J. Seymour (Josiah Seymour) Currey.

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

. (page 32 of 55)
Online LibraryJ. Seymour (Josiah Seymour) CurreyChicago: its history and its builders, a century of marvelous growth (Volume v.2) → online text (page 32 of 55)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

box of fine old brocade silk gowns made in the style of 1700, with immense
sleeves and short waists ; storehouses were filled with the cooked provisions
and the clothing which came in, and those who needed help had but to
apply for it as the committee directed. Transportation on trains leaving
Chicago was given to thousands, and shipments of supplies were brought to
the city without charge. Gifts were gladly and eagerly made, and with many of
the donations came messages of sympathy and encouragement. In churches in
distant parts of the world sermons were preached to arouse the listeners in Chi-
cago's behalf, and in countless towns in the United States were men entrusted by
the citizens with a fund to be sent to the sufferers from the great fire. In Boston
a special meeting was held at Faneuil Hall, at which Rev. Edward Everett Hale
made an eloquent appeal for help, in these words :

"Mr. Mayor and Gentlemen: It is but a single word that I have to say here.
I have simply to remind you that this is no mere matter of voting in which we are
engaged. I have to remind you that these people, our people in Chicago, by their
munificence, by their generosity, by their strength, by their public spirit, have made
us debtors to them all. There is not a man here, the beef upon whose table yes-



terday was not the cheaper to him because these people laid out their world-re-
nowned and wonderful system of stock-yards. There is not a man here, the bread
upon whose table today is not cheaper because these people, in the very beginning
of their national existence, invented and created that marvellous system for the
delivery of grain which is the model and pattern of the world. And remember
they were in a position where they might have said they held a monopoly. They
commanded the only harbor for the shipping of the five greatest states of Amer-
ica and the world, and in that position they have devoted themselves now for a
generation to the steady improvement, by every method in their power, of the
means by which they were going to answer the daily prayer of every child to God
when praying that he will give us our daily bread, through their enterprise and
their struggles. We call it their misfortune. It is our misfortune. We are all, as
it has been said, linked together in a solidarity of the nation. Their loss is no
more theirs than it is ours in this great campaign of peace in which we are en-

"There has fallen by this calamity one of our noblest fortresses. Its garri-
son is without munitions. It is for us at this instant to reconstruct that fortress,
and to see that its garrison are as well placed as they were before in our service.
Undoubtedly it is a great enterprise; but we can trust them for that. We are all
fond of speaking of the miracle by which there in the desert there was created this
great city. The rod of some prophet, you say, struck it, and this city flowed from
the rock. Who was the prophet? What was the rock? It was the American peo-
ple who determined that that city should be there, and that it should rightly and
wisely, and in the best way, distribute the food to a world. The American people
has that to discharge again. I know that these numbers are large numbers. But
the providence of God has taught us to deal with larger figures than these, and
when, not many years ago, it became necessary for this country in every year to
spend not a hundred millions, not a thousand millions, but more than a thousand
millions of dollars in a great enterprise which God gave this country in the duty
of war, this country met its obligation. And now that in a single year we have to
reconstruct one of the fortresses of peace, I do not fear that this country will be
backward in its duty. It has been truly said that the first duty of all of us is,
that the noble pioneers in the duty that God has placed in their hands, who are
suffering, shall have food and clothing; that those who for forty-eight hours have
felt as if they were deserted, should know that they have friends everywhere in
God's world. Mr. President, as God is pleased to order this world there is no
partial evil but from that partial evil is reached the universal good. The fires
which our friends have seen sweeping over the plains in the desolate autumn, only
bring forth the blossoms and richness of the next spring and summer.

