Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
Tornado Memorial Park, east of Brussels, Wisconsin, commemorates a little-known incident in one of the most horrifying disasters in American history.
Tornado Memorial Park Established by Door County in November, 1937.
Through Trial and Tribulation, in Poverty and Loneliness, in Cold and Fire, the Pioneers Struggled that their Children might gain a Competence.
Here was the village of Williamsonville, with a population of 77 persons on October 8, 1871.
The village was blotted out by a tornado of fire. 60 persons sought refuge in an open field surrounding this spot and were burned to death.
Actually, the term "tornado" is a misnomer. On October 8, 1871, the Midwest was hit by a series of devastating fires. Most people know of the famous Chicago Fire, but are unaware of the Peshtigo Fire which killed over 1,100 people on the same day. Although the fire is named for the town of Peshtigo, where 600 people died, it burned on both sides of Green Bay. On the east side it destroyed almost everything between Green Bay and Sturgeon Bay. The greatest loss of life occurred here at Williamsonville.
The fire was intense enough and the amount of fuel great enough that it created a firestorm in some places. In a firestorm the fire creates its own atmospheric circulation, sucking air in, generating high winds and creating a vortex of fire. A deadly firestorm followed the great 1923 Tokyo earthquake, and the firestorms of World War II in Dresden, Hamburg and Tokyo are infamous, but in 1871 little was known about the phenomenon, especially on the Wisconsin frontier. Survivors tell of people and buildings bursting into flame without being touched by the fire (probably either from radiant heat or by blasts of superheated gases). Many witnesses reported fireballs, which might have been vortices of flame or burning branches carried by the high winds. It was long believed (and still is by many people) that the fire jumped completely across Green Bay, but in reality the fire seems to have started in many places simultaneously when the wind fanned innumerable small brush fires that had been burning for days or even weeks.
During the fire of October 8, 1871, this well site was used by seven persons as a place of refuge. The last man to the well found the wood curb on fire. After tearing off the curb he entered the well and pulled a wet blanket over the opening. Five of the seven survived.
Created 23 June 1999, Last Update 23 June 1999