Oshkosh was once considered the lumber capital of the world. The first sawmill began operating in 1847, and before long sawmills lined the entire Fox River. At the height of the lumber boom in the early 1870s, twenty-four sawmills, fifteen shingle mills, and seven sash and door companies were in operation, earning Oshkosh the nickname "Sawdust City." By 1875, nearly 15,000 people were living in town.
Oshkosh continued to prosper and grow in prominence as the leader in lumber trade, albeit at a great cost. The city was littered with wood byproducts, stacks of wood were everywhere, and the river banks were lined with sawdust. Wood and frame buildings, insulated with sawdust, were built on a foundation of lumber waste, fronted by wooden sidewalks. It is no surprise that fires ignited easily and often ran out of control.
"It's a terrible day for a fire," quoted The Daily Northwestern on that beautiful morning of Wednesday, April 28, 1875. The sun was shining brightly. No rain had fallen for quite some time. Everything was dry as a bone. And the wind was blowing something fierce. The citizens of Oshkosh learned from past experience to regard such wind with serious apprehension, for this city had been plagued by many large fires over the years.
The mills were required to close down on days when the weather conditions were favorable for fires. On this particular dry and windy day, however, the Spalding & Peck mill was in full operation. A burst of sparks escaped the smoke stack, the wind quickly carrying them to ignite the lumber piles at the nearby Morgan Brothers mill on Marion and Jackson. For those of you that remember Morgan Door on the south side of the river, this is not the same as the Morgan mill in 1875.
The time was shortly after 1:00 pm when the alarms rang out their fearful sound. FIRE!
Thomas Davis, loading lumber at the Morgan mill, made a heroic attempt at stopping the fire from spreading. With a fire extinguisher strapped to his back, he boldly entered the burning building to battle the blaze, but the flames quickly surrounded him. Succumbed by the intense heat and smoke, the extinguisher and clothes burned off his back, Thomas leaped through the flames and reemerged from the building. All was done to treat his wounds, but later that evening death ended his suffering.
The strong wind and sheer volume of flames were too large to battle. In less than 20 minutes the fire spread eastward from the Morgan mill to the Milwaukee & St. Paul depot and freight house. Showers of blazing embers, carried by the ferocious wind, fell from the sky to start ablaze anew. Columns of flame would rise to incredible height carrying large bodies of burning wood, some to fall up to half a mile away.
The second victim of the fire was a 57-year old farmer named Charles Dunn, who was drawn to the excitement like many others who were not concerned the fire was heading toward their homes. He was standing alongside the Harding Opera House, located on the east side of Main north of Washington, as it was burning when suddenly a wall collapsed on him, killing him instantly.
Armed with water buckets, every man, woman and child fought to save their homes and precious belongings. A crowd united to save the Court House (current location of the Court Tower) from destruction, led by Sheriff Ebenezer Stevens and H.B. Harshaw. The sheriff was so confident they could save the building that he refused to release prisoners in the jail below, oblivious to their cries for help. He was right. The Court House and all records were saved, standing amid a mass of ruin.
For four hours the fire raged on, setting the entire area of Main Street from Merritt to the river aflame. The path of destruction stretched over a mile long and quarter of a mile wide, burning houses and businesses from Main to Bowen streets. As inconceivable as it may seem by today's standards, at the time the city had no running water. Firefighters relied on strategically placed reservoirs under street corners and used steam engines to pump the water from these cisterns.
Oshkosh citizens were resilient. Soon after the fire, the entire downtown district was rebuilt bigger and better than ever. Many of the buildings erected in the reconstruction are still standing today. The Great Fire of 1875 would not be the last in Oshkosh, but it still remains the greatest and most terrible conflagration to hit this fine city.