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Saved by the river
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An artist's illustration of victims of the Peshtigo Fire on Oct. 8, 1871. (Image courtesy of Wisconsin Electronic Reader)
Peshtigo's Catholic priest, Rev. Peter Pernin, wrote a dramatic account of the 1871 fire. He hoped the sale of the book would help raise money to rebuild the town. In this passage, Pernin describes how he and others survive by throwing themselves in the Peshtigo River. Pernin had saved the wooden tabernacle containing the Holy Eucharist -- which Catholics believe is the body of Christ -- from the church by taking it with him in a large wagon.

— After placing a certain distance between myself and the bridge, the fall of which I momentarily expected, I pushed my wagon containing the tabernacle as far into the water as possible. It was all that I could do. Henceforth I had to look to the saving of my life. The whirlwind in its continual ascension had, so to speak, worked up the smoke, dust, and cinders, so that, at least, we could see clear before us.

The banks of the river as far as the eye could reach were covered with people standing there, motionless as statues, some with eyes staring, upturned towards heaven, and tongues protruded. The greater number seemed to have no idea of taking any steps to procure their safety, imagining, as many afterwards acknowledged to me, that the end of the world had arrived and that there was nothing for them but silent submission to their fate.

Without uttering a word -- the efforts I had made in dragging my wagon with me in my flight had left me perfectly breathless, besides the violence of the storm entirely prevented anything like speech -- I pushed the persons standing on each side of me into the water. One of these sprang back again with a half smothered cry, murmuring: "I am wet"; but immersion in water was better than immersion in fire. I caught him again and dragged him out with me into the river as far as possible.

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Image Rev. Peter Pernin

At the same moment I heard a splash of the water along the river's brink. All had followed my example. It was time; the air was no longer fit for inhalation, whilst the intensity of the heat was increasing. A few minutes more and no living thing could have resisted its fiery breath. . .

Once in water up to our necks, I thought we would, at least be safe from fire, but it was not so; the flames darted over the river as they did over land, the air was full of them, or rather the air itself was on fire. Our heads were in continual danger. It was only by throwing water constantly over them and our faces, and beating the river with our hands that we kept the flames at bay.

Clothing and quilts had been thrown into the river, to save them, doubtless, and they were floating all around. I caught at some that came within reach and covered with them the heads of the persons who were leaning against or clinging to me. These wraps dried quickly in the furnace-like heat and caught fire whenever we ceased sprinkling them.

The terrible whirlwind that had burst over us at the moment I was leaving home had, with its continually revolving circle of opposing winds, cleared the atmosphere. The river was as bright, brighter than by day, and the spectacle presented by these heads rising above the level of the water, some covered, some uncovered, the countless hands employed in beating the waves, was singular and painful in the extreme. So free was I from the fear and anxiety that might naturally have been expected to reign in my mind at such a moment, that I actually perceived the ludicrous side of the scene at times and smiled within myself at it.

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Image Book cover

When turning my gaze from the river I chanced to look either to the right or left, before me or upwards, I saw nothing but flames; houses, trees, and the air itself were on fire. Above my head, as far as the eye could reach into space, alas! too brilliantly lighted, I saw nothing but immense volumes of flames covering the firmament, rolling one over the other with stormy violence as we see masses of clouds driven wildly hither and thither by the fierce power of the tempest. . .

Not far from me a woman was supporting herself in the water by means of a log. After a time a cow swam past. There were more than a dozen of these animals in the river, impelled thither by instinct, and they succeeded in saving their lives. The first mentioned one overturned in its passage the log to which the woman was clinging and she disappeared into the water.

I thought her lost; but soon saw her emerge from it holding on with one hand to the horns of the cow, and throwing water on her head with the other. How long she remained in this critical position I know not, but I was told later that the animal had swam to shore, bearing her human burden safely with her; and what threatened to bring destruction to the woman had proved the means of her salvation.

At the moment I was entering the river, another woman, terrified and breathless, reached its bank. She was leading one child by the hand, and held pressed to her breast what appeared to be another, enveloped in a roll of disordered linen, evidently caught up in haste. O horror! on opening these wraps to look on the face of her child it was not there. It must have slipped from her grasp in her hurried flight. No words could portray the look of stupor, of desolation that flitted across the poor mother's face. The half smothered cry: "Ah! my child!" escaped her, then she wildly strove to force her way through the crowd so as to cast herself into the river.

The force of the wind was less violent on water than on land, and permitted the voice to be heard. I then endeavored to calm the anguish of the poor bereaved woman by suggesting that her child had been found by others and saved, but she did not even look in my direction, but stood there motionless, her eyes wild and staring, fixed on the opposite shore. I soon lost sight of her, and was informed subsequently that she had succeeded in throwing herself into the river where she met death.

Things went well enough with me during the first three or four hours of this prolonged bath, owing in part, I suppose, to my being continually in motion, either throwing water on my own head or on that of my neighbors. It was not so, however, with some of those who were standing near me, for their teeth were chattering and their limbs convulsively trembling. Reaction was setting in and the cold penetrating through their frames.

Dreading that so long a sojourn in the water might be followed by severe cramps, perhaps death, I endeavored to ascend the bank a short distance, so as to ascertain the temperature, but my shoulders were scarcely out of the river, when a voice called to me: "Father, beware, you are on fire!" The hour of deliverance from this prison of fire and water had not yet arrived -- the struggle was not yet over.

A lady who had remained beside me since we had first taken to the river, and who, like all the others, had remained silent till then, now asked me: "Father, do you not think this is the end of the world?" "I do not think so," was my reply, "but if other countries are burned as ours seems to have been, the end of the world, at least for us, must be at hand." After this both relapsed into silence.

There is an end to all things here below, even misfortune. The longed-for moment of our return to land was at length arriving, and already sprinkling of our heads was becoming unnecessary. I drew near the bank, seated myself on a log, being in this manner only partly immersed in the water. Here I was seized with a violent chill. A young man perceiving it threw a blanket over me which at once afforded me relief, and soon after I was able to leave this compulsory bath in which I had been plunged for about five hours and a half.

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