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The Great Fire of Chicago page 2


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At this stage the Court House was safe and so, having broken into his own premises, Shortall endeavoured to remove his books to the central building. Fortunately, he was unable to do so. He sent a colleague to try and find a conveyance and presently saw him holding a horse's head in defiance of the driver. As the man refused to lend his wagon, Shortall, though a churchman, produced a revolver and threatened to shoot. Another lorry drove up just in time, and all the books were transferred from the business premises to a house in a distant suburb, though not before there were more threats with the churchman's revolver. For the driver, hearing that General Sheridan had now taken charge of some blasting operations at the end of the road, refused to run the risk of being blown into the air. When the fire was over and the books were consulted it was found that these, used in conjunction with two more sets saved by two other firms of conveyancers, made a complete Domesday Book of the City. Though many attempts were afterwards made to rob rightful owners of their lands, these books prevented it from being done. And the persons who were most effectual in protecting the land of the people of Chicago were two of the convicts newly released from the Court House. Their services had been requisitioned just as they were escaping. They carried the books to the lorry and then walked on either side of it through the burning streets until a place of safety was reached.

After the Court House had been demolished, the Merchants' Insurance Building followed, Hooley's Opera House, the Times Building, Crosby's, a new opera house to have been reopened that very night, all fell to the destroyer in rapid succession. The fire roared on, laid waste the large buildings to the north-east, descended on the great wholesale stores, and then joined forces with another column which was demolishing a seventeen-storey marble edifice known as Sherman House. Meanwhile the main column had destroyed all the great buildings to the west of La Salle Street, including the Oriental, the Union Bank, General Sheridan's Headquarters, the Western Union Telegraph and a row of stone palaces of trade which were the boast of Chicago's business quarter. The right column, during this time, had been sweeping down another well-built section of the town gutting the Michigan Southern Depot and the Grand Pacific Hotel. Having demolished the new buildings on Dearborn Street, it seized on the Post Office which it consumed like the rest, including nearly half a million pounds worth of treasure contained in its vaults. Thence it turned its attention to a vast new hotel known as Bigelow House, and the Honore Building, with its massive walls and colonnades of stately marble, and both these fell without resistance. McVicker's New Theatre to the left was caught and gutted in a few minutes. Booksellers' Row, then supposed to be the finest row of bookstores in the world, was the next victim. Some splendid churches and residences adorning the lower or town end of Wabash and Michigan Avenues, including the First and Second Presbyterian Churches, Trinity Episcopal Church, Terrace Row, where dwelt the biggest men in the city, all fell to the devouring monster which was not stayed at this end of the town until Congress Street was reached. Here a building had been blown up.

Meanwhile the engine at the Waterworks had given in to the marauder and that at a time when the nearby residents were enjoying the blazing splendour of the Court House. With the fire now raging behind them these residents began to stampede to the prairies and the lake.

Within an area of about sixteen square miles nothing was spared, not even the "fire-proof" Historical Hall, which contained a thousand precious relics of the past. The cemetery to the north, whither many people had removed their precious effects, Lincoln Park, whose oaks were burned to stumps and looked afterwards as though they had been blasted by lightning, the stone church of Robert Collyer who had preached on Sunday morning about "repentance," and nearly twenty thousand more buildings had all gone down before the fiery terror. Two lone houses and two only survived, the residence of Mahlon Ogden, standing just out of reach of the flames on the far side of a square which he had presented to the City, and the house of a policeman. It was said at the time that Ogden, by presenting a piece of land for a City square, had unknowingly provided a breastwork for the protection of his property without which it would surely have gone the same way as the churches and other fine buildings which stood in the same line of fire overlooking Washington Park.

The police officer's house had no advantage in the way of isolation, but it did have the benefit of police protection. In this case it was perhaps the most vigorous protection offered by a single human being to any house in Chicago. When the waterworks succumbed, the officer was fortunate in having a small quantity of water which he determined to shed to the last drop in the defence of his home and castle. First he tore up the wooden paving outside his home, then as the falling sparks and whirling brands began to threaten, he carefully ladled out his water, surrounding himself with little geysers of steam as the flames were quenched. But soon all his water had been burnt up and flames were still rising round him. A bucketful more of water might save his homestead. Then he remembered that barrel of cider which had been stored for the winter festivities. Cider would quench fire as well as water and cider must do it. The barrel was opened, the cider sparingly poured on the danger spots, and the home was saved.

