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For the most part, Wisconsin has been on right side of luck

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Lisa Wolfe
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« on: March 22, 2011, 04:34:24 pm »

Mike Nichols: For the most part, Wisconsin has been on right side of luck

Mike Nichols: For the most part, Wisconsin has been on right side of luck
MIKE NICHOLS | (2) Comments | Posted: Tuesday, March 22, 2011 10:45 am
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Earthquakes are more common than those of us in this little corner of the world realize and not just in Japan.
In fact, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, there were only four states that did not have any earthquakes between, for instance, 1975 and 1995: Florida, Iowa, North Dakota, and Wisconsin although Floridians might just not have noticed, given all the hurricanes.
This is, of course, just one little statistic but a telling one. We like to think of ourselves as hardy, resilient and, when necessary, stoic people of the north. That may be. But who really knows? We have, in truth, been asked to suffer little.
We live on a little shelf of land beside two of the world's great water sources, Superior and Michigan. They are full of fresh drinking water and generations of livelihood. Yes, there are midwinter gales with occasional 30-foot waves that have claimed sailors and fishermen, but they are not capable of wiping out whole towns.
It is true that our long-gone ancestors knew tragedies. The Peshtigo Fire alone took more than 1,500 lives the night that, as it was said "all hell rode into town on the back of a wind." The newspapers, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society, wondered how some came through the disaster while others were burned to ashes just 10 feet away.
That was in 1871, and the answer was the same as it is when disaster strikes today: pure luck.
Some Wisconsinites didn't get their allotment, to be sure. In the 1800s, tragic shipwrecks took the lives of hundreds. About 100 were lost when the steamer Niagara went down off Port Washington. Some 250 drowned when the wood-burning steamer Phoenix caught fire off the coast of Sheboygan. If the passengers on the Phoenix rose up from the ashes it was not in this world.
Such tragedies are often a combination of unpredictable natural disasters mixed in with the more commonplace and predictable things: foolishness or hubris or beer.
It is said that as the Niagara was going down, a one-time congressman by the name of John Macy insisted on taking along a money belt filled with gold when he tried to jump from the burning deck to a lifeboat nearby. The lifeboat capsized and everyone in it, including Macy, drowned. The Phoenix may have gone down, in the meantime, because the crew was drunk.
I don't mean to say that we haven't known misfortune at times. We get our share of floods. We get a lot of tornadoes too, more than 20 in the average year. But they are generally little ones that knock down a few homes and give the television reporters a reason to stand in the wind and put on a little more hair spray.
The Wisconsin Historical Society keeps track of all this stuff because, I guess, we want to know what we have come through. Apparently uncertain the list was long enough, someone there felt compelled to note in writing "a number of other types of tragedies" as well.
For instance, it was noted, "On January 17, 1902, a farmer was fatally injured in a fight with a pack of wolves." And "on July 22, 1906, lightning killed several spectators at a ball game in Manitowoc."
Finally, it has been noted, on May 6, 1947, Milwaukee was hit by a minor earthquake of "split second duration."
There's been a lot of acrimony and screaming and threatening going on in this state of late, and it would be naive to hope it will stop. But once in a while it's probably worth pausing for a simple fact. In the greater scheme of things, we have endured nothing. We are a land of blessed luck.
Mike Nichols is a former columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is now a senior fellow with the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. His column reflects his personal views and runs every Wednesday. He can be reached at
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