J. Seymour (Josiah Seymour) Currey.

Chicago: its history and its builders, a century of marvelous growth (Volume v.2) online

. (page 30 of 55)
Online LibraryJ. Seymour (Josiah Seymour) CurreyChicago: its history and its builders, a century of marvelous growth (Volume v.2) → online text (page 30 of 55)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

drank to excess, and staggered about the streets.

"Some must have miserably perished in the flames, while others wandered away
into the unburned district, and slept a drunken sleep upon the sidewalks and in
door-yards. Thieves pursued their profession with perfect impunity. Lake street
and Clark street were rich with treasure, and hordes of thieves entered the stores,
and flung out goods to their fellows, who bore them away without opposition.
Everyone who had been forced from the burning portion of the division had brought
some articles with them, and been forced to drop some, or all of them. Valuable
oil paintings, books, pet animals, musical instruments, toys, mirrors, bedding, and
ornamental and useful articles of every kind, were trampled under foot by the
hurrying crowds. The streets leading southward from the fire were jammed with
vehicles of every description, all driven along at top speed. Not only the goods
which were deposited in the streets took fire, but wagon loads of stuff in transit,
also kindled, and the drivers were obliged to cut the traces to save their animals.
There was fire overhead, everywhere, not only on the low, red clouds, which rolled
along the roofs, but in the air itself, filled with millions of blazing faggots, that
carried destruction wherever they fell. Those who did rescue anything from the
burning buildings, were obliged to defend it at the risk of their lives. Express-
men and owners of every description of wagons were extortionate in their de-
mands, asking from twenty to fifty dollars for conveying a small load a few blocks.
Even then there was no surety that the goods would reach their place of destination,
as they were often followed by howling crowds, who would snatch the goods from
the wagons. Sometimes thieves got possession of vehicles, and drove off with rich
loads of dry goods, jewelry, or merchandise, to out-of-the-way places. A mere
tithe of the immense treasures piled up in these palatial warehouses was saved."

Through the business streets were men rushing about in the hope of saving
books and other valuables from their offices, sometimes forcing a way to a building
just in time to see it burst into flames, sometimes barely escaping a falling wall
or a crashing stairway in their terrified flight to the street. In the entire progress
of this hurricane of fire, many, even though aware of its approach, were over-
taken before realizing the imminence of the danger, and fled before it to a temporary
place of safety, only to be soon driven onward, exhausted and hopeless, to another


refuge. Many, it is not known how many, were overtaken without a chance to
escape, surrounded by the fire, which was blown from every direction by the
whirling currents of air. Some have told of crawling, face to the ground, through
smoke and fire, through passage ways and openings, the mighty walls of roaring
fire all about them, until they reached the air. How many who tried to escape
in this way were never able to tell of the horror that overtook them !


While in the South Division the most of the business blocks and many beau-
tiful homes were burning, the fire was at the same time destroying the dwellings
of thousands of residents in the North Division. Just about the time that the
Court House took fire, the flames broke out in several places north of the State street
bridge, and far in advance of the main fire. Rapidly the destroyer consumed many
blocks of wooden houses, barns and other frame structures over which furnace hot
winds had been blowing for several hours. Here were two great fires simultaneously
raging, that in the South Division spreading farther to the west as it swept along
northeastward, and wiping out huge stone and brick buildings on its way toward
the main river; the fire in the North Division finding ready fuel in every dry tree,
fence, sidewalk, and building.

When the people realized with horror that the fire must soon reach the water
works, which had already ignited several times, and that all means of fighting the
flames would thus be cut off, there was a general feeling of despair. Soon after
three o'clock in the morning the engineers and firemen, having stayed at their places
until the last possible moment, abandoned the burning structure. This was the
last building in the main path of the fire. It was located close to the lake, at the
foot of Chicago avenue, where the present water works stand. The fire was not
spent at this point, however, for the track of flame widened westward as it ad-
vanced, and constantly new columns swept along over the district to the west of
the last line of destruction, the entire front line of the fire moving forward en
echelon, until it died out only at the water's edge. All day Monday it worked
farther west and north and drove before it homeless fugitives, some of whom
had successively moved two, three, four times, from each resting place driven
ahead, many so weary that they begged to be left to perish rather than take up
again the wretched flight.


