J. Seymour (Josiah Seymour) Currey.

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after the great fire of 1871 in an editorial reviewed the causes of the fire:
"The peculiar geographical position of Chicago intensified the dangers grow-
ing out of its defective construction. It lay upon a flat prairie, open to
the winds from whatever quarter they might come. Those which come from the
lake are generally wet, and hardly more than once in the history of Chicago had
a fire moved from east to west. Those from the west, especially the southwest,
were hot and dry, and before they reached the substantial buildings within the fire
limits, they had extracted all the moisture from acres of frames, and left them as
dry as tinder. The business quarter of the city was on the wrong side of the city,
if it were to be located with special reference to its protection from fire. But that
is a matter which settles itself and does not depend upon men. The location of
the business portion of Chicago, as well as the greatness of the city, arose chiefly
from natural causes, and while it is in this one respect unfortunate that the best
buildings should be where they are, it is inevitable. Thus, these wooden build-
ings, dried by southerly gales, lay on the weak side of the structures embraced
in the fire limits, overlapping and outflanking them at both extremities, and pene-
trating them at all points between those extremities.

"Chicago, then, had for years been exposed to a destructive fire. All that was
required was the concurrence of certain circumstances, which separately were con-
stantly occurring a long continued dry season; a fire starting from buildings on
the West Side; a negligent or worn out fire department, and a gale of wind strong
enough to carry the fire brands across the South Branch and the river. On the
9th of October they happened together."

As the fire spread over wide areas principally by the showers of sparks falling
from above and igniting the roofs of dwellings and business blocks, one of the
greatest defects in building was demonstrated, namely, the material used and the
manner of construction of the roofings, which were mainly of tar and felt. The
wooden cornices, along which the flames shot the length of a block, the wooden
signs, cupolas and mansard roofs were all as piles of kindling for the falling em-
bers, and were one of the causes of the frightful rapidity of the progress of the


While the loss to Chicago in money value was estimated at almost $200,000,000,
or one-half the total value of the city, the loss considered from all standpoints was
very much less than this proportion. Much of that which was the substance of
Chicago and her prosperity remained the same as before. The reasons for the
rapid rise of the city to a place of importance were not affected by the calamity
which for a few weeks checked the activities of trade. Chicago still had the ad-
vantage of a position at the head of a great water way leading to the Atlantic
ocean; she was located, as before, in the midst of a vastly productive agricultural
region, for which she had become the market; the harbor and river were unin-
jured; the great number of railroads with termini at Chicago remained; and the
city was on the great highway between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. Most
valuable of all, the cheerful spirit of enterprise and the indomitable will which


has characterized Chicago undertakings from the beginning of her history, were
quickened by misfortune, and became the motive power of reconstruction. The
foundations and supports of prosperity were unharmed, though the superstructure
was a heap of ashes.

As the surrounding country had developed, through agriculture, cattle raising
and lumbering, Chicago of necessity grew to meet the demands as a center of re-
ceiving and shipping the products of these industries, and as a manufacturing city
for handling and re-shaping them. Chicago, being so great a market and manufac-
turing city, her interests became bound up with those of New York and of every
other great center of business in the country. The commerce which Chicago had
built up had inspired such confidence in her that millions of Eastern capital was
put at her disposal. So when the fire came and destroyed much of her visible
wealth, the commercial structure of which Chicago was an integral part held her
up and kept her from ruin. The momentum of the trade activities of the nation
carried her along; it was inevitable that she should rise and march on.


The records of land titles in the Recorder's office of Cook County were totally
consumed in the great fire. Thus there was no way by which owners could show
title to real estate, the legal evidence of title being lacking. Something had to be
done and done at once, for owners of realty in many cases were without money
to rebuild the structures destroyed in the fire, and would be obliged to borrow on
the security of the land to enable them to do so. In order to do this a perfect title
must be shown, and this could not be done under the law as it then existed. It
was of vital importance to the city that this emergency should be promptly met.
The Legislature which convened in the winter following the fire passed the neces-
sary law, which was approved on April 9th, 1872. Before quoting the law it
should be stated that under the Constitution of 1870 special legislation was pro-
hibited in cases where a general law could be made applicable. This accounts for
the special case of Cook County not being referred to in the law as passed.

