The Worst Fires in US History

In 1871, Chicago experienced a massive fire that forced the city to rebuild. However, this fire was not among the United States' deadliest.
In 1871, Chicago experienced a massive fire that forced the city to rebuild. However, this fire was not among the United States' deadliest.

Wiping out properties, charring tracks of land, and killing up to thousands of people, these terrible fires are some of the most heartbreaking disasters to ever have hit the country. The causes behind these fires include natural means, arsonists, abandoned campfires, and electrical faults. However, the cause of some of the fires remains a mystery. A few of the fires stand out both for their size and the role in shaping the historical events in the country. Here are some of the worst fires in American history. 

10. Rhythm Club Fire - 209

The Rhythm Club Fire broke out on the night of April 23, 1940, at the Rhythm Club dance hall in Natchez, Mississippi. The fire killed 209 people and seriously injured many others. The fire started at the main entrance as the people in the club were enjoying a performance by Walter Barnes. The fire was fueled by the Spanish moss and quickly engulfed the building. Only a handful of people were able to get out of the building. Most of those who were injured were scalded by the heat from the metal wall.

9. Brooklyn Theatre Fire - 278

The Brooklyn Theatre fire broke out on December 5, 1897, at the Brooklyn Theatre in Brooklyn. On this particular evening, the theatre was busy with over 1,000 guests in attendance. The fire killed over 278 people with some reports putting the numbers at 300. A small flame was detected by J W Thorpe, the stage manager, at around 11:20 pm. He, together with two carpenters, tried to put out the fire but their effort was in vain. The play continued for a while as Thorpe fought the small fire. Before long, the fire spread to other parts of the stage. When the audience realized that there was a fire in the theatre, they panicked and rushed to the exits where many were sadly trampled.

8. Thumb Fire - 282

The Thumb Fire occurred on September 5, 1881 in Thumb, Michigan. The fire destroyed over one million acres and killed 282 people within a day. The total damages were estimated at $2.3 million in 1881 (59.5 million when adjusted for inflation). The fire resulted from a long spell of drought, strong wind, and the after-effect of the 1871 Port Huron fire. The Thumb Fire burnt for three days and mainly affected the counties of Huron, Sanilac, Tuscola, and Lapeer.

7. Great Hinckley Fire - 418

The Great Hinckley fire took place in September 1894 in the pine forest of Minnesota. It burnt an area of approximately 200,000 acres, including the town of Hinckley, with at least 418 people dying as a result of the fire. The fire was brought on by several small fires that started in the pine forest following the summer drought that was characterized by high temperatures. The blaze quickly turned to firestorms with temperatures rising to over 1,000 degrees Celsius. Many people escaped the fire by jumping into the pond and river while others escaped by train.

6. Ohio Penitentiary - 322

The Ohio Penitentiary was a state prison that operated between 1834 and 1984 in Columbus, Ohio. A fire broke out at the prison on April 20, 1930 when a candle ignited an oily rag on the prison roof. However, some prison officials alleged that the fire was intentionally started by some prisoners a part of their escape attempt. 322 inmates were killed in the fire and another 230 were hospitalized. The number of causalities would have been lower had the prison guards unlocked the cells.

5. 1918 Cloquet Fire - 453

The Cloquet Fire took place in Minnesota in October 1918. The fire was started by sparks from a local railroad and was accelerated by dry conditions. Much of the western Carlton County was left devastated with Cloquet the most affected. The fire was the worst disaster in the history of Minnesota in terms of total casualties in a single day. A total of 453 people died and over 50,000 people were injured. Over 250,000 acres of land were burnt and properties worth $73 million were destroyed,

4. Cocoanut Grove Fire - 492

The Cocoanut Grove Fire was a fire that broke out in a nightclub in Boston on November 28, 1942. Cocoanut Grove was a popular nightclub in Boston in the 1930 and 1940s. The fire broke out at around 10:15 pm. Although the origin of the fire is not known, some sources have suggested that the fire may have been caused by a young boy who had lit a match while fixing a bulb. However, witnesses accounted that the young boy extinguished the match. The fire killed 492 people, 32 more than the club’s capacity, and injured hundreds more. Safety standards and codes across the country were reformed as a result of the tragic blaze.

3. Great Michigan Fire - 500

The Great Michigan fires were forest fires that happened in the midwest state of Michigan in 1871. The fires were fueled by the strong winds that may have also fueled the Great Chicago fire. Some believe that the fire may have been started by meteor showers or lightning. Villages, towns, and cities such as Manistee, Alpena, and Holland were severely destroyed by the fires and approximately 500 people died. The fires were accelerated by the dried-up vegetation that had formed after a long period of dry summer and largescale logging.

2. Iroquois Theatre Fire - 602

The Iroquois Theatre fire took place on December 30, 1903, at around 3 pm Chicago-time. It was the deadliest theatre fire in US history, as well as the largest single-building fire in the history of the US. About 602 people perished in the inferno. However, not all the deaths were reported since some of the bodies were moved away from the scene. The Iroquois Theatre had a capacity of 1,602 but on this particular day, there were approximately 2,200 patrons. The fire was caused by sparks from an arc light that ignited a muslin curtain. The fire quickly spread to the fly galleries above the stage. The efforts to control the fire failed because of the high number of patrons as well as the lack of firefighting equipment.

1. Peshtigo Fire - 2,500

The Peshtigo Fire was a massive wildfire that broke out on October 8, 1871, in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, resulting in between 1,500 to 2,500 deaths. It is often cited as the deadliest fire in American history. In the area, fire was commonly used to clear forest land for agricultural activity. However, on this day, a strong wind fanned the fire out of control, creating firestorms. By the time the fire was brought under control, 1.2 million acres of the forest had been consumed. The Peshtigo fire occurred on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, with some people believing that the two fires may have been caused by fragments from Comet Biela.


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