Thousands of stories of escape and adventure were being told by the survivors during the days that followed. The picture of that hot swathe of fire sweeping across the city with the air filled with "burning hail" was burned into every brain, into some brains that never again knew "the kindly light of reason." The number of men and women who went crazed over the loss of home, property, and loved ones, cannot be told for certain, but they were many. It was also computed that about a hundred and fifty children were born during the Great Fire, many of them in the burning streets or in the open spaces of the cemetery, and the parks, and by the river and the lake.

Almost every resident had a vivid story to tell of a hasty awakening and precipitate flight. A typical one was that told by a woman who had spent Sunday morning surveying the devastation made by Saturday's fire, and pitying those unfortunate people who had lost their all. She returned home and at 10 p.m. heard firebells ringing again. She concluded that there must be some more property in danger on the west side, and went to sleep. At midnight she awoke her sister saying that she had never heard so many fire alarms; it seemed as though the whole west side must be ablaze. At two a.m. she rose, looked out of the window and exclaimed, "Good God, the fire must have crossed the river to us. Can there be any danger here?" Looking out of the window she now saw half-dressed men and women hurrying by, carrying bundles, screaming and swearing, with the whole city to the south now one vivid red glare.

"Where are the engines? Why don't they come?" the sisters asked each other, now thoroughly puzzled, but not yet aware that they too were in the line of the Devourer. As they stood watching the strange effects of the brilliant and surging streets below there came a loud knocking at their door: "Ladies! Ladies! Get up! Pack your trunks and prepare to leave your house. It may not be necessary but it is well to be prepared!"

It was the voice of a friend who had fought his way through the mouth of hell - La Salle Tunnel - to warn them that the whole City was threatened with destruction. The sisters looked at each other's white face but decided to wait until the last minute. They threw some valuables into a trunk and turned again to watch the approaching flare. Now the tumult below was growing louder. Then came a strange sound in the air which stilled for a moment the shouts of the stampeders. Was it thunder? No the sky was clear and full of stars. They shuddered as they felt, but did not see, a tremendous explosion of gunpowder, for the Mayor's order to blow up buildings in the path of the fire, as was done during the Great Fire of London, was being ruthlessly obeyed. By this time the blazing sparks and bits of burning wood which the sisters had been fearfully watching were fast becoming a continuous rain of burning hail. There was little smoke, for the dry wood was burning so rapidly. Another shower of blows on the door now warned them that not another minute must be lost. One of the sisters records that she ran downstairs repeating the words, "birds, deeds, silver, jewellery, silk dresses," this being the order in which she would endeavour to save her goods. In the parlour she paused to decide between a copy of a Bible, printed in 1637, and another article, the gift of a dead friend. Presently she dashed them both down in despair. Just then her parrot called her name and asked for a peanut. But his cage was too heavy to take. So she released the canary from its smaller cage and put the parrot in its place. The canary began to flutter about in the smoke. When the door opened it flew out to freedom, but probably did not escape the rain of fire.

As the sisters stepped into Dearborn Avenue, they encountered a struggling black-faced mob that looked like a horde of grimacing demons. A truck loaded with goods parted the crowd and dashed up the avenue. As it went flames burst from its sides bringing it to a halt at the door of the sisters' house. Soon it was a heap of ashes. Taking her parrot under one arm and a handbag under the other, the woman householder, and her sister, joined the hurrying mob. At that moment the friend who had given them warning came along carrying his own parcels which he discarded to give the ladies a hand. He and one of the sisters began dragging a trunk of valuables along the paving but were obliged to abandon it at the second corner. Thousands of people had a similar experience during that night of terror.

One of the sisters records that as she now looked back she saw the Episcopal Church of St. James in flames. On all sides they were mounting and licking the marble buttresses, leaving them charred and blackened. But the most wonderful sight of all was the white and shining church tower from which, as she watched, there now rose tongues of fire.