The language of the statute, quoting the essential portion only, was as follows:
"Whenever it shall appear that the records, or any material part thereof, of an} r
county in this state have been destroyed by fire or otherwise, any map, plat, deed,
conveyance, contract, mortgage, deed of trust, or other instrument in writing af-
fecting real estate in such county, which has been heretofore recorded, cer-
tified copies of such, may be re-recorded; and in recording the same the recorder
shall record the certificate of the previous record, and the date of filing for record
appearing in said original certificate so recorded shall be deemed and taken as
the date of the record thereof. And copies of any such record, so authorized to be
made under this section, duly certified by the recorder of any such county, under
his seal of office, shall be received in evidence, and have the same force and effect
as certified copies of the original record."

This act enabled bona fide owners of real estate to establish title to the satis-
faction of lenders, and since that time, with such amendments as have from time
to time been made, the act has served its purpose completely, and has passed every
test in the courts.



An account of the great fire, written by David Swing twenty years afterward,
and printed in Scribner's Monthly for June, 1892, is included in this chapter.
Professor Swing, who although a prominent preacher of Chicago from 1866 to
1894, always retained the title of "Professor" because of his earlier connection
with Miami University in Ohio as an instructor in Greek and Latin, possessed a
finished literary style which gave his sermons and addresses a charm that attracted
large audiences, and were regularly printed in the Monday morning issue of a city
daily for many years, and read by multitudes of persons.

At the time of the fire Professor Swing was the pastor of the Fourth Presby-
terian Church located in the North Division, and his residence was in the same
neighborhood. This portion of the North Division was swept by the advancing
tide of the great conflagration, and with his family he was obliged to seek safety
on the open prairie to the west of the city. In his account here given he relates
the adventures he passed through on this thrilling occasion.


"If to us, who were wandering homeless in front of the great conflagration of
1871, anyone had whispered the words of Acestes: 'It will be a pleasure some
day to remember these things,' he would have seemed to be trifling with the suf-
ferers and the event. But twenty years have sufficed to justify the words of the
Latin. With a great pleasure I shall pass again along the path which once was
so beset with smoke and fire. Emerson once wrote in the blank leaf of a book
these words:

" 'A score of piny miles will smooth
The rough Monadnock to a gem.'

"With his usual spirituality he thus declared that twenty years would transform
a painful experience into a rather pleasing dream.


"The Chicago fire began on Sunday evening, October 8th, 1871, at a quarter
before nine o'clock. It raged until half past ten the next evening, pausing sud-
denly in a large isolated dwelling house, which fell into ruins at that time. The
work of destruction, under the impulse of a driving wind, thus lasted only about
twenty-six hours. The houses destroyed were about fourteen thousand; the peo-
ple rendered homeless ninety-eight thousand; the value of property destroyed
two hundred millions of dollars.

"The rain of cinders upon the water works soon made the roof timbers fall in
upon the pumping engines and block their working beams. In three or four hours
from the outset of the conflagration, the whole city was without water. It lay
helpless. Had the wind changed at any time within two days, no part of Chicago
would have remained. The historian would have recorded the total erasure of
everything above ground. But the wind, which caused the destruction, intervened
to limit its extent. It never veered for three days, and thus it held the destroyer
to a definite channel widening out to the northwest. The gale blew until it sank
down under the smitings of the rain.


"It was never learned how the rumor originated that a cow had kicked over a
lamp and had burned a city. The fire started at a quarter before nine. The
O'Learys had milked their cow at five o'clock, and had no lamp lighted that Sun-
day in either cottage or barn. The air was so much like summer that the inside
of both stable and house was deserted. It is probable the cow story sprang up out
of the inventive power of some man or woman who was hungry for a small cause
for a great disaster. . . .