"I can well believe that on that terrible night of Sunday, and all through the
horrors of Monday, as those noble people, as those gallant workmen, threw upon
the flames the water that their noble works the noblest that America has seen
enabled them to hurl upon the enemy, that they must have imagined that their
work was fruitless, that it was lost toil, to see those streams of water playing into
the molten mass, and melt into steam and rise innocuous to the heavens. It may
well have seemed that their work was wasted; but it is sure that evil shall work
out its own end, and the mists that rose from the conflagration were gathered to-


gether for the magnificent tempest of last night,, which, falling upon those burning
streets, has made Chicago a habitable city today. See that the lesson for this
community, see that the lesson for us who are here, that the horror and tears with
which we read the despatches of yesterday, shall send us out to do ministries of
truth and bounty and benevolence today."

The ministries of Boston were indeed bountiful and large hearted, and for
them Chicago has always since felt a special gratitude to that generous city.

A study of the report of the Chicago Relief and Aid Society for the years
1871, 1872 and 1873, will convince the reader that the work of relief was man-
aged with unusual efficiency by the Society, and that its means were quickly and
well adapted to the enormous demands unexpectedly made upon it. So sys-
tematized was the work and so thorough were the investigations made into the needs
of those asking help that there was small opportunity for fraud and imposture,
the relief being given with great discrimination.


Eight days after the fire General Sheridan reported to the mayor on the con-
dition of the city under his surveillance:

"Headquarters Military Division of the Missouri,

Chicago, October 17, 1871.
To His Honor, MAYOR MASON, Chicago, Illinois:

I respectfully report to your Honor the continued peace and quiet of the city.
There has been no case of violence since the disaster of Sunday night and Monday
morning. The reports in the public press of violence and disorder here are with-
out the slightest foundation. There has not been a single case of arson, hanging,
or shooting not even a case of riot or street fight. I have seen no reason for the
circulation of such reports. It gives me pleasure to bring to the notice of your
Honor the cheerful spirit with which the population of this city have met their
losses and suffering."

Peaceful conditions continuing in the city, the mayor addressed a letter to
General Sheridan a few days later, providing for the discontinuance of military
aid in the city.


Upon consultation with the Board of Police Commissioners, I am satisfied that
the continuance of the efficient aid in the preservation of order in this city which
has been rendered by the forces under your command in pursuance of my proc-
lamation is no longer required. I will therefore fix the hour of 6 p. m. of this
day as the hour at which the aid requested of you shall cease. Allow me again
to tender you the assurance of my high appreciation of the great and efficient ser-
vice which you have rendered in the preservation of order and the protection of
property in this city, and to again thank you in the name of the city of Chicago
and its citizens therefor. I am respectfully yours,

R. B. MASON, Mayor.

Chicago, October 23. 1 "

1 Report of Chicago Relief and Aid Society, p. 21.


The water supply of Chicago had been limited during the first week after the
fire to the streams that could be forced through the pipes by a few pumps driven
by engines pressed into service. On Tuesday, October 17, a week after the tem-
porary supply had begun, the engine at the water works was started up and the
usual water supply resumed. This brought the greatest relief to the city, and
was one of the first steps in the general recovery.


One manifestation of Chicago enterprise was the early starting up of the
newspapers. By Monday evening, the very day of the fire, the Journal had found
a job printing office in Canal street, west of the river, and issued a sheet four by
six inches. Wednesday morning the Tribune, also established for the time being
on Canal street, issued a sheet, and the other large papers were soon coming out.
The advertising columns were full of notices of removals, of rooms to rent "at
reasonable prices" in the unburned portions of the city, and of inquiries for articles
lost in the flight from the fire.


In 1870 the city of Chicago occupied a space about three miles wide which ex-
tended six miles along the lake shore; houses were scattered along the shore line,
however, to the southern and to the northern boundaries of the city, in all a distance
of ten miles. Owing to the rapid growth of the city and the demands of its in-
creasing commerce, homes and business blocks had been hastily and insecurely built,
with too little regard to danger from fire. To some extent these earlier buildings
had been torn down and replaced by larger, more solid and much more preten-
tious structures, which in many cases stood side by side with small, often dilapi-
dated, frame buildings. Within the limits of the burned district alone were about
thirty miles of pine sidewalk. The most massive buildings, those constructed of
supposedly imperishable materials had, nevertheless, joists, partitions, floorings,
cornices, door and window frames of wood, and very few had iron shutters. On
each side of the river, which flows down through the heart of the city, were im-
mense coal yards, lumber yards, planing mills, and various other combustible ma-

