The Great Chicago Fire

The Great Chicago Fire

by David Lowe

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Definitive treatment of 1871 fire — one of the greatest disasters in American history — includes eyewitness accounts and before-and-after illustrations. 70 photographs and engravings.

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ISBN-13: 9780486157023
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 06/14/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 87
File size: 16 MB
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The Great Chicago Fire

In Eyewitness Accounts and 70 Contemporary Photographs and Illustrations

By David Garrard Lowe

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1979 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-15702-3


Joseph Edgar Chamberlin

[At the time of the fire, Chamberlin was a reporter of twenty on the old Chicago Evening Post, afterward consolidated with the Evening Mail. His account was first published in Chicago and the Great Conflagration. issued soon after the fire by Elias Colbert and Everett Chamberlin.]

I was at the scene in a few minutes. The fire had already advanced a distance of about a single square through the frame buildings that covered the ground thickly north of De Koven Street and east of Jefferson Street—if those miserable alleys shall be dignified by being denominated streets [Plate 2]. That neighborhood had always been a terra incognita to respectable Chicagoans, and during a residence of three years in the city I had never visited it. The land was thickly studded with one-story frame dwellings, cow stables, pigsties, corncribs, sheds innumerable; every wretched building within four feet of its neighbor, and everything of wood—not a brick or a stone in the whole area.

The fire was under full headway in this combustible mass before the engines arrived, and what could be done? Streams were thrown into the flame, and evaporated almost as soon as they struck it [Plate 3]. A single fire engine in the blazing forests of Wisconsin would have been as effective as were these machines in a forest of shanties thrice as combustible as the pine woods of the North. But still the firemen kept at work fighting the flames—stupidly and listlessly, for they had worked hard all of Saturday night and most of Sunday, and had been enervated by the whisky which is always copiously poured on such occasions. I stepped in among some sheds south of Ewing Street; a fence by my side began to blaze; I beat a hasty retreat, and in five minutes the place where I had stood was all ablaze. Nothing could stop that conflagration there. It must sweep on until it reached a broad street, and then, everybody said, it would burn itself out.

Ewing Street was quite a thoroughfare for that region. It is a mere alley, it is true, but is somewhat broader than the surrounding lanes. It has elevated board sidewalks, and is passable for teams in dry weather. On that night it was crowded with people pouring out of the thickly-settled locality between Jefferson Street and the river, and here the first panic began. The wretched female inhabitants were rushing out almost naked, imploring spectators to help them on with their burdens of bed quilts, cane-bottomed chairs, iron kettles, etc. Drays were thundering along in the single procession which the narrowness of the street allowed, and all was confusion.

When the fire had passed Ewing Street, I hurried on to Harrison, aware of the fact that the only hope for the staying of the conflagration was in the width of that street, and hoping that some more effective measures than squirting of water would be taken at that point. The same scene of hurry and confusion was repeated at Harrison on a larger scale than at Ewing; and that same scene kept on increasing in terror all night long as the fire moved northward. The crowd anxiously watched the flames as they approached the street, and the universal remark was: "If it passes this, nothing can stop it but last night's burned district." At length the fire reached the street, and broke out almost simultaneously for a distance of two squares. The two fire engines which stood in Harrison Street fled in terror. Brands of fire driven on by the gale struck the houses on the north side of the street. Though mostly of brick, they ignited like tinder, and the fire swept northward again.

Again I passed into Jefferson Street, keeping on the flank of the fire. In a vacant square filled with refugees from the fire and their rescued effects I stopped a few minutes to watch the fiery ocean before me. The open lot was covered with people, and a strange sight was presented. The fire had reached a better section, and many people of the better class were among those who had gathered a few of their household goods on that open space. Half a dozen rescued pianos were watched by delicate ladies, while the crowd still surged in every direction. Two boys, themselves intoxicated, reeled about, each bearing a small cask of whisky out of which he insisted upon treating everybody he met. Soon more casks of whisky appeared, and scores of excited men drank deeply of their contents. The result was, of course, that an equal number of drunken men were soon impeding the flight of the fugitives.

When I reached Van Buren Street, the southern limit of the Saturday night fire, I paused to see the end of the conflagration. A single engine stood on Van Buren Street, doing what seemed to me good service in preventing the fire from eating its way westward, against the wind, which it was apparently determined to do. Suddenly the horses were attached to the engine, and as soon as the hose was reeled it disappeared, whirling northward on Jefferson Street. What did it mean? I caught the words, "across the river," uttered doubtingly by a bystander. The words passed from mouth to mouth, and there was universal incredulity, although the suggestion was communicated through the crowd with startling rapidity.