"It was never learned how many lives were lost in the burning and falling
of so many buildings. The coroner was called upon to make report on one hun-
dred and seventeen bodies. But against such a report one fact must be kept in
mind, that the wind and blaze, acting together, created a form of blast-heat be-
fore which window glass dropped like rain, and in which iron columns melted as
though made of lead. Many bodies may have been obliterated so completely as to
leave no trace of a life or a death.

"It was about ten o'clock at night before any person a half-mile from the place
where the great flame started knew that the situation was unusual and alarming.
The dryness of every roof, the high wind, the exhausted condition of the fire de-
partment, combined to make the red sky a painful spectacle. It has many times
happened, in the lives of most men, that an alarm of fire has awakened a sudden
desire to walk rapidly to the doomed building, and, boy-like, enjoy the battle be-
tween engine and blaze; but there was something in this October night that de-
pressed the spirits and made the foot fall as 'though made of lead. Already in
the sky overhead there was a great line of sparks moving slowly toward the
northwest. It was a fiery belt, having a breadth of perhaps two hundred feet,
and composed of millions of sparks and bits of material on fire. This hot upper
river added to the seriousness of the scene, and raised the question: What is to
be the end?


"My own domestic group soon went to the roof of our house to battle if need
be with falling coals. But as we watched and worked the stream in the sky grew
wider and the sparks grew in size, until not a few of the burning objects seemed
as large as a plate or as long and wide as a shingle. Our home was in the exact
line of the wind and fire, and all this red volume was rolling along directly over
our heads. It was, perhaps, four hundred feet above the level of the streets.

"So unusual was the scene that the thought came into my mind : the city will
burn up to-night. I determined to go at once toward the field of battle, and soon
I was nearing the place and source of the destruction. Men hurrying back paused
long enough to tell me that the trouble had begun in a stable a mile to the south-
west of the city's heart; that the conflagration had spread out fan-like; that it
was raging in more than a hundred houses; had crossed the river, and was com-
ing along on the wings of the wind. The reports were terrible, but I walked on,
not in the least sceptical, but wishing to make a survey and an estimate for my-
self. I walked slowly and looked back often to see if the rainbow of fire in the
sky were not assailing the city in some other places far away from the point of


first attack. Soon before me were streets arched over with flame, and massive
buildings, the pride of each citizen, were smoking, blazing, falling.


"There was not much clamor of men, women, or children. It is probable that
the awfulness of' the situation made the mind silent rather than noisy. Personal
friends said to me: 'The city is gone,' or 'No power can save us,' or 'All is
lost;' but beyond such ejaculations few were the words to be heard. Quite a
stream of vehicles and persons were moving northward, but the movement did not
seem that of a panic, but rather that of an orderly retreat. The guests were is-
suing from the Tremont and Sherman hotels. The banging of trunks was only
a little more violent than usual, and the vehicles into which trunks were going
showed that the exodus of guests was informal; and yet not much was said by
the man with the team or the man with the trunk. The fire was raging in the
business district, and its population at midnight was not great. The scene was
not that of families fleeing for life, with mothers calling to child and child crying
for parent. The ruin was advancing in the great commercial blocks, whose
clerks and business heads were perhaps miles distant from their counters and desks.
It was a common event to see one or two men come down from a bank or office, un-
load their arms or a basket into either an express wagon or a well equipped carriage,
and then hasten away. Where there was distrust of a vault, the valuable contents
were extracted and headed for some place not yet doomed.