In the West Division, where the fire originated, one hundred and ninety acres
were burned, five hundred buildings, mostly inferior ones, were destroyed, and
twenty-five hundred persons made homeless. In the South Division four hundred
and sixty acres were destroyed, the business center of the city, including most of
the largest buildings of the city, all the great wholesale stores, the newspaper of-
fices, the principal hotels and places of amusement, railway depots, churches, and
a large number of handsome residences. Three thousand six hundred and fifty
buildings were destroyed, including the homes of twenty-two thousand people.
The fire in the North Division swept over one thousand, four hundred and seventy
acres, burning thirteen thousand, three hundred buildings, among these being
churches, schools and the dwellings of seventy-five thousand people. The most
of the West Division of the city was saved, owing probably to the area burned
the night before, as well as the fact that the Oriental Flouring Mills, located on


the west side of the river at Madison street, had a powerful force-pump driven
by the engine in the mill, which threw two streams of river water upon the walls
and over the roof of the mill, and at the same time saving Madison street bridge
from destruction, thus preventing the spread of the fire westward. Beyond Twelfth
street, the South Side was untouched. At that time the avenues and cross streets
of that district were well built up as far as Twenty-second street, and on Cottage
Grove avenue there were dwellings and stores as far as Thirty-ninth street.


The loss of life in the fire was estimated as not less than three hundred, and
the bodies of the dead, as far as they could be found, were put in the county burial
ground. The population of Chicago in 1871 was 334,270.

To summarize, the entire area burned was two thousand, one hundred and
twenty- four acres, or nearly three and one-third square miles; and by this, one
hundred thousand people were made homeless. The' total loss was estimated to
be $196,000,000, on which the salvage in foundations, and material which could
be used in rebuilding was said to be $4,000,000, making the real loss $192,000,000,
on which about $50,000,000 was made good by insurance. 2

In the enormous demand upon the insurance companies to make good these
losses, many of them could not stand the strain, and among the number of com-
panies who were forced to suspend business were twenty in New York, six in
Connecticut, five in Rhode Island, three in Massachusetts, and three in Ohio.
Fourteen Chicago companies, whose assets were destroyed, these not amounting
to over ten per cent of their losses, were completely prostrated. The number of
American companies that suffered losses from the Chicago fire was two hundred
and forty-nine, their aggregate assets being $74,930,216 and their aggregate loss
$88,634,122. Besides these, six English companies with aggregate assets of $145,-
879,521, suffered losses amounting in all to $5,813)000. Regarding the business
methods of fire insurance companies in that day, we read in the account of the
great disaster written by Mr. James W. Sheahan and Mr. George P. Upton, that
"during the week preceding the fire there had been numerous fire alarms, and
there was put in type, intended for the Sunday issue of the Tribune, an editorial
discussing the subject of insurance, and pointing out the criminality of the mode
in which insurance companies were taking risks, at ruinous rates, spending their
receipts in commissions to brokers and agents, imperilling honest risks in case of
fire, and inciting by reckless over-insurance incendiarism and false swearing. This
article was crowded out on Sunday morning, but was enlarged by some references
to the fire of Saturday night, and was actually printed in the Monday morning's
paper on the 'first side.' The second side never got to press, and the whole edition
was burned up." 3

By an ordinance passed November 23, 1871, the fire limits were extended be-
yond those established in 1849, forbidding the erection of wooden buildings within

2 Colbert and Chamberlin: "Chicago and the Great Conflagration," p. 301.
3 The Great Conflagration, pp. 145, 130.


an area comprising the entire district burned, as well as certain places beyond that