There was a general movement northward and out of the smoke, with a view to discover whether it was really possible that the fire had been blown across the river, and had started afresh on the south side. I went with the rest, crossed the burnt ground of the night before, stood on the embankment that had been Canal Street, and perceived, through the clouds of smoke, a bright light across the river. I rushed to the Adams Street viaduct and across the bridge. The Armory, the Gasworks [Plate 4], "Conley's Patch," and Wells Street as far north as Monroe were all on fire. The wind had increased to a tempest, and hurled great blazing brands over our heads.

At this point my duty called me to my home in the West Division; but within an hour I was back again to witness the doom of the blazing city, of which I then had a full presentiment. The streets on the West Side were as light as broad noon. I looked at my watch and saw that it was just two o'clock. As I ran down Monroe Street, with the burning town before me, I contemplated the ruin that was working, and the tears arose to my eyes. I could have wept at the saddest of sights, but I choked down the tears, and they did not rise again that night.

When I crossed the river, I made a desperate attempt to reach my office on Madison Street beyond Clark. I pressed through the crowd on Randolph Street as far as La Salle, and stood in front of the burning Courthouse [Plates 5—7]. The cupola was in full blaze, and presented a scene of the sublimest as well as most melancholy beauty. Presently the great tower was undermined by the fire below, and fell to the bottom with a dull sound and a heavy shock that shook the earth. Somebody called out, "Explosion!" and a panic ensued in which everything and everybody was carried westward. Then I went to Lake Street, and found a torrent of sparks sweeping down that avenue. But I pulled my hat about my eyes, buttoned up my coat collar, and rushed eastward, determined to reach my office. I turned down Dearborn, and leaped through a maelstrom of scorching sparks. The fiery storm at length drove me into an open store, from which the occupants had fled. I seized a large blanket which they had left on the floor, wrapped it around my head and body, and sallied forth again. I went as far as Washington Street, but any attempt at further progress would have been madness. I beat a hasty retreat to Lake Street, and came down La Salle again to the immediate neighborhood of the fire.

And now the scene of confusion had reached its height. Wagons were rushing through the streets laden with stocks of goods, books, valuable papers, boxes of money, and everything conceivable; scores of men were dragging trunks frantically along the sidewalks, knocking down women and children; fabulous sums of money were offered truckmen for conveyances. The scene was indescribable.

But, as large as was the number of people who were flying from the fire, the number of passive spectators was still larger. Their eyes were all diverted from the skurrying mass of people around them to the spectacle of appalling grandeur before them. They stood transfixed, with a mingled feeling of horror and admiration, and while they often exclaimed at the beauty of the scene, they all devoutly prayed that they might never see such another.

The noise of the conflagration was terrific. To the roar which the simple process of combustion always makes, magnified here to so grand an extent, was added the crash of falling buildings and the constant explosions of stores of oil and other like material. The noise of the crowd was nothing compared with this chaos of sound. All these things—the great, dazzling, mounting light, the crash and roar of the conflagration, and the desperate flight of the crowd—combined to make a scene of which no intelligent idea can be conveyed in words.

When it became too hot in Randolph Street, I retired to the eastern approach of the bridge on that street. A knot of men had gathered there, from whom all signs of excitement had disappeared. It was then almost four o'clock, and whatever excitement we had felt during the night had passed away. Wearied with two nights of exertion, I sat upon the railing and looked down on the most appalling spectacle of the whole night. The Briggs House, the Metropolitan House, Peter Schuttler's wagon manufactory, Heath & Milligan's oil establishment stored five stories high with exceedingly inflammable material, the Nevada Hotel, and all the surrounding buildings, were in a simultaneous blaze [Plate 8]. The flames, propelled by variable gusts of wind, seemed to pour down Randolph Street in a liquid torrent. Then the appearance was changed, and the fire was a mountain over our heads. The barrels of oil in Heath's store exploded with a sound like rattling musketry. The great north wall of the Nevada Hotel plunged inward with hardly a sound, so great was the din of the surrounding conflagration. The Garden City House burned like a box of matches; the rapidity of its disappearance was remarked by everybody. Toward the east and northeast we looked upon a surging ocean of flame.

Meanwhile a strange scene was being enacted in the street before us. A torrent of humanity was pouring over the bridge [Plates 9 and 10]. The Madison Street bridge had long before become impassable, and Randolph was the only outlet for the entire region south of it. Drays, express wagons, trucks, and conveyances of every conceivable species and size crowded across in indiscriminate haste. Collisions happened almost every moment, and when one overloaded wagon broke down, there were enough men on hand to drag it and its contents over the bridge by main force.

