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The Great Fire of Chicago


Like her own prairies by some chance seed sown,
Like her own prairies in one brief day grown,
Like her own prairies in one fierce night mown.
Bret Harte.
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In August, 1812, on the site of the present City of Chicago, a Red Indian drove his tomahawk through the heads of a party of twelve defenceless white children who were escaping from Fort Dearborn.

This young savage could not have foreseen that where those innocents were murdered a mightier assassin would one day slay nearly three hundred more of his white enemies, would render another hundred thousand homeless, and destroy forty million pounds worth of their property, all in an October night.

Following that conflagration, then the largest in the world's history, the Chicago Times quoted these verses from Scripture as applicable to its own city:

She has glorified herself and lived deliciously; she hath said in her heart, I sit a queen....

She shall be utterly destroyed with fire.... For in one hour she is made desolate.

On the morning of the calamity the most famous of Chicago's divines had preached a significant sermon from the text: "Think ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans because they have suffered these things. I tell you nay: but except ye repent ye shall all in like manner perish."

The area of the Great Fire of Chicago was considerably larger than that of the Great Fire of London. Ascend the tower of Westminster Cathedral and take a bird's-eye view to the north, the east and south of London. Gaze across Buckingham Palace to Marble Arch and Euston, east to the Bank and Liverpool Street, south to the Tower and London Bridge Station, back again past St. Paul's and the Houses of Parliament. Your eye will then have covered approximately the same area of the City and West End as that traversed by the Great Fire that destroyed half of Chicago in about twenty-four hours.

All in twenty-four hours! A gigantic torrent of flame roaring across a newly-built city with the speed of a prairie fire. Hustle indeed in a land which prides itself upon it.

One observer, less fearful than his panic-stricken fellow-townsmen, halts and turns to ascertain something of the speed with which the devouring element does its work. His eye alights on a fine villa, perhaps the oldest and finest in the city. In England to-day it would fetch about three thousand pounds. It has two storeys and an attic. A brand, whirled by the dry gale high above the heads of the fleeing population, alights on its roof, setting the attic instantly ablaze. The fire drops downwards. In an incredibly short time the villa is burned to the ground; all that remains is a heap of ashes. The observer looks again at his watch, gasps, and hurries forward, away from the onrushing fury. Afterwards he records that the time taken for the complete destruction of that house was barely eight minutes!

A New York Alderman, who did rescue work, wrote of the flying people, the hurrying vehicles and the storm of falling fire which seemed to increase in speed every minute. The whole air was filled with falling cinders and flaming brands. At times the sky looked like a snowstorm lit by coloured fire. Smoke and flames were rushing along the side streets of the city and pouring into the main thoroughfares, filling the air with whirling embers that beat against the houses and covered the window-sills.

Speed of destruction! When the cries of the multitude in the main streets had risen to a terrible roar, because the work of havoc was raging on all sides, one of the great stores "suddenly ignited all over, in a manner," said the alder man, "entirely new to me, just as I have seen paper do that is held to the fire until it is scorched and breaks out in flame. The crowds who were watching greeted the combustion with terrible yells. In one of the stores there were a number of men on the several floors passing out the goods, and when the flames, blown over against it, enveloped the building, they were lost to sight entirely; nor did I see any effort whatever made to save them, for the heat was so intense that everybody was driven as before a tornado from the vicinity of the building."

Chicago's night of horror! To this day some of the fathers of the city will recount the experiences of their childhood when the distress of a lifetime was crowded into a single night! The night of October 8, 1871. There is that story of the woman seen kneeling in the street with a crucifix held aloft and her dress burning as she prays. A runaway truck tears along the street, knocks her down and runs over her burning body.

A little girl goes screaming down the road with her golden hair loose and blazing. A drunken man throws his glass of liquor over her; it flares up and covers the terrified child with a blue flame. Another victim, a banker named Ullmann, rushes into his office to save a large amount of coin and notes, but does not come out again.

At Speed's Block a lurid light appears. A man stands at the window of a fourth storey and looks down despairingly at the straight sides of the building to the basement fifty feet below. The crowd go frantic and urge him to jump. He disappears and, returning, throws some bed-clothes to the ground, hoping they will break his fall. He swings himself out and his white limbs gleam against the dark wall, for he is nearly naked. He drops, but not to the ground. He manages to break his fall by seizing the top of the windows below him. He drops again, alighting accurately on the window-sill of the third storey. The breathless crowd applaud. He tries again, but this time there is nothing to clutch, and he drops forty feet plumb to the basement, and dies in ten minutes.

