evening of October 8th. As parents tucked their children into bed, an ominous rumbling “like the distant roaring of the sea or like a coming storm” had them nervously scanning the horizon. In the distance they could see the glow of a fire. The winds were picking up, but residents still had no idea what was approaching.

About 10 p.m., hurricane force winds, accompanied by lightning, blew into town. Gusts that preceded the firestorm ripped roofs from houses and felled large trees. Alarmed residents ran to investigate and witnessed a huge inferno, described as a tornado of flame, bearing down.

The Guardian, reported that “The wind blew with such tremendous violence that people endeavoring to escape were lifted from their feet and blown into burning houses. The wind blew super-heated clouds of sand on to those running to escape. Each grain burning and blistering.”

Those that could, began a mad dash to the river. Mothers, unable to make it to the water, tried desperately to protect their children from the flames. The fire was an “oxygen-sucking firestorm” whose power has been compared to an atomic bomb. Residents, unable to outrun the fire, burst into flames. Those that did reach the river encountered frightened livestock that trampled over them. Burning logs floated on the river’s surface. Once immersed in the river, faces of those trying to escape were badly burned each time they surfaced for air. Some, unable to make it to the river, jumped in wells to escape the flames. The intense heat caused the water to boil, killing them. Within two hours the town was reduced to ashes.

When relief workers entered Peshtigo after the fire, they found the town and surrounding woods littered with burned bodies. As the magnitude of destruction became apparent, people from surrounding towns stepped up to care for survivors. Those who managed to survive the flames lost everything. Today, Peshtigo is rebuilt and thriving, and as the Green Bay Press-Gazette says, is “Truly reborn from the ashes.”

If you would like to learn more about the Peshtigo fire, or have ancestors from that area, search our archives at Newspapers.com to learn more!

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The Irish Potato Famine Begins: September 1845

Lake Nyos Disaster August 21, 1986

In September 1845, Irish farmers noticed the leaves on their potato plants starting to wilt and turn black. When the potatoes were dug up, they initially appeared to be fine, but then rotted within days. A fungus called Phytophthora infestans, accidentally brought from North America, was rapidly spreading. The cool, moist climate of Ireland allowed the spores to thrive. Virtually overnight, entire fields were infected.

Famine still pains the Irish
The Irish potato famine, also known as the Great Hunger, had begun. The 1851 Irish census recorded more than a million deaths between 1845-1849. A Dublin paper, The Freeman’s Journal, recorded individual parish deaths in 1847, including this parish that lost 240 members within months.

Even before the famine, Irish farmers lived in extreme poverty. They were tenant farmers, working land owned by the British. The absentee landlords collected rents, but rarely, if ever, visited their properties. Middlemen, who often managed the farms, sought to increase rents by dividing the farms into smaller parcels. The farms became too small to hire help, leaving many Irish unemployed. In order to survive, farmers had nothing to depend on but a small plot of potatoes to feed their families and livestock.

When the famine hit, farmers fell behind on rent. Some British landlords evicted starving peasants and burned their homes. The blight continued and peaked in 1847 (also known as Black ’47) because suffering was so extreme. Weakened by hunger, many Irish succumbed to starvation or diseases like dysentery, typhus, and infection.

The British response to the deepening crisis was slow. Parliament passed the Soup Kitchen Act which led to nearly 3 million people lining up each day for a bowl of soup, often their only meal of the day. Unable to keep up with demand, many of the soup kitchens went bankrupt and the government shut down the program. It wasn’t until 1997 that Britain apologized for their response to the famine, saying they had “failed their people.”

Desperate to escape the crisis, a flood of emigrants loaded in Canadian timber ships bound for North America. Passage was cheap because the ships were not intended for human cargo, and conditions were horrific. They became known as “coffin ships” because so many died during the voyage.

Starving and desperate, more than 1.5 million Irish sought refuge in the United States. Today many Americans of Irish descent can trace their heritage back to this pivotal time in history.