During the forenoon that entire part of the city north of the main river and
between the North branch and the lake was burned or burning in a line extending
from southwest to northeast, the west end of the fire reaching as far north as
Fullerton avenue^ and as far west as Orchard street. The fire on its outskirts ate
into blocks of houses, leaving a building here and there in a partially ruined
neighborhood. At the eastern extremity of the line of destruction the last house
was that of Dr. Dyer, on the southeast corner of Diversey and Clark streets. In
the main part of the burned district of the North Division nothing was left stand-
ing but some small huts along the river banks, some dwellings near the corner of
Kingsbury and Superior streets, the little cottage, on Lincoln place, of a .police-


man named Bellinger, and the large home of Mahlon D. Ogden, standing on the
present site of the Newberry library. The story of Bellinger's valiant fight to
save his house is a lively one: "He hauled up the sidewalk, raked up the leaves
and burned them, hewed down the fence and carried it into the house in pieces,
and notified his neighbors that, live or die, he would stick to that house. 5 The fire
advanced and gave battle. It flung torches into his porch, it hurled them through
the window. It began and kept up a hot bombardment of flaming shot upon the
roof. He met it at every point; with hands and boots, with water and wet blankets,
and finally as the last wave of fire enveloped the building in a sirocco and whirled
through the crackling tree-tops and gyrated madly over the adjacent walls and
wavered and whirled over the smoking roof, Bellinger cast a pail into his cistern
and it was dry. The blankets were on fire. Then the Bellinger genius rose
triumphant. He assaulted his cider barrels, and little by little emptied their con-
tents on the roof. It was the coup de guerre. It gave him victory. His blankets
were scorched, his hands blistered, his boots distorted, and his cider spilled, but
his house was saved."

The Ogden house stood in the middle of the lot, and in front of it, to the south,
where it is now, was Washington square, a small park covering a city block. The
location of the Ogden house was precisely where the Newberry library now stands.
The family were away from the city, but some men who were staying in the house
worked furiously with wet carpets and blankets, buckets of water, and finally,
when the water works burned down, with cistern water and with pails of cider.
Though sidewalks and fences burned very near, and though the roof caught fire in
many places, the work of these men saved the house, to remain standing alone
amidst the total ruin and empty, charred desolation of miles of debris. It must
be remembered, however, that in the residence neighborhoods there was no such
furnace heat as prevailed . in the business district where great blocks and their
contents were being consumed.


Until far into Monday night the fire crept on, until at last, after weeks of
drouth, came a rain about midnight that quenched the last embers. For twenty-
four hours the fire had worked steadily northeast, in the center of the city burning
with terrible rush and fury ; in the North Division with a sweep of destruction
that left almost nothing standing in its path. At length, when it had spent itself
and destroyed its last victim, the city was left in its desolation and ruins, and
thousands of families were without homes, without food, without any vestige of
the comforts that a few hours before they had enjoyed, with no thought as yet
of the approaching disaster. Some of the homeless ones had gone to stay with
friends on the West or South Side (south of Twelfth street the fire had not
reached) ; some had made their way to the railway stations and were there
given free transportation out of the city; others were housed at the relief station
which had been established at Ann and Washington streets in the rooms of the
First Congregational church. It was said that during the first week after the fire
about one-third of the homes left standing in the city were giving shelter to those

5 The Great Conflagration, p. ~t f >.


who were now dependent on the hospitality of strangers. There were about one
hundred thousand people whose homes were gone, the greatest part of them with
nothing but their own courage and ability left to them for a fresh beginning.