"One banker hailed a colored man who was moving along slowly with an ex-
press wagon. Whether the two persons had ever met before I do not now re-
member, but the banker had dragged as far as down to the sidewalk a large trunk
full of bills and bonds. The African and his wagon assumed the form of a special
providence. A bargain was soon made. Its terms seemed liberal to Sambo. The
banker simply said, 'If you will see that my trunk and I are safe and secure, I
will give you a thousand dollars.' The two moved toward the lake, and there the
acute negro drove into the water to a depth which enabled him to fight well, with
all kinds of splashing, the rain of hot coals which smote wagon and trunk, driver
and horse. He triumphed, and in a few hours had in his possession, in place of
the usual fifty cents for carrying a trunk, the more satisfactory fee of a thousand


"My advance ended at the Court House. All beyond was a furnace. Here,
and a little after midnight, the fact that the city was doomed, that my home was
doomed, and that tens of thousands of persons would be homeless and penniless
in a few hours, was fully realized. Before me lay in one mass of fire a district
nearly a mile long and fully four squares wide ; and, under a wind which was al-
most a hurricane, this red army was advancing. At intervals, like minute guns,
came the boom of some falling wall. I turned to go home. The tumbling build-
ings made a solemn sound like the pulsations of a volcano, or the heavy artillery
of some field of battle.

"Many of those moving in the same direction were acquaintances, but few were
the words from our lips. My own memory was full of all the doleful phrases and


sentences which had long before come into it from classic and modern sources.
Terms which had been long forgotten came back and were saying to me with
Croly: 'Rome was an ocean of flame. Height and depth were covered with red
surges that rolled before the blast like an endless tide. The distant sound of the
city in her convulsion went to the soul. The air was filled with the steady roar
of the advancing flame, the crash of falling houses, and the hideous outcry of my-
riads.' St. John came with his deep bass: 'Babylon the great is fallen, fallen/
while mingling with the Bible and Croly, came all those precious tears from Vir-
gil, such as: 'Once Troy stood,' and 'Time too great for grief,' and 'The end of
all fortune,' that 'finis fatorum' of Anchises.


"The way homeward was beset with fire. The rain of sparks set going little
groups of autumn leaves and bunches of dried grass. The bridge on which we
were crossing was on fire. Here a wooden fence, there a stable, or a wooden porch
was blazing. Fire and ivy were both seen winding around the same columns of
a veranda. Far in advance a large building was burning, thus revealing the fact
that the enemy was holding a line two and a half miles in length, and was reach-
ing out right and left for more churches, hotels, palaces, and cottages.

"From one family learn the motions of thousands of households. Trunks were
packed hastily. Servants and mistress and children were one in mutual helpful-
ness. Each attempted to put the house into a trunk. Some were absent-minded
for a moment and locked an empty drawer as though to keep the fire from getting
in; one put a gold watch and money into a trunk, and then prepared to carry in
hand a two-dollar clock; one turned down the gas through habits of economy; one
neighbor, routed at half-past one, put on a dressing gown and began to shave him-
self. It was difficult for each one to do the best thing for the occasion, but all
made an earnest effort to be sensible. In a few minutes three or four large trunks
were down on the sidewalk. But why were they there? No promises, threats, or
money could bring a wagon. My wife, two little daughters, and I made up a speci-
men group prepared for exile. The wife carried a favorite little marble clock,
one daughter carried the cat, the other daughter a canary bird in its cage, while
I held on to a hand trunk in which were all my manuscripts up to date. There
was no weeping. All who joined us or passed us seemed satisfied with the remark:
'It is awful.' We were dumb rather than tearful. A theological student relieved
me of my box of sermons and lectures, and told me to trust those things implicitly
to him. It was well that I did ; for he soon found a pretty girl who was carrying
a bundle of fine dresses. He threw the box of manuscripts down and enlisted in
the service of attractive womanhood. Those documents never again were spread
out to weary a metropolitan or rural audience. And after all the girl married a


