The Great Chicago Fire, as the horror happened in 1871 – and a look back from 100 years later

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Lasting from Sunday, October 8, to the morning of Tuesday, October 10, 1871, The Great Chicago Fire killed an estimated 200 to 300 people, while destroying more than three square miles of the city — including 73 miles of roads, 120 miles of sidewalks and 17,500 buildings — and left 100,000 people (a third of the city’s population) homeless.

Chicago in Ashes

THE GREAT CALAMITY OF THE AGE.

Hundreds of Millions of Dollars’ Worth of Property destroyed The South, the North and a Portion of the West Division of the City in Ruins.

All the Hotels, Banks, Public Buildings Newspaper Offices and Great Business Blocks Swept Away.

The Conflagration still in Progress.

THE FURY OF THE FLAMES.

The great fire in Chicago - panic-stricken citizens
The great fire in Chicago – panic-stricken citizens rushing past the Sherman House, carrying the aged, sick and helpless, and endeavoring to save family treasures

[Update] Rumors are to the effect that 35 lives were lost in the Sherman House, 21 in the Briggs House, and 15 clerks lost in the Post Office building, as well as many employees of the Express companies while endeavoring to save goods.

Chicago is burning! Up to this hour of writing (1 o’clock p.m.) the best part of the city is already in ashes! An area of between six and seven miles in length and nearly a mile in width embracing the great business part of the city, has been burned over and now lies in a mass of smoldering ruins!

All the principal hotels, all the public buildings, all the banks, all the newspaper offices, all the places of amusement, nearly all the great business edifices, nearly all the railroad depots, the waterworks, the gas works, several churches and a thousand of private residences and stores have been consumed. The proud, noble, magnificent Chicago of yesterday, is today a mere shadow of what it was, and helpless before the still sweeping flames, the fear is that the entire city will be consumed before we shall see the end.

The entire South Division, from Harrison street north to the river, almost the entire North division, from the river to Lincoln Park, and several blocks in the West Division are burned.

The Mayor has issued a proclamation that all the fires in stoves in the city shall be extinguished.

Great Chicago Fire headlines - Dixon Telegraph And Herald October 10, 1871

It is utterly impossible to estimate the losses. They must, in the aggregate, amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. Amid the confusion and general bewilderment, we can only give a few details.

The fire broke out on the corner of DeKoven and Twelfth Streets, at about 9 o’clock on Sunday evening, being caused by a cow kicking over a lamp in a stable in which a woman was milking. An alarm was immediately given, but, owing to the high southwest wind, the building was speedily consumed, and thence the fire spread rapidly.

The fireman could not, with all their efforts, get the mastery of the flames. Building after building was fired by the flying cinders, which landing on the roofs, which were as dry as tinder, owing to the protracted dry weather, instantly took fire. Northwardly and northeastwardly, the flames took their course, lapping up house after house, block after block, street after street, all night long.

The scene of ruin and devastation is beyond the power of words to describe. Never, in the history of the world, has such a scene of extended, terrible and complete destruction, by conflagration, been recorded; and never has a more frightful scene of panic, distress and horror been witnessed among a helpless, sorrowing, suffering population.

It is utterly impossible, at first thought for the mind to take any conception of the fearful ravages of the fire-fiend, although the astounding facts stated above will appall the most heroic. The awful truth of the situation will be more fully comprehended by a glance at the following very imperfect list of the city’s loss. It is, however, proper to state that at this writing, the confusion in the police and fire department is so complete as to render it impossible to give anything like a detailed account of the terrible conflagration.

The Great Chicago Fire - Chicago Times newspaper


100 years after the Great Chicago Fire

One does not celebrate the centennial of a great disaster such as the Chicago fire of October 1871. But such a centennial is an occasion to be observed — with awe at the sudden destruction of so many lives and so much property, and with respect for the indomitable spirit of the Chicagoans of that day.