As the party progressed they saw many faces they knew, "but they were all blackened and discoloured and with an expression never in them before. I saw very little selfishness. But I saw one friend - it was days before I knew who - take my parrot and force a little bottle of tea and a bag of crackers into my hand as I wandered.... I now found myself opposite Unity Church... I was grieving enough, Heaven knows, over my private woes... but I awoke to new miseries when I heard our pastor's lamentations and saw his tears as his precious library, the slow accumulation of twenty laborious and economical years, fall into nothingness in that awful fire... A new sight soon struck my eye. What in the world was that dark lurid purplish ball that hung before me constantly changing its appearance like some fiendish face that grimaces at our misery? I looked and looked and looked again. May I never see the sun, that cheerful early herald of comfort and peace, look like that again! It looked devilish and I pinched myself to see if I was not losing my senses. It did not seem ten minutes since Sunday evening when I had seen a little moon look out, cold, quiet and pitiless through a rift in the smoke-cloud, from the deep blue sky."

A man who at that time was achieving world-fame took an active part in the conflagration. When after his Sunday night's meeting, D. L. Moody went homeward, he saw the glare of flame, and feared that the city to which he had so often preached was about to fall in ruins. About one o'clock in the morning his church in Illinois Street, and the Farwell Hall, to which he had attracted the largest congregations in the city, went under to the flames. Before that it had looked as though the Fire Department was getting the upper hand, and so Moody's family retired to bed. Soon, however, the residents of the street were called up and ordered to make their escape, for the fire was moving rapidly towards their district. A neighbour took Moody's two children away in his already crowded carriage while the evangelist and his wife gathered together a few articles and tokens of friendship and put them into a baby carriage. But now there was a little dissension between Moody and his wife. A framed portrait in oils, given to the preacher after his return from his first visit to Europe in 1867, hung on the wall, and Mrs. Moody determined to save it. A stranger took it down and the evangelist was invited to put it under his arm, but he declined. He pointed out the ludicrous side of this situation.

"Take my own picture? Well, that would be amusing. Suppose I am met in the street by friends in the same plight as ourselves and they say 'Hullo Moody, glad you've escaped? What's that you've saved and are clinging to so effectionately?' Wouldn't it sound well to reply, ' Oh, I've got my own portrait!'"

Seeing that she could not move her husband, Mrs. Moody knocked the picture out of its frame, rolled it up, and carried it herself. It now hangs on the walls of the Moody Training College at Northfield.

But there was a more sordid side to the picture than that which these stories suggest. Profiteering was indulged in by all cab-drivers. The charge for the hire of a conveyance, paid in ready money, ranged from five pounds to a hundred pounds; and when this had been paid, the hirer was not sure of a safe journey, for there were cases of conveyances being confiscated, and the occupants ejected.

Many saloons were thrown open and free liquor supplied to all who required it. Young hooligans with nothing to save, made themselves tipsy and became wild and dangerous. The few police were powerless. There were constant panics with crowds surging one way and another, stumbling over broken furniture and broken bodies. The brothels disgorged their tenants - villainous, obscene, haggard, pinched, dirty dishevelled women, and the men who lived on the price of their shame. And all the time there was the thunder of falling walls, the crackle of the fire, the roar of the gale, the hiss of the water, and the yells of the people.

An undertaker was seen heading a weird procession of boys, carrying empty coffins, their stock-in-trade, across Madison Bridge away from the fire. These coffins would soon be needed.

With the fire reaching its end, Monday was not a day of unrelieved misery. The Mayor wired to neighbouring cities for help, and they nobly responded. A couple of fire engines were two of the most welcome gifts unloaded from the first relief trains. These trains were unable to come farther into the city than Twenty-second Street. Here the passengers alighted and began a memorable walk through the derelict area. The Bucket Brigade was already at work carrying water from the Lake to the place where the fire still raged. Several houses that had escaped the flames lay ruined and prostrate, among those twenty thousand others that had been burned to cinders. The pavements had gone and the rails of the street cars were seen to be displaced and contorted into the oddest shapes. There were miles and miles of burned poles and tangled skeins of telegraph wires. The mournful search for dead relatives was proceeding everywhere. Preparations for feeding encampments of the hungry homeless were being rapidly made. The churches in the untouched parts of the city were open and the weak and the infirm were being taken inside and tended. Every doctor was in a state of exhaustion. Orders were given to all bakers remaining in the city to run their ovens to full capacity. The military came into the town and aided the police in protecting the ruins from looters. About three-quarters of a million pounds poured in from all parts of a sympathetic world.

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