The rapidity of the flames would not have caused so many deaths had there not been many other circumstances which aided the destroyer as he strode with flaming foot through the blood-red heart of Chicago. Early in the night there was a general move down Chicago Avenue to the bridges leading to the west side. Just when the flames were at their fiercest and the crowds were storming through this narrow gorge, it was discovered that the bridge at the end was impassable. An attempt was made to beat back the onsurging throng, but this was impossible, as the flames were lashing the rear of the frantic multitude. Hundreds were forced to return through the blaze or to take the side streets to North Avenue. But some of those side streets had no outlets, and many of the struggling crowd met their fate in blazing cul-de-sacs.

That dark passage under the river, La Salle Street Tunnel, was a scene of pandemonium. A shrieking, frenzied mob, driven forward by the pursuing flames, rushed terror-stricken down into its black cavern. Among them was every moral grade represented in the city. In the democracy of the hour those who led vicious and abandoned lives mingled with the gentle and the refined. The harlot, the thief and the millionaire thrust their way through shoulder to shoulder. Women shrieked for their husbands, parents called their children, and lost children screamed for their parents. Sometimes there were reunions, but more often the lost ones were borne on alone or trampled underfoot. Many of the hurrying people wore nothing more than their night-clothes, for they had been wakened to a home already in flames. A strange incongruous writhing mass of people such as perhaps the world has never looked upon poured down into a tunnel which in the lurid glare of the blazing city gave the appearance of being the very mouth of hell.

But why did a city like Chicago suddenly fall a victim to the Fire Demon? Who was to blame? Where were the firemen? Why was a vast population allowed to live in peril of being burnt alive?

For three months, from Independence Day (July 4) to the time of the outbreak, there had been a drought over the land. The great prairies encircling the city had become almost a desert. To England the south-west wind brings rain. To Chicago the south-west wind brings heat, haze, thirst and fire. It turns the prairies brown as old hay, it lights the grass in the meadow, the hay in the stack. During the Great Fire a dry gale blew from the south-west.

Chicago in 1871 was a new city, a city of pinewood. To the north were elegant homesteads covering a square mile; to the west cheap tenements stood alone with their gables to the street and separated a few feet from their neighbours by high pine fences which after three months' drought would burn like matches. The pavements were of wood and, as they were raised above the earth, they drew enough under-draught to make them burn like gunpowder. To the south side there were many wooden buildings, warehouses and stores. Some, built of stone, brick and steel, were thought to be fireproof, but the heat from other structures was so intense that floor-boards, window-frames and small inflammable things caught fire; soon these buildings, too, crashed with the rest. To the west of the City the waterworks, with its wooden roof and wooden ceilings to the engine-room, seemed to invite its arch-enemy to come and render it powerless to fight the flames. Which the destroyer did early in the night. To the east, Lake Michigan alone was immune.

Some time before dawn a company of firemen were seen in one of the saloons. They had abandoned their work as being impossible. Out of seventeen fire-engines only one or two had escaped the flames, and these were merely capable of projecting a jet of water about ten feet in face of the south-west gale.

There was yet a stronger excuse for the defection of the fire brigade. On the previous night the city's largest fire, so far, had broken out and devastated four blocks, approximately twenty-seven acres. Before that first fire had become controlled some of the saloon-keepers had thrown open their establishments to the public, including the firemen, to help themselves. What with the fire-fighting and the firewater of Saturday, many were unfit for duty against a raging inferno on Sunday night. Nevertheless, some of the firemen fought long and gallantly. Three of them were so strenuous in their endeavours to save a brewery from destruction that they stayed in the building too long. Staggering out, they took refuge in an iron pipe, where they were discovered next day dead and unrecognisable. All their clothing and flesh had been burnt away.

The Great Fire started that Sunday night towards the south-east behind a little wooden house in De Koven Street, occupied by two families, the O'Learys and the McLaughlins. It had been a rather merry evening, with many drinks from the flowing bowl. To the rear of the house was a barn built of wood where the O'Learys kept the cows for their milk round. A broken kerosene lamp was found afterwards in the burnt-out barn, and it was assumed that this had been kicked over by the cow when Mrs. O'Leary was milking it. This the good woman denied on oath; but it was thought that in her denial she had a mind to the bill for 40,000,000 damage that might be presented to somebody.