Great as was the loss of handsome buildings and residences, and tile destruction
of beautiful driveways and the trees and shrubs bordering them, the human side
of the catastrophe is of far the greatest interest. The rapidity of the advance of
the fire was the cause of most of the horrors, for even while people wondered at
its fury and prayed that their own homes might be spared, the destroyer was
at their door. Some were weary with watching the large fire of the night before.
Others showed little interest at the first alarm, or knew nothing at all of the fire,
and were finally aroused just in time to escape the flames that already threatened
their homes. While the fire in the South Division covered a district mostly com-
prised of business houses, still in these buildings, all told, there were a great num-
ber of dwellers who were quickly driven from their homes, so that the streets
were soon filled with men rushing about in wild terror, and with those who had
come to the great fire in frenzied hope that they might find a way to save the
contents of their offices, which represented, to some of them, the entire sum of
their possessions. There were, besides, fugitives from the residence part of the
South Division, Wabash and Michigan avenues, and among these many women and
little children, most of them carrying articles of furniture or clothing, or treasures
of all sorts, pet birds and animals, and often the most useless things snatched up
in desperation and held tightly during miles of flight. It has often been said by
those attempting to tell what they saw during the fire that to exaggerate the horrors
of that night and day is impossible; words are inadequate to reproduce the scene.

In making their escape to the North and West Sides the people thronged the
bridges, while all sorts of vehicles were whirled along past them, even over them,
by galloping horses terrified by the sparks and pieces of burning wood falling all
about them, and lashed to madness by their frenzied drivers. "There was a gen-
eral hegira across all the bridges leading to the West Side, and Chicago avenue
was the best of the thoroughfares tending in this direction through this the people
poured like the mountain torrent through its narrow gorge. All at once, when the
fiercest blasts of the monster furnace had begun to sweep through this section
with heat which threatened death to thousands, it was discovered that the bridge
was for the time impassable. The people were rushing, tumbling, crowding, storm-
ing toward it in terribly irresistible numbers. Those who were nearest the burn-
ing bridge could not turn back because of the pressure of the frantic multitude.
They attempted to make a stand, by passing along the word to beat back the on-
surging mass of men, women, and horses, and wagons. But the task was simply
impossible, as the rearmost of the crowd were now fairly lashed by the flumes and
could not stop. Whether the foremost hundreds would or would not, they were forced
to turn to the northward and attempt to escape through the burning streets to
North avenue, half a mile further north, where was another bridge. Into the
vortex of flame they plunge may Heaven send them guidance through it! Out

6 Chicago and the Great Conflagration, by Colbert and Chamberlin, p. 243.

By permission of Chicago Historical Society



Begun in 1896, completed in 1905


from that vortex of flames some two-scores of them never emerge. May Heaven
send sweet mercy to their souls ! Alas ! They knew not that those streets, or lanes,
had no outlet for some three hundred yards or more."

A great number took refuge on the lake shore, which too soon became a furnace
of heat, swept by clouds of smoke and cinders. Along the shore were little en-
campments of families gathered about the piles of things which they had saved.
The showers of sparks often ignited these goods, which then had to be thrown
into the lake. For hours these wretched creatures, half clothed, almost suffocated,
and parched with thirst, stayed on the burning sand until boats came to take them
away to a point farther along the shore, or until the fire had so far burned itself
out that they could turn back to enter the smouldering city.


During the period immediately following the fire there was constant fear for
the West Side and the unburned portion to the south. The wind was still high
and the city was without water; the dread of a blaze, kindled by accident or by
incendiaries, which might start a fire that would destroy all that remained of
Chicago, made every householder a vigilant watchman of his home.

As early as Monday morning, even before the fire in the South Division had
finished its work of destruction, men were warily skirting the heaps of ruins, some
of them already making plans for continuing business in temporary quarters, witli
improvised methods and in hastily constructed shanties. By the following day
signs were stuck up in the piles of brick, to tell former customers of the present
location of the firm formerly occupying that site. Some of these signs were jocu-
lar, some startling, others strictly business-like. 7 In the ruins of Wood's Museum,
which was completely destroyed, was placed the sign:

"Col. Wood's Museum; standing room only.
R. Marsh, Treasurer."