As Joseph Medal, editor of THE TRIBUNE, wrote, “Chicago still exists. She was not a mere collection of stones and bricks and lumber… We have lost money, but we have saved life, health, vigor and industry… Let the watchword henceforth be: Chicago Shall Rise Again.”

Rise it did. The drastic clearing of about five square miles of the highly inflammable city, with sidewalks and paving blocks as well as most buildings made of wood. provided an opportunity for better buildings with more durable materials. Included in the sweep of the fire was the central business district, which without the disaster no doubt would have evolved more slowly and raggedly into a modern downtown area.

Without the fire, the modern skyscraper might have first emerged elsewhere than in Chicago’s Loop. Scholarly historians now doubt the guilt of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow for starting the great Chicago fire. Mrs. O’Leary said at the time that there was “not a word of truth” in “that kerosene lamp story.” Leading contenders for the blame of starting the whole thing are spontaneous combustion or some man’s resort to the barn for a nip of whisky.

Scenes from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (2)

The former is favored by Fred Marcon, chairman of Chicago’s fire centennial observance. No one will ever know the precise number of fatalities (figures range from 300 to 5001, the exact extent of property loss [somewhere around $200 million], or the precise number of persons burned out [almost if not quite 100,000, a third of the city’s population]. But there was no doubt, either in 1871 or since, that the great Chicago fire was one of the most spectacular urban disasters in modern times.

Paradoxically, it was not even the most lethal disaster of the day in the Midwest. More than a thousand persons lost their lives during the same days in a forest fire that swept Peshtigo, Wisconsin, and millions of wooded acres near that small lumbering town on the west shore of Green Bay. The generous outpouring of relief supplies and contributions, some even from overseas, that helped Chicago had no counterpart for Peshtigo, its bad news overshadowed by the calamity of a large city which the world had heard of before its fire.

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Except for memories of what a few grandparents used to say, the Chicago fire of 1871 is now a matter of printed record rather than oral tradition. Our Centennial Section today gives evidence of many aspects of the great fire, including a full-page reprinting of a privately issued account written in 1925 by Frank J. Loesch. This sustained account of one young man’s experiences concludes with “high hopes for the new and greater Chicago which every ambitious young man was convinced would surely rise out of the ashes of the old one.”

Many Chicagoans like the two quoted above, Medill and Loesch, acted effectively together to make those hopes come true, and quickly. The pre-fire city of 335,000 was as populous as ever within a matter of months, and within 20 years, had tripled in size.

The great fire did not destroy the “I will” spirit of Chicago. Rather, it provided the superlative occasion for demonstrating the strength of Chicago’s will. Would we Chicagoans of 1971 do as well as our predecessors, if we faced a similarly stern necessity? We hope that we would prove worthy of our heritage, and that the answer would be, “Yes, and even better.”

Great Chicago fire map of burned areas during 1871


The story of the Great Chicago fire in 1871, as recounted in 1971

[Original] Editor’s note: This information about the Great Chicago Fire is from the Introduction of the Chicago Historical Society’s recently published book, The Great Chicago Fire by Paul M. Angle.

Between the early evening of Sunday, October 8, 1871, and the early morning Tuesday, October 10, fire destroyed practically every building in an area of three and a third square miles in the heart of Chicago. Property valued at $200,000,000 was turned into rubble, 90,000 people were left homeless, 300 lost their lives.

The common designation, the “Great Chicago Fire,” is an understatement — it was the most destructive fire in American history.

On that Sunday one hundred years ago, Chicago enjoyed a warm bright day. Yet most of its 335,000 inhabitants would have preferred less pleasant weather. For three months, almost no rain had fallen, already the trees had shed most of their leaves, the lawns were parches, wells were dry.

Chicago, moreover, was built of wood. Thoughtful residents knew what might happen if a fire should get out of control. In the last few days, they had had grim warnings. On Saturday, September 30, the Burlington warehouse on 16th Street near State burned with a loss of more than $600,000. During the next week, there was a succession of fires, but not until Saturday, October 7, did one turn out to be disastrous.

