Mysterious ‘Meteor Theory’ For Michigan’s Great Fires Of 1871
One of the most infamous great fires in American history is the conflagration that swept through Chicago between October 8th and 10th in 1871. But that year many other great fires left destruction in other parts of the Midwest including Michigan, and it's been theorized that a meteor shower or comet could have been responsible for the fires.
The widespread destructive and simultaneous fires were unprecedented in the United States and nothing like it has happened since. Along with this coincidence and unusual phenomena that several eyewitnesses reported, some concluded that a force beyond the earth was responsible for the event. It was first suggested in 1882 by Ignatious L. Donnely, a U.S. Congressman and amateur scientist, that the fire was caused by a meteor shower. In 1985, Mel Waskin published a book revisiting Donnely's theory.
In 2004, engineer and physicist Robert Wood suggested that the fires began when fragments of Biela's Comet broke up as the earth was passing through its tail. Considering that all the fires broke out on the same day in different locations across a wide region, suggesting a root cause. Eyewitnesses reported sighting spontaneous ignitions, lack of smoke, "balls of fire" falling from the sky, and blue flames. According to Wood, these accounts suggest that the fires may have been caused by the methane commonly found in comets.
But plenty of experts in the scientific community dismiss theories that the fires were caused by objects from outer space. For one, meteorites are not known to start or spread fires and are cooled down by the time they reach the ground. And as far as the 'methane from the comet' theory, if a fragment of an icy comet were to strike the Earth, the most likely outcome would be for it to disintegrate in the upper atmosphere with perhaps an explosion far from the ground.
The most common believed cause for the fires in the Midwest is that the area had experienced an extremely dry summer. This, combined with gusty winds that moved in with a front that October evening, were capable of generating rapidly expanding blazes from available ignition sources of which there were plenty across the region.
Regardless of the cause, the monumental event nearly 150 years ago was most famous for the destruction in Chicago. Nearly 300 people were killed and the fire destroyed structures as it swept through over 3 square miles of the large city. But the same evening, a fierce blaze struck Peshtigo, Wisconsin, destroying the town and a dozen other villages as it spread to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Estimates of those killed range upward from 1200 to 2500 in a single night. This was actually the deadliest fire in U.S. history even though the Great Chicago Fire has more notoriety and happened the same day.
In Michigan, numerous fires struck towns across the state. In West Michigan, Holland was destroyed. Flames in Lansing threatened the agricultural college that eventually became Michigan State University. Farmers in the Thumb-region also had to flee the inferno. Other reports say that fires threatened Grand Rapids, Muskegon and South Haven among other places. More than 3,900 square miles were burned in Michigan.