Do you have Irish immigrants in your family tree? Tell us their story! To learn more about the Irish Potato Famine, search our archives!

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Lake Nyos Disaster: August 21, 1986

Lake Nyos Disaster August 21, 1986

On August 21, 1986, a rare natural disaster occurred in the West African country of Cameroon when a large cloud of carbon dioxide gas spewed from Lake Nyos and blanketed nearby villages killing 1,746 people and 3,500 livestock while they slept.

The event, known as a limnic eruption, occurs when carbon dioxide builds in colder, deep lake water creating a heavy layer on the bottom. The weight of the warmer, upper layer of water forms a lid that keeps the gas down — much like a cork on a bottle.

Carbon dioxide cloud kills 1746 people in Cameroon
Eventually the gas in Lake Nyos built up to a point that it was released in a massive eruption that created a 330-foot high column of water and a 200-foot wave. Scientists wondered what caused the cork to pop.

Sule Umare, a cattle herder from Cameroon described the event that killed 99% of the people in his village. “We thought that rain was coming,” he recalled. “I went out and saw the moon shining. I wondered how rain could come without clouds.” Sule was enveloped in a flood of carbon dioxide before he lost consciousness.

Another survivor, Margaret Wandia remembers she was, “breathing very hard and had no strength.” She woke to find three of her four daughters dead beside her.

Some scientists concluded that an underwater landslide disrupted the layers and caused the gas to bubble up that fateful day. Others wondered if volcanic magma below the lake caused the release.

While studying the lake, scientists realized gas levels were rising again. They concluded that gas was gradually leaking into the lake from deep in the earth. In order to prevent a future explosion, scientists started venting the gas with a 672-foot pipe, that when lowered to the bottom, performed like a big straw – sucking the gas upward where it vented gradually into the air.

A second Cameroon lake experienced a similar, but smaller eruption in 1984 and 37 people died.

If you’d like to learn more about the disaster at Lake Nyos, search our archives!

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July 5th: First Casualty of the Korean War

Robert F. Kennedy Fatally Shot: June 5, 1968

If your understanding of the Korean War comes from watching the TV show M*A*S*H, you’re not alone. The Korean War has been referred to as the forgotten war. July 5th marks the 68th anniversary of the first American casualty of the war. With North Korea dominating headlines again, we’ve explored our archives to give you a brief overview of the Korean War from the headlines as it happened.

Korean War Ends
At the end of WWII, Korea was divided into zones. The Soviets occupied North Korea where communism reigned, and the US occupied South Korea. Both Koreas longed for unification —but each on their own terms. The communist leader of the North, Kim II Sung, attempted to unify the Koreas by force when on June 25, 1950, he ordered 75,000 soldiers to spill over the 38th parallel line into the South. Five days later, President Harry S. Truman ordered US troops into action as America sought to stop the spread of communism.

By August, North Korean troops had taken control of Seoul and much of the country. In September, under General Douglas MacArthur, the US launched a major counter-offensive and drove Northern troops back to the 38th parallel line and continued across it until troops nearly reached the Chinese border. The Chinese government fearing invasion sent 200,000 soldiers to bolster North Korea.

With the help of China, and support from the Soviets, North Korea pushed US troops back across the 38th parallel again. Fighting was intense. Among significant battles were the Battle of Inchon and the Battle of Chosin. US losses and a disagreement in strategy spurred President Truman to fire General MacArthur. General Matthew B. Ridgway took over command.

Nearly three years after the war started, it ended right where it started – at the 38th parallel line. The US lost 36,500 soldiers. There was no clear winner and no peace treaty established. An armistice was adopted designating a DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) that separated North from South. Nearly 70 years later, the Korean peninsula remains divided.

Kim II Sung remained the North’s leader until his death in 1994 when his son Kim Jong II took over. After Kim Jong II’s death in 2011, Kim Jong Un, the son of Kim Jong II and grandson of Kim Sung II was named Supreme Commander.

