William Ogden is an interesting historical figure on his accomplishments alone, but his link to two of the great fires in American history is a quirk that ensures his name will be remembered in some circles forever. Ogden was born into his family’s real estate business. He was a natural entrepreneur who also enjoyed a great deal of political success. Ogden was elected to the New York state legislature where he assisted in getting the Erie Canal project approved.
The East Coast born Ogden, like many other Americans, was drawn to the excitement of the burgeoning development on the American frontier. And by the 1830s the city of Chicago was becoming known as growing place with economic opportunity. Ogden made the most of his by becoming a respected businessman and the first Mayor of Chicago.
Ogden’s business interests included a sawmill in northern Wisconsin. The white pine forests ther were being harvested for construction projects across the growing United States, and Ogden thought he found the ideal location to provide builders with the lumber they needed.
Peshtigo, Wisconsin is east of Green Bay and sits on a river of the same name. Ogden had big plans for the little village. He built a harbor to ship his lumber to Chicago. He built a company store and a boarding house for saw mill employees. Telegraph lines to the town were constructed, and in 1871 there were plans for the railroad to be expanded to include a stop in Peshtigo.
Ogden hoped to see Peshtigo grow into something more than just a lumber town, perhaps not as big as his adopted town of Chicago but something similar, until the night of Oct. 8 1971.
It had been a dry spring in the Midwest that summer, which left Chicago and Peshtigo vulnerable to fire. Neither place had effective fire management plans nor the fire departments in place to combat a major fire and both burned to the grown. The Peshtigo fire remains the deadliest in American history. The fires might have spared Ogden’s life, but they cost him most of his possessions.