Then, an hour or two before midnight, a planing mill on Canal Street between Jackson and Van Buren caught fire. Before the firemen reached the scene, it was almost destroyed, and adjacent buildings were aflame. The entire department was called out.

By intelligent, courageous work, the men finally brought the fire under control, but not until it had consumed four square blocks and damaged property to the amount of $750,000.

And that was not all: the fire had also taken a heavy toll of the department. Several pieces of apparatus were destroyed or put out of commission, and after sixteen hours of arduous, dangerous work, hardly more than half of the men were fit for duty.

Thus the stage was set for tragedy when the O’Leary cowbarn, at the rear of 137 DeKoven Street, caught fire about 8:45 on the evening of Sunday, October 8.

There is no need here for a detailed account of the way in which the fire got out of control. It is enough to say that the wooden city tinder-dry from drought, a strong southwest wind, an exhausted fire department, and considerable bungling combined to take the fire out of man’s hands before it had burned two hours.

Damage and aftermath from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (6)

The Great Chicago Fire starts

The fire started on the West Side, about three-eighths of a mile west of the South Branch of the Chicago River. Before midnight it had jumped across the river, and was moving rapidly in a northeasterly direction.

By 1:30 on the morning of Monday, October 9, the court-house and other buildings in the very heart of the business district were ablaze. By 2:30 it had spanned the river itself and was attacking the North Side fiercely. In another hour the waterworks at Chicago Avenue and Pine Street (now Michigan Avenue) was blazing so fiercely that the workmen on duty there were forced to abandon it.

Monday

During most of Monday, October 9, the fire ranged over the North Side, sweeping as far north as Fullerton Avenue (then the city limits) and wiping out sections which had escaped the night before. At the same time, it completed the destruction of the business district.

By late afternoon, however, it was almost burned out. Rain, commencing shortly before midnight, helped to put an end to the holocaust.

On the North Side, a small number of structures escaped. Foremost among them were the Water Tower, the home of Mahlon D. Ogden at Dearborn and White (now Walton) where the Newberry Library stands, and the cottage of the policeman Bellinger at 2121 North Hudson, still standing. There were also four houses on the west side of Clark Street between Wisconsin and Armitage and several service buildings in Lincoln Park.

In the much smaller burned area on the West Side, the flames had spared a handful of buildings. Among them, by a grim joke, was the O’Leary cottage. The burnt area extended north and south for four and three-quarter miles, and had an average width of one mile. Within these limits, there were only smoking ruins.

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One phenomenon of the fire deserves special comment. In almost every letter written about it, in almost every recorded reminiscence, there is awed reference to the high wind that hurled burning planks and fire brands through the air for hundreds of yards and sent walls of flame whole blocks almost instantaneously.

Colonel H. A. Musham has pointed out that at no time during the fire did the wind reach a velocity of more than thirty miles an hour, and that a wind of this force cannot lift large objects into the air and hurl them long distances. The gale – like winds, in fact, were convections whirls, or “fire devils” — whirling masses of fire and superheated air — generated by the fire itself. These, more than any other factor, accounted for the lightning-like spread of the flames.

“They carried burning brands, sparks and masses of fire forward for distances up to three-eighths of a mile,” Colonel Musham writes. “The destruction of the city can be said to have been brought about by fire spilled progressively on it by these fire devils which started new fires far in advance of those from which they arose; these, assisted by showers of sparks and masses of superheated air, formed new centers of destruction, from which fire literally flowed in all directions, particularly to the north and northeast, which ceased only when there was nothing more to burn.”

c1894

It’s over

The fire over, the people of Chicago set out at once to alleviate the suffering of the victims. A temporary relief committee was organized, schools and churches were opened to the homeless, food and clothing were distributed.