Do you have a relative that fought in the Korean War? Tell us about it! You can search our archives to find more articles about the war! You can also access Korean War casualty records on Fold3.com.

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Robert F. Kennedy Fatally Shot: June 5, 1968

Robert F. Kennedy Fatally Shot: June 5, 1968

Fifty years ago this month, Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles moments after stepping off the stage where he claimed victory in the California presidential primary election. Kennedy died the next day. The gunman was 22-year-old Palestinian Sirhan Sirhan who later confessed to the crime.

Senate pays tribute to Robert F. Kennedy
The news stunned the world. Senators paid tribute to Kennedy, and religious leaders exclaimed, “Something’s wrong with us!” When word of the shooting made its way to Vietnam, one American soldier responded saying, “What the hell is going on back there?”

Kennedy campaigned aggressively in California, crisscrossing the state. He won with a narrow victory. The mood was celebratory the night of June 5, 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel. Kennedy addressed the crowd shortly after midnight and exited the ballroom through a kitchen. Sirhan rushed towards him in a narrow corridor and shot him at close range.

The gun was wrestled away as Sirhan continued firing resulting in five others being wounded including William Weisel, Paul Schrade, Elizabeth Evans, Ira Goldstein, and Irwin Stroll. The cheers and applause heard seconds before quickly turned to screams and panic when the shots rang out.

Kennedy was rushed to Good Samaritan Hospital where doctors performed surgery but were unable to save him. At the time of Kennedy’s assassination, presidential candidates did not have Secret Service security. His death stirred Congress to pass a law providing that protection for future candidates.

Kennedy’s death came just five years after that of his brother, President John F. Kennedy. Robert Kennedy’s body was flown to New York, where he lay in repose at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral before burial. The nation mourned with Kennedy’s widow Ethel and his 10 young children. An eleventh child was born after Kennedy’s death.

In 2016, Sirhan was denied parole for the 15th time and remains in prison today. What do you remember about the day Robert F. Kennedy was shot? You can search our archives to find more articles on his life and death. You can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for trending news and updates!

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Haymarket Riot: May 4, 1886

Haymarket Riot: May 4, 1886

On May 4, 1886, a bomb was detonated during a peaceful labor demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. The bomb and ensuing violence left seven policemen and a number of civilians dead and many others wounded.

Headline about the Haymarket Riot
The day before the incident at Haymarket Square, two striking workers had been killed at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company during an altercation with police. The following day, thousands of people gathered in Haymarket Square to protest the police violence and to listen to a number of labor leaders speak in support of better working conditions.

The gathering was peaceful and, due to poor weather, eventually dwindled to about three hundred people. When 180 policemen were dispatched to disperse the crowd, someone threw a bomb at the police. The police (as well as some in the crowd) responded by opening fire, and when things finally calmed down, one policeman and at least four civilians had been killed (six other policemen would later die of their injuries); numerous other policemen and bystanders were wounded.

Although the person who threw the bomb was never identified, eight labor activists were arrested and put on trial. Seven received death sentences, and the other was given 15 years in prison. Of the seven who were sentenced to death, four of them were hanged in 1887, one committed suicide, and two had their sentences commuted to life in prison. In 1893, the surviving three were pardoned by the governor based on the unfairness of the original trial.

Public opinion immediately following the Haymarket Riot generally landed on the side of the police. Because the eight defendants (and others involved with the labor movement) were immigrants and socialists or anarchists, the public increasingly saw the labor movement as a hotbed of foreign-born radicals. Anti-anarchist hysteria grew, spurred by the exaggerated accounts of many newspapers. However, for those within the labor movement, the Haymarket Riot came to represent the struggle for workers’ rights, and the event inspired many future labor activists.

Do you have any family stories about the Haymarket Riot or the labor movement? Share them with us! Or learn more about the event by searching Newspapers.com.

