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9.21.2010

18 The Woods Burn

If you've been following these postings you are aware of the serendipitous nature of Cornell's land grant success: the choice of investments, the ability to retain the land realizing significant appreciation, the financial structure of the scrip sale to Ezra and its eventual designation to a new flexible endowment for the university.

But the risks were great. The pine woods of northern Wisconsin were susceptible to theft, financial swindles, and poor surveying. And fire.

Fires in most northern Midwest forests were common – a combination of weather conditions, poor logging practices and carelessness. I didn't realize how close Cornell was to losing its woodland investment (initiated in 1866) until I thought about the Peshtigo Fire of 1871.

In early October, after Ezra returned from a visit to the Wisconsin pines and Chicago a week earlier, he was unable to contact the Midwest. His telegraph lines were down throughout the region.

As every school student knows the Great Chicago Fire of October 8-10 destroyed this Midwest metropolis. Mrs. O'Leary's cow aside, the fire consumed the wooden city and provided a blank canvas upon which the leading architects and inspired planners designed the modern city. Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Daniel Burnham introduced the world to a new view of urban life and landscape.

5:35 PM CST, October 8, 1871
But as destructive as the Chicago fire was, the same day, hundreds of miles north, a five-mile wide conflagration, with sustained winds over 100 miles per hour consumed 1,500 square miles, one billion feet of lumber, and as many as 2,400 lives – the most devastating fire in US history.

The description documented in "Firestorm in Peshtigo," by Gess and Lutz is powerful and terrifying. The description of the tragic loss of human life is horrific.

Peshtigo Fire Destruction
The isotope weather map shows that storms essentially encircled the Cornell pine lands in western Wisconsin. Though the destruction reached across Lake Michigan to the east and Minnesota to the west, the Chippewa Rivier Valley miraculously was spared.

Initially Ezra considered purchasing acreage near Green Bay. Correspondence with a former Ithaca resident and friend, Ira Millard of New London, WI, discussed the possibility of locating some of the scrip on the Green Bay watershed. If he had, Cornell might be a much different institution.

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