The loss to the fine arts was severe, the three principal art galleries, many
excellent private libraries and several loan libraries being destroyed. Of these,
the Young Men's Association Library, the largest circulating collection in the
city, contained 20,000 volumes; and the Young Men's Christian Association had a
library of 10,000 volumes, mostly theological. The art collection of Crosby's Opera
House was carried away and saved, but with the exception of Rothermel's large
historical painting of "The Battle of Gettysburg" and a few other pictures, the
collections of the Academy of Design and of the Chicago Historical Society were
for the most part lost. In the rooms of the latter were many portraits by G. P.
A. Healy, a library of 200,000 valuable books and pamphlets, a collection of manu-
scripts, several complete newspaper files, and a priceless document the original
draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. The only articles said to have been
saved from this building were some charred fragments of books, and a small vial
containing a section of tapeworm, which was in the collection of curiosities. On
this loss Mr. Andreas, with a historian's bitter disgust, comments, "The wealth
of literary knowledge, the large collection of rare and valuable things, even the
original Emancipation Proclamation all were lost ; and this disgusting vial alone

The newspapers of the South told as a fact that many of the simpler negroes,
when it became known that the Emancipation Proclamation had burned up, thought
they must all be remanded to slavery. The story was told in the New Orleans
Picayune that a mistress was reading to her servants an account of the fire, when
an old colored woman who had all her life been a slave, and to whom manumission
had meant the "kingdom come," hearing that the instrument of her liberty was
destroyed, cried out, "What dat? burned up?" "Yes, auntie, burned up." "Den
what gwine come of us again?" "I don't know; maybe you'll be slaves as before."
"Den dis chile gwine to die right now." 4


During the previous decade, many beautiful churches had been built in Chicago,
and of those burned about two score more than one-half were new. Almost
every denomination suffered greatly in the fire, the Roman Catholics losing more
than any other, including St. Mary's church, at the corner of Madison street and
Wabash avenue, and six other churches. The Congregationalists lost their New
England church, on Dearborn avenue, facing Washington square; the Presbyterians
lost three churches, the Baptists three, the Methodists six, including Grace church,
at the corner of La Salle and Chicago avenues. Rev. Robert Collyer's Unity
church was the largest Unitarian church in the city and the only one burned; St.
Paul's Universalist church on Wabash avenue was destroyed ; the Protestant Episco-
pal denomination lost St. James, their largest and handsomest church, Trinity church,
the Church of the Ascension and St. Ansgarius. There were two Jewish syna-

4 Colbert, p. 436.


gogues burned, and several German Lutheran churches. 5 On Sunday, October
15, Dr. Collyer and the ministers of most of these destroyed churches gathered
their congregations together in the open air, and there, beside the ruins of their
sanctuaries, preached sermons of encouragement and promise.

A notable feature of the fire was the explosive and apparently spontaneous
manner in which many buildings ignited. The presence of inflammable gases in
abundant quantities explains the sudden leap of fire from building to building,
the darting of a blue flame along a cornice, followed the next instant by a roar
and whirl of fire that enwrapped great buildings, which in five minutes by the
watch were burned to the ground. The hurricane of wind, acting as a blow-pipe
on the flames, explains the intense heat which destroyed much that is usually left
standing after a fire. There was no wood, even charred, left anywhere in the
burned district. The heat was so great that building stone crumbled away, and in
the paint and oil store of Heath and Milligan, on Randolph street, the melting of
white lead and other substances showed that the heat reached at least 3000 de-
grees of temperature. Safes which were exposed to such intense heat were often
of no account whatever, everything within them being consumed, books, papers,
money, nothing left but charred remains. A resident of Chicago who first came
to the city in August, 1872, tells of seeing, in a large coal yard on the east side of
the river near Madison street, a huge pile of coal which was then, ten months
afterward, still on fire or smouldering from the Great Fire.