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The Great Blizzard of 1888 Hits the Northeast:
March 11–14, 1888

Memorable Moments in Winter Olympics History

During the night of March 11–12, 1888, heavy rain falling across the northeastern United States turned into snow, heralding the start of a blizzard that would kill hundreds of people and cut off major hubs like New York City from the rest of the country for days.4.

Great Blizzard of 1888The weather had been warm and mild leading up to the blizzard, but a cold, snowy storm moving in from the Great Lakes region collided with a warm, wet storm moving up from the south, creating a blizzard that not only dumped 20–60 inches of snow but was also accompanied by hurricane-force winds and below-freezing temperatures.

The blizzard was at its worst on the 12th and 13th. The wind blew so hard that snow accumulated in drifts sometimes dozens of feet high. Trains were unable to run for days, telegraph lines were knocked down across the northeast, and hundreds of boats along the coast were sunk or beached. Due to the cold temperatures and whiteout conditions, people froze to death in the streets and livestock died in the fields.

On the 13th, while New York City was still in the grips of the blizzard, the New York Tribune described the previous day of the storm:

“The forcible if not elegant vocabulary of pugilism supplied the phrases which will, perhaps, best reveal to the popular imagination the effect of the storm that visited New York yesterday. New York was simply ‘knocked out,’ ‘paralyzed,’ and reduced to a condition of suspended animation. Traffic was practically stopped, and business abandoned. […] Chaos reigned, and the proud, boastful metropolis was reduced to the condition of a primitive settlement.”

The storm had mostly dissipated by the 14th, but the cleanup was only beginning. Mountains of snow had to be cleared from the roads and train tracks, communications lines had to be repaired, and debris blown around during the storm had to be removed. To make matters worse, when the weather warmed back up, flooding from the snowmelt occurred in some places.

The consequences of the storm made a big impression on local officials, and as a result, major cities like New York began moving their trains and communication lines underground.

Do you have any family stories about the Great Blizzard of 1888? Share them with us! Or find more articles about the storm on Newspapers.com.

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Valentine’s Days of the Past

Memorable Moments in Winter Olympics History

How did your grandparents, great grandparents, and even earlier ancestors celebrate Valentine’s Day? Through the eyes of newspaper readers of the past, we can transport ourselves back to earlier decades to see how affection was shown and sentiments exchanged on February 14.

An 1839 column in the New Orleans Daily Picayune quotes Shakespeare on the subject and discusses 15th-century British customs where “the first woman seen by a man, or man seen by a woman, on St. Valentine’s day, is marked as their Valentine for the ensuing year. “It notes another contemporary custom of “young people sending complimentary or satirical letters … accompanied with a carricature engraving” which numbered fifteen thousand posts in New York alone in 1831.

Column about Valentine's Day

Parade magazine, published in the 9 February 1958 edition of the Long Beach, CA, Independent Press Telegram, wondered if “you know all about love” and offered a quiz with a more scientific slant to its readers. Even Dennis the Menace flustered his father that year by questioning the history of a day that tormented him as he received “about sixty million valentines.”

Loveland, Colorado, became “Sweetheart Town,” when the president of the Loveland Chamber of Commerce realized the town’s postmaster was remailing valentines in the 1940s as requested by romantics in other parts of the country. He took advantage of the opportunity and notices of “Cupid’s Haven” appeared in newspapers around the nation in 1947, promising remailed valentines complete with the Loveland cancellation stamp.

Valentine’s Day commercialism was as prevalent in decades past as it is today. Publishers ramped up readership with enticing recipes for Valentine desserts in 1953, and promoted unusual floral fashion trends in 1941. Retailers used the sentimental day to increase sales. Ads offered everything from racy, spicy, sparkling cards for soldiers in 1863 wartime America, to televisions and telephones, not to mention dry cleaning services, in more recent publications. Who knew that in 1932 Montana, chiffon stockings could mend a broken heart?

Whether through Valentine’s Day sentiments of the past or via more modern traditions, love, hope, and infatuation monopolize our culture and our newspapers every February 14th.