Another undaunted firm gave notice to their patrons in this confidential tone :

"Moore & Goe, House and Sign Painters.

Removed to 111 Desplaines ct.,

Capital, $000,000.30."

All the business notices and the plans for re-establishment showed the same
spirit of courage and perseverance, and confidence at once was recovered. There
was a tremendous and immediate revival of hope and business interest. Employes
reported to their firms and were usually engaged in view of increased trade. And
indeed such was the commercial activity following the fire that within two months
there was great scarcity of help. Of these days William Bross afterwards said,
"On all sides I saw evidences of true Chicago spirit, and men said to one another,
'Cheer up; we'll be all right again before long,' and many other plucky things.
Their courage was wonderful. Every one was bright, cheerful, pleasant, hopeful,
and even inclined to be jolly, in spite of the misery and destitution which sur-

7 The Great Conflagration, p. 264.


rounded them, and which they shared. One and all said, 'Chicago must and shall
be rebuilt at once.' " 8


On Monday, October 9, while the fire was yet burning, the mayor, R. B. Mason,
issued the following proclamation:

"Whereas, in the Providence of God, to whose will we humbly submit, a terrible
calamity has befallen our city, which demands of us our best efforts for the pres-
ervation of order and the relief of the suffering.

"Be it known that the faith and credit of the city of Chicago is hereby pledged
for the necessary expenses for the relief of the suffering. Public order will be
preserved. The Police, and Special Police now being appointed, will be respons-
ible for the maintenance of the peace and the protection of property. All officers
and men of the Fire Department and Health Department will act as Special Po-
licemen without further notice. The Mayor and Comptroller will give vouchers
for all supplies furnished by the different Relief Committees. The head-quarters
of the City Government will be at the Congregational Church, corner of West
Washington and Ann streets. All persons are warned against any acts tending to
endanger property. All persons caught in any depredation will be immediately

"With the help of God, order and peace and private property shall be pre-
served. The City Government and committees of citizens pledge themselves to the
community to protect them, and prepare the way for a restoration of public and
private welfare."

On Tuesday the mayor issued other proclamations during the day, which were
grouped together and published in the Tribune in its issue of the next morning,
the first after the fire. In these paragraphs was implicit the spirit of order and
reorganization :

"All citizens are requested to exercise great caution in the use of fire in their
dwellings and not to use kerosene lights at present, as the city will be with-
out a full supply of water for probably two or three days.

"The following bridges are passable, to wit: All bridges (except Van Buren
and Adams streets) from Lake street south, and all bridges over the North
Branch of the Chicago river.

"All good citizens who are willing to serve, are requested to report at the
corner of Ann and Washington streets, to be sworn in as special policemen.

"Citizens are requested to organize a police for each block in the city, and to
send reports of such organization to the police head-quarters, corner of Union
;ind West Madison streets.

"All persons needing food will be relieved by applying at the following places:

"At the corner of Ann and West Washington; Illinois Central railroad round
house, [at certain railway stations, and at the churches].

"Citizens are requested to avoid passing through the burnt districts until
the dangerous walls left standing can be levelled.

"All saloons are ordered to be closed at 9 p. m. every day for one week, under
a penalty of forfeiture of license.

8 Andreas, II, 733.


"The Common Council have this day by ordinance fixed the price of bread
at eight cents per loaf of twelve ounces, and at the same rate for loaves of a
less or a greater weight, and affixed a penalty of ten dollars for selling, or at-
tempting to sell, bread at a greater rate within the next ten days.

"Any hackman, expressman, drayman or teamster charging more than the
regular fare, will have his license revoked.

"All citizens are requested to aid in preserving the peace, good order and good
name of our city."


