From First Americans to Euroamericans
— Archaeology and History of the Wis 57 Transportation Corridor —
The Town of Williamsonville
Tornado Memorial Park in Door County is located on the site of the former settlement of Williamsonville. The town was settled by the Williamson family in 1869 to take advantage of the Door County State Road opened in 1867 that linked Green Bay and Sturgeon Bay.
By 1871, Williamsonville had a steam-powered shingle mill for processing wood from the nearby pine forests and cedar swamps, a boarding house, a blacksmith shop, eight houses, and 10 acres of cleared farmland. The town's population of 76 included men, women, and children.
The Peshtigo Fire
On October 8, 1871, events conspired to erase Williamsonville from the landscape if not from memory. Contemporary accounts tell us:
"The woods and the heavens were all on fire, the smoke blocked the sun and the rising moon turned red."
The Peshtigo Fire is less well known than the Chicago Fire that occurred on the same day. The Peshtigo blaze remains the most destructive forest fire in American history. The Peshtigo Fire destroyed one million acres of farms, forests, sawmills, and small towns in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, including the town of Williamsonville. For ten days prior to October 8, 1871, residents of Williamsonville had been fighting small blazes and had set back-fires to protect their town. Despite these efforts, a strong wind began to blow on the evening of October 8, fanning fires and spreading sparks and eventually burning all of Williamsonville's buildings. People took shelter in a potato patch south of the town, in the town well, and under wet blankets in beds of ash. Fifty-nine of the town's 76 residents died as well as 16 horses, five oxen, and 38 hogs. Williamsonville was never rebuilt.
When Tornado Memorial Park was opened in 1927 to commemorate the destruction of Williamsonville, the Sturgeon Bay Advocate reported that the site was in the same condition as it was after being destroyed by fire.
The land included partial foundations of the boarding house, well, and mill, the location of the former potato patch, and many charred tree stumps.
Archeology at Williamsonville
Archaeological investigations uncovered portions of
the mill and several structures, including houses and outbuildings.
Because of the site's significance, Wis DOT
57 to avoid the site and preserve the archaeological deposits.
A List of Those Who Perished in the Fire of October 8, 1871 at Williamsonville, Wisconsin
Published in the Door County Advocate, October 26, 1871.
At Williamson's Mill
Joseph Married, wife and three children ·
Nelson Dimrow, wife and two children ·
Michael Adams, wife and three children ·
John Williamson, wife and one child ·
Jos. Marcoix, wife and two children ·
James Williamson and wife ·
Mrs. Buckland and two children ·
Unknown French woman and two children ·
Thomas Crane · John O'Conners · Chas. Duncan · Emery Jervis · John Conlan · Unknown Woman · Henry Jervis · Maggie Williamson · Freddy Williamson · Maggie 0'Neil · Patrick Ahearn · Charles Weinbeck · Peter Bordway · Joseph Verbonker · Thomas Whelan · Dan Nickolson · Frank Borway · Jason Williamson · George Buckland · J. Williamson, Sr. · James Whelan · James Donlan · Mike Rogan · John Ahearn · Frank Donlan · Louis Longley · Maggie Heaney · Unknown Woman · Four unknown bodies found in the woods.
At Scofield & Co. Mill
Twelve unknown men
(All photos UWM-ARL 2012)
logos of United States Department of Transportation, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wisconsin Department of Transportation