"Few historians of the fire have done justice to the velocity of the wind. After
midnight, at least, it was so violent that it was difficult to walk in its face. The
tall spire of the Church of the Holy Name had just been blown down. It lay in

the street as we passed, but no fire had yet been kindled in the spire or the build-
voi. n 1 6


ing. It was a perfect riot of wind and fire. At intervals the wind would seem to
dip down from above and roll around us a hot volume of smoke, fire, and dust,
such as often rolls out from the rear of an express train. For one instant only in
that night did our group seem on the margin of death. When we had walked a
few squares the fire seemed continuous upon three sides of us, and the open space
in front seemed narrow. Suddenly a tidal wave of red flame rolled across that
open place, and it rolled so long and hot that the thought came quickly: Perhaps
this is death. No one of us spoke. We stood still. My own heart seemed to fol-
low that habit hearts have of 'coming up to the throat.' The wind bounded up
again and revealed once more an open street. We all walked rapidly or ran until
we had gotten through that narrow gate.

"To recall this part of the great event, the reader must remember that this was
not a poor man's fire. It smote the rich and middle class. After destroying six
hundred great business houses, great churches, hotels, and theatres, it crossed the
river and attacked the most fashionable homes in the North Division. The scene
at four o'clock in the morning was most wonderful in this, that fine residences
were open to anybody. The inmates had left them. Pictures, books, pianos, clothing,
table-ware, ornaments, were alone, waiting for fire or some one to take them. It
was not just to call by the name of thief the man or the woman who ran up a front
step and looked around the parlor rapidly for something to transfer to basket or
pocket. There were not thieves enough in the North Division to meet the demand
of the night. If any there were, it was the most honest night any of them had
ever lived. One citizen, having run back home, found a plain man coming out
with his arms full of the gentleman's clothing. If the loaded man was a thief he
must have been amazed at the greeting from the owner of the goods: 'That is
right, my man, take anything you want, it is all yours.'


"The houses were full of varied articles, and the sidewalks and streets were rich
in choice objects for which the owners had expected to find a wagon or a cart;
great baskets full of dishes and plated ware, bookcases and books, trunks, costly
pictures in rich frames, pianos, carpets, and rugs. And yet the crowd moved along
among these things as it would move among stones or stumps. In many instances
a costly piano, with its lid off, had caught sparks enough to be already on fire.
Trunks were burning and letting silk dresses loose to cut high antics in the wind.

"In the business blocks there was stealing of the meanest form. Where mer-
chants were loading up into trunks valuable packages of silks, laces, and velvets,
there the professional criminals were active, and merchants were robbed before
their own eyes, and in return for any word of remonstrance got a threat or an
oath. But in the residence portion of the burning district there were not criminals
enough to ransack the houses, or appropriate even the goods in the street. Many
a domestic had a furnished house given her by the retreating mistress, and Bridget
was queen for an hour.

"The flames cut their first channel through to the lake in a few hours. This
channel was then widened on both sides with more of deliberation on the part of
the enemy. The houses which escaped the first wave had only to wait for the


second rush. Coming to La Salle avenue we found the houses still inhabited, but
the inmates were debating whether they would have to retreat at nine o'clock or
ten or at noon.

"It was about four in the morning when our little group dropped out of the mot-
ley procession and went into the luxurious home of a near friend. Quite a num-
ber of neighbors had assembled, and the consumption of coffee and biscuit and but-
ter was very great. The heat of the night had brought to the hands and face
perspiration enough to serve as a fluid for mixing soot and dust into a paste for
the complexion. The nearest friends were recognized with difficulty. Ladies thought
beautiful now Jield a teacup in hands that were black as those of a coal-heaver,
and polite 'thank yous' and 'if you please' came from faces which looked as
though dirt had been flung into them with a shovel. And yet the coffee and bis-
cuits were delightful. All the houses of these residence streets were thus open to
passing people, and each dining-room was transformed into a restaurant.


"It must have been ten o'clock Monday morning when the flames had come so

Online LibraryJ. Seymour (Josiah Seymour) CurreyChicago: its history and its builders, a century of marvelous growth (Volume v.2) → online text (page 33 of 55)