At the same time proclamations were issued by governors of Illinois and neigh-
boring states expressing deepest sympathy, and calling for aid from all those less
unfortunate. So quickly were these appeals responded to that by Monday evening
trains were arriving in the city with car loads of bedding, clothing and cooked
food ; Indianapolis sent her chief of police, Eli Thompson, and with him two fire
engines, fully manned, and two carloads of cooked food. Delegations and repre-
sentatives from St. Louis, Louisville and many states and cities came to Chicago
to offer generous assistance, and from all over the country came telegrams from
cities and individuals authorizing the mayor and relief committees to draw money
up to a stated amount.

One of those who acted most promptly and efficiently during the first day of
chaos and misery was General Phil Sheridan, then commander of the Military
Division of the Missouri, with head-quarters at Chicago. After his effective ef-
forts in checking the fire in the southern part of the city by the use of explosives,
he telegraphed to the Secretary of War to say that on the authority of the latter
he had summoned aid to the city :

"The city of Chicago is almost utterly destroyed by fire. There is no reason-
able hope of arresting it if the wind, which is yet blowing a gale, does not change.
I ordered, on your authority, rations from St. Louis, tents from Jeffersonville, and
two companies of infantry from Omaha. There will be many houseless people,
much distress.

[Signed] P. H. SHERIDAN, Lieut.-Gcn."

The Secretary of War commended General Sheridan's action and himself con-
firmed the order. National troops were brought into the city from Omaha, Leaven-
worth, Fort Scott and from Kentucky; volunteer companies were sent by Governor
John M. Palmer, and a regiment raised in the city for twenty days' service, called
the First Regiment Chicago Volunteers. Lieutenant-General Sheridan took com-
mand of all the companies, of which he reported later to Washington, "These troops
both regulars and volunteers, were actively engaged during their service here in
protecting the treasure in the burnt district, guarding the unburnt district from
disorders and danger by further fire, and in protecting the storehouses, depots and
sub-depots of supplies, established for the relief of sufferers from the fire." 9

The presence of the troops in the city relieved the people of much anxiety, as
there had been a general fear that in the disorder and lack of authority after the

"The Great Conflagration, p. 190.


fire there would be no means of restraining lawlessness, incendiarism and the theft
of valuables that were to be found among the ruins. The parade of Colonel Dil-
ger's company through the town on Wednesday morning, ordered by General Sheri-
dan, was a welcome sight to those who had scarcely slept in their vigilance during
the past two days and nights. On the same day Mayor Mason by proclamation
transferred entire police authority over the city to General Sheridan, the docu-
ment containing the provision that "the police will act in conjunction with the lieu-
tenant-general in the preservation of the peace and quiet of the city, and the su-
perintendent of police will consult with him to that end. The intent being to pre-
serve the peace of the city without interfering with the functions of the city gov-
ernment." 10

The functions of the state government, at this time, were felt by Governor John
M. Palmer of Illinois to have been disregarded in the action of General Sheridan
in calling for national troops instead of state troops, had they been necessary. A
letter from the governor to the mayor of Chicago, dated October 20, contains a re-
buke to the latter showing some pique, on the governor's part, that the mayor did
not use the resources at hand nor enlist General Sheridan's eminent abilities to or-
ganize the citizens of Chicago "to act, in conjunction with the civil officers, for
their own protection." The governor maintained that every act of the United
States troops and their officers in Chicago was illegal, in being unauthorized. Here
was an instance of state sovereignty in conflict with national authority. However
jealously the public guards the principle that power must reside in the state and
that an appeal must be made only when necessary to higher authority, yet the im-
mediate relief from intense anxiety was of more importance to the people of Chi-
cago in this exigency than an ultimate, more removed question. General Sheri-
dan's despatches for the most available troops and supplies brought these at once,
and with them came an assurance of order and safety.


While the fire was still driving before it thousands who were losing by it all
they owned, measures were being planned for their relief. Soon after noon on

Online LibraryJ. Seymour (Josiah Seymour) CurreyChicago: its history and its builders, a century of marvelous growth (Volume v.2) → online text (page 30 of 55)