The failure of all the ordinary standards of combustibility as regards city
structures was well illustrated in the case of the Tribune building, which was con-
sidered to be thoroughly fire proof when it was erected. So confident were the
owners of the Tribune in its security that no insurance was carried either on the
building or its contents, it being regarded as an unnecessary and uncalled for ex-
pense. A day or two after the fire S. H. Kerfoot, a well known real estate man of
those .days, met Alfred Cowles, the secretary of the Tribune company, who stood
ruefully gazing upon the ruins of the Tribune building, and remarked: "Why,
Cowles, I thought you said this building was fire proof." "So I did," replied Cowles,
"and so it was. But I never claimed it was hell-fire proof."

The era of fire proof constructions had begun before the period of the great
fire, and there were many examples of such construction, but the crucible like heat
of the conflagration, unchecked by water, reduced seemingly incombustible mate-
rials to formless masses of slag and cinders, as one might imagine would be the
case in the final combustion of the universe.


The official investigation into the origin of the fire was begun on November 23,
1871, under the direction of the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners. The
inquiry into the starting of the first blaze among the dwellings on De Koven street
resulted in more amusement than information to the court. The fire was thought

s Sheahan and Upton, p. 136.


to have started in Mrs. O'Lcary's barn, through the antics of an incendiary cow.
When she and her family were aroused from bed on hearing of the fire, her ex-
citement and grief at her loss were so great that she noticed little else which she
could remember to tell later in court. Pat McLaughlin, the fiddler living in the
front of her house, was giving a party that night, and had no occasion to be start-
ing fires or milking cows. Dennis Rogan and Dan Sullivan, neighbors, could tell
little more that was satisfactory, except that they called at the O'Leary's house
early in the evening and found them in bed. The sum of the evidence points to
the fact that the fire started in the barn in the rear of the O'Leary house, and that
the entire family were in bed before it was kindled. The time of its discovery
was about 8 :45 o'clock, Sunday evening, October 8th, and engines answering the
local alarm did not reach the fire until thirty minutes after that time, when it
had already made great headway.

The investigation included the taking of testimony from the fire marshal and
other members of the department, as well as from those on guard in the court
house tower. The watchman there, Mathias Schaffer, saw the fire and gave the
alarm fully thirty minutes after it had become large enough to illumine the sky.
The signal was then given to alarm box 342, which was not the box of the district
in which the fire began. The watchman, seeing his mistake and being in doubt
of what to do, did not give the correct signal, since he knew that the engine re-
plying to alarm box 342 would pass the location of the fire, and another alarm
might cause confusion. The correct signal, had it been given, would have called
out engines not brought out by the alarm of box 342. This was a critical blunder.
The number of engines that came out at first was not sufficient, the result might
have been different had they been. The fire had grown to such magnitude when the
first engines arrived that it was beyond their limited power to check it, and each
moment the wind carried it farther and wider with accelerated speed. From the ex-
amination of Fire Marshal Williams and other firemen who were early upon the scene
little satisfaction was gained. In the spread of the fire and the inadequacy of the
means to cope with it their efforts were unorganized, and they themselves were

The fire department in 1871 consisted of seventeen steam engines, four hook
and ladder trucks, fifty-four hose carts, two hose elevators, one fire escape, for-
ty-eight thousand feet of hose, and eleven alarm bells. This, however, does
not represent their efficiency on the night of the great fire, for on account of the
frequent fires of the previous week much of the equipment was out of order, and
the men were exhausted from their efforts of the night before, some of them hav-
ing worked steadily for eighteen hours. The charge of bad management in the
department was not without foundation, as a great deal of the fire hose had for
weeks been out of order, and could not be used in this time of greatest need. The
reports and examinations showed as unfounded the charge that many firemen were
intoxicated when the call came. Some of the men and boys about the streets who
had drunk the liquor which was then free to all, had put on firemen's helmets, the
word thus spreading that it was the firemen who staggered helplessly about.



In its issue for October 9, 1872, the Tribune printed on the first anniversary

Online LibraryJ. Seymour (Josiah Seymour) CurreyChicago: its history and its builders, a century of marvelous growth (Volume v.2) → online text (page 32 of 55)