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Death of Queen Victoria: January 22, 1901

Death of Queen Victoria: January 22, 1901

On January 22, 1901, Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India, passed away at the age of 81 at the royal residence on the Isle of Wight, marking the end of her 63-year reign.

Queen Victoria's Diamond JubileeVictoria had celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, which marked the 60th anniversary of her accession to the throne and made her Britain’s longest-reigning monarch up to that point. By this time, old age had begun to take its toll, and the queen suffered from failing eyesight and had trouble walking, among other health issues. By Christmastime of 1900, which she spent at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, her health had further declined, and after the New Year she suffered a stroke and was confined to her bed.

Her family was alerted to her poor health, and her children who were able gathered at her bedside—as did her grandson Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Victoria passed away at 6:30 p.m. on January 22. She had written her funeral wishes three years earlier, which included being dressed in white and laid in her coffin with various mementos and keepsakes. Per her request, Victoria was given a military funeral and was laid to rest at Frogmore Mausoleum, in Windsor, alongside her husband Albert, who had died in 1861.

People around the world mourned Victoria’s death. Her reign had lasted 63 years, and for many people, she had been queen for their entire lives. The London Times wrote, the day after her death:

To most of us the whole course of our lives as subjects of the Queen has been the proof of the admirable way in which this unique woman—whose small frame was permeated, so to speak, with Royal dignity, whose home life was so simple and pure, and whose intelligence […] was […] formed by work and long experience into a powerful instrument of life—has met the difficulties of the longest and the fullest reign in English history.

The queen’s death was literally the end of an era. Her death marked the end of the Victorian Era, which spanned 1837 to 1901, the years of her reign. Though just 18 years old at the time she became queen, over the course of her life Victoria oversaw Britain’s transition to an industrialized nation, as well as its expansion into the British Empire.

Find more articles about Queen Victoria on Newspapers.com!

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Prohibition Ends: December 5, 1933

Prohibition Ends: December 5, 1933

On December 5, 1933, Prohibition came to an end with the repeal of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which had outlawed the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol since 1920.

Utah ends prohibition for nationThe passage of the 18th Amendment had been the result of decades of work by religious and progressive groups to permanently eliminate the consumption of alcohol in the United States. Groups such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League believed that getting rid of alcohol would remove many of society’s ills. Brewery-owned saloons, in particular, were seen by temperance and prohibition groups as the root of many evils, and these establishments were targeted by activists such as Carrie Nation, who became famous for smashing up saloons.

Finally, by late 1917, there was enough support in Congress to pass the 18th Amendment, which was ratified by the states in early 1919. Prohibition was set to go into effect in 1920, and in preparation, the National Prohibition Act (more commonly known as the Volstead Act) was passed in late 1919. Under the Volstead Act, it was illegal to manufacture, sell, or transport any beverage with an alcohol content of more than 0.5%. Exceptions were made for medical or religious needs, and it was still legal to drink in your own home and to make wine for personal use.

Though Prohibition did see an overall decline in alcohol consumption in the country, it had many unintended consequences. It was illegal to sell alcohol, but it wasn’t illegal to buy or drink it, which led to the rise of a black market alcohol industry of bootleggers and smugglers. This strengthened organized crime syndicates, who made significant amounts of money off illegal alcohol. Gang violence increased, perhaps most notoriously in Chicago, and criminals such as Al Capone became household names. With so much money to be made from black market alcohol, bribery of Prohibition agents, police, judges, and politicians was rampant.

These and other issues—such as the onset of the Great Depression—as well as the rise of powerful anti-Prohibition groups (such as the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform), finally turned the tide against Prohibition. The 1932 Democratic Party platform was anti-Prohibition, and when Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt won the presidential election, anti-Prohibition forces passed the 21st Amendment in Congress. The amendment, which repealed Prohibition, was quickly ratified by the states, with Utah casting the deciding vote in favor of repeal on December 5, 1933.

Do you have any family stories about Prohibition? Share them with us! Or find more articles and other information about Prohibition by searching Newspapers.com!

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