The same long line of men dragging trucks was there, many of them tugging over the ground with loads which a horse would strain at. Women were there, looking exactly like those I had seen all night, staggering under weights upon their backs. Whole establishments of ill-fame were there, their half-dozen inmates loaded into the bottom of express wagons, driven, of course, by their "men." Now and then a stray schooner, which, for want of a tug, had been unable to escape earlier from the South Branch, came up, and the bridge must be opened. Then arose a howl of indignation along the line, which, being near, was audible above the tumult. A brig lay above us in the stream, and the captain was often warned by the crowd that he must make his exit at once, if he wished to save his craft—a suggestion the force of which he doubtless appreciated, as he stood upon the quarterdeck calling frantically to every tug that passed.

I saw an undertaker rushing over the bridge with his mournful stock. He had taken a dray, but was unable to load all of his goods into the vehicle, so he employed half a dozen boys, gave each of them a coffin, took a large one himself, and headed the weird procession. The sight of those coffins, upright, and bobbing along just above the heads of the crowd, without any apparent help from anybody else, was somewhat startling, and the unavoidable suggestion was that they were escaping across the river to be ready for use when the debris of the conflagration should be cleared away. But just as men in the midst of a devastating plague carouse over each new corpse, and drink to the next who dies, so we laughed quite merrily at the ominous spectacle.

At last it became too warm to be comfortable on the east side of the river. The fire was burning along Market Street, and many were the conjectures whether Lind's Block would go. The buildings opposite burned with a furnace heat, but Lind's Block stands now, a monument to its own isolation.

And then the question was everywhere asked, "Will Chicago ever recover from this blow?" Many suggestions were offered on this subject. The general opinion was that the city could never again obtain a foothold. Said one old gentleman, "Our capital is wiped out of existence. You never can get what money is stored up out of those vaults. There isn't one that can stand this furnace heat. Whatever the fire consumes tonight is utterly consumed. All loss is total; for there will not be an insurance company left tomorrow. The trade of the city must go to St. Louis, to Cincinnati, and to New York, and we never can get hold of it again. We couldn't transact any business even if we had customers, for we haven't got anywhere to transact it. Yes, sir, this town is gone up, and we may as well get out of it at once." Thus all seemed to talk, and there was none of that earnest, hopeful language of which I have heard so much since, and have been rejoiced to hear. But what else could I expect? These men stood facing the burning city. They saw those great hotels and warehouses toppling, one after another, to the ground. Their spirits were elastic, as subsequent events have proved, but on that terrible night they were drawn to their utmost tension, and the cord came near breaking.

Tired with my two nights' work, and of the sad sight before me, I joined the crowd, crossed the river, went up Canal Street and lay down on a pile of lumber in Avery's yard. My position was at the confluence of the North and South branches, directly opposite the middle of the main river, and exactly on the dock. All solicitude for the remaining portion of the city, and all appreciation of the magnitude of the tragedy that was being acted across the river, had left me. I did not care whether the city stood or burned. I was dead so far as my sensibilities were concerned. Half a dozen fellows—strangers—were with me on the lumber pile, and were as listless as myself. The chief matter which seemed to interest them was the probable weight of one of their party—a fat fellow whom they called Fred. I became quite interested in the subject, and joined in the guessing. Fred kept us bursting in ignorance awhile, and then, in a burst of confidence, told us he weighed 206, and begged us not to mention it.

Meanwhile, Wells Street bridge took fire, and, as affording something novel, attracted our attention for a few minutes. The south end of the bridge caught alight, and then the north end. But the north end burned less rapidly than the south, and soon outbalanced the latter, when, of course, the whole structure tipped to the northward, and stood fixed, one end in the water, at an angle of about sixty degrees. Then the fire communicated with the whole framework, till the bridge looked like a skeleton with ribs of fire. But presently the support underneath burned away, then the skeleton turned a complete somersault and plunged into the river, as if warmed into life it had sought refuge from the flames which were consuming it.

When I had regained a footing in the favored West Division it was seven o'clock. Then a curious-looking crimson ball came up out of the lake, which they said was the sun; but oh, how sickly and insignificant it looked! I had watched that greatest of the world's conflagrations from its beginning to almost its end, and although the fire was still blazing all over the city with undiminished luster, I could not look at it. I was almost unable to walk with exhaustion and the effects of a long season of excitement, and sought my home for an hour's sleep. As I passed up West Madison Street, I met scores of working girls on their way "down town" as usual, bearing their lunch baskets, as if nothing had happened. They saw the fire and smoke before them, but could not believe that the city, with their means of livelihood, had been swept away during that night.


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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,
Joseph Edgar Chamberlin,
Alexander Frear,
Mrs. Alfred Hebard,
H.W.S. Cleveland,
Horace White,
William Bross,
Lambert Tree,
Arthur M. Kinzie,,
Mary L. Fales,
William A. Croffut,
A Chicago Directory - [From the Chicago Evening Journal, Tuesday, October 10, 1871.],

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