Though the barn, and the houses in front of it, were blazing, there was considerable delay in getting the warning to the Fire Department, and later the water to the fire. Presently the night watchman saw the glare and gave warning, but he misjudged its whereabouts by about a mile, and so by the time the engine reached the scene the blaze had become a conflagration beyond all control.

Now began a series of scenes that were appalling to behold. Great brands of fire were caught up into the air, some as high as five hundred feet, and whirled away to distant streets where, descending, they immediately started a new series of fires. These very soon extended to nearly a mile in width. Then, led by two flaming columns, and borne on the gale, the fire raced north-eastwards parallel with Lake Michigan as far as Lincoln Park, with the populace powerless to prevent its progress. It was at first thought that, when it reached the limits of the previous night's outbreak, the fire would die out. Nobody believed that it would go farther than the southern division. But at midnight a huge brand was blown across the Chicago River. Like a messenger of doom it alighted on the roof of a three-storey building which, being as dry as tinder, immediately went up in flames. This tenement was in the vicinity of a place known as Gonley's Patch, an area densely covered with saloons, tumble-down hovels, sheds, and peopled by the lowest classes in the city. When the flames broke out here all the male population were away watching the grand spectacle from the west division. Screaming women and children ushed into the streets and escaped; others, leaving their homes just too late, were burned to death. The columns of re spread right and left, and soon the gas-works blew up, leaving a red glare behind to show where the coal in the yard was burning furiously.

After leaving Conley's Patch, and the surrounding abodes of squalor and vice, one of the fire column made for the great mercantile buildings along La Salle Street, the finest buildings in America. Even these "fire-proof" structures succumbed to the furnace. Now the Chamber of Commerce was caught and gutted. Passing on, the fire column made for the Court House, above which the great ten-thousand pound bell was tolling its warning to the citizens of Chicago. The bell tolled on and the flames leapt around it Its wooden cupola caught alight and still it tolled on. Presently it fell, dropping through floor after floor of the burnt-out building and giving one farewell dying groan as it crashed. Later it was to be serviceable again, when the souvenir hunters arrived.

Meanwhile, in the basement of this doomed b aiding, the convicts had been made aware of what was happening. Almost suffocated by the smoke and frenzied through fear of being roasted alive, they yelled, cursed and shook the bars of their cells to attract the attention of their gaoler. Captain Hickey waited until the situation had become desperate. Then he gave the order, the doors flew open, and the prisoners swarmed out to freedom. A truckload of clothing was passing, and some of them scrambled on it to safety. Others, determined to reap the harvest of their sudden good fortune, made for the nearest jeweller's shop and filled their pockets with what they could find. There were few police, and they, like the public, had their own safety and that of their property to attend to.

When the Court House capitulated to the Destroyer the City Dignitaries thought that it was the end of everything. For it contained the records of the title deeds of every foot of property, from that held by the Government, to the latest buyer of real estate in Chicago. If the City were ever rebuilt, who would be able to decide who was the rightful owner of any square foot of land? The answer is that something almost miraculous was then happening in the interest of Chicago's property-owners. One of the partners of a firm of conveyancers named Shortall had spent that Sunday evening in church as usual. Following the crowd down Michigan Avenue, he had crossed the bridge and turned southwards until he came to the scene of the fire - an awful exhibition, as he described it, of the fury of a furnace uncontrolled. As it advanced from house to house he retired before it. The roar of the flames and the heat of both air and fire were terrible. By the time he reached Van Buren Street the whole air was filled with burning embers wrenched away by the wind. He began to fear for his own premises, which were near the Court House, although at this time they seemed very remote from danger. But the streets were filled with streams of people, with all sorts of vehicles, trucks, wagons - pianos, even - all flying northwards, where they might be out of danger. Nobody seemed to think that the fire could cross the south branch of the Chicago River, then half a mile away. But he was taking no risks. He stopped fifteen wagons and arranged with, the drivers to go to his business premises to collect his books of records. All agreed to do so; none of them kept their word. He found afterwards that some had been stopped by the crowd and literally forced to take them and their possessions away from danger.

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