On October 13, the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, an established organization, was selected to distribute the supplies and handle the. money which by then were pouring in from other parts of the country, and would soon come from Great Britain and European countries. So well did it do its work, and so generous was the response of those who had escaped the fire’s destruction, that no one went homeless or hungry during the ensuing winter.

Jonas Hutchinson, writing while the fire still burned, stated despondingly: “thirty years of prosperity cannot restore us.” His prophecy was natural enough under the circumstances. First of all, where would the vitally important money come from? How solvent were the banks. How many of the insurance companies could meet their obligations?

The second of these questions was answered promptly. Immediately after the fire, the Chicago banks announced that they would resume business at once and make an initial payment of fifteen percent to all depositors. Before action could be taken, the Comptroller of the Currency arrived in the city, found the national banks sound, and announced that they would open in temporary quarters on October 17 and pay all depositors in full. At once deposits exceeded withdrawals. Eastern hankers did not press their Chicago correspondents for immediate payment, and loans for reconstruction were freely offered.

Insurance

The settlement of insurance claims was more difficult and took longer. Of the $196,000,000 fire loss, slightly less than half was covered by insurance, carried in 201 companies. Fifty-eight of these went into liquidation. The others made partial payments as quickly as they could, and six British companies paid in full. By 1872, forty percent of the amount claimed had been paid, with another twelve percent expected during the year.

As important as the availability of funds was the instant decision by the financial and business leaders of the city to rebuild. Bessie Louise Pierce, in “A History of Chicago,” summarizes:

“On October 10, the stockholders of the Chamber of Commerce, from whom the Board of Trade held a lease, resolved to rebuild at once. In quick succession leaders of business and industry demonstrated similar confidence that the new Chicago would be better and bigger than the one destroyed. On October 13, Jonathan Young Scammon announced that the ground had been broken for a store and office block, renters for which had already been signed.

“Within the next three weeks, many leading citizens took similar steps. M. Laflin and Sons arranged for the erection of twelve four-story structures in the ravaged district; Cyrus H. McCormick ordered the construction of five buildings, and the rebuilding of the Palmer House from the original plans of John M. Van Osdel, well-known architect, was underway.

In a little less than four weeks, Field and Leiter began business in temporary quarters, in a remodeled car barn at Twentieth and State streets, and other merchants leased for one year land along the lakefront upon which temporary wooden structures could be placed.”

A year later

On the first anniversary of the fire the Land Owner, Chicago real estate publication, brought out a special number entitled One Year From the Fire: Chicago Illustrated, consisting almost entirely of plates depicting buildings already finished or in progress. “All of these buildings,” the editor commented, “are of the most substantial and massive character. Nearly all are far more costly and elegant than the structures destroyed in the fire, which stood on the same sites.

“Our citizens have not been satisfied to simply replace the old city, but it has been their ambition to build it more beautiful and attractive than it was before it fell a victim to the resistless avalanche of fire.”

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Judging from the illustrations, the new buildings were certainly massive, and probably much more expensive than their predecessors, but they were no improvement architecturally. Generally five or six stories high, most had overhanging cornices, mansard roofs, and much grimcracky ornamentation. Chicago’s architectural renaissance was still to come.

A year later, the Land Owner published a second anniversary number. In this, the editor asserted that in the past eighteen months more than a thousand major buildings having a total value of more than $50.000,000 had been erected.

“Today the City is practically rebuilt,” he announced, “a better, more artistic, grander City than the old Chicago that fed the flames.”

Essentially, he was right. By the fall of 1873 bare ground in the business section was worth more than the same land, with buildings on it, had been worth before the fire. In the same short period, the city’s manufacturing doubled. By 1875, few traces of the catastrophe could be found.

In spite of the fire and a major depression, Chicago’s population rose from 300,000 in 1870 to 500,000 in 1880, and then leaped to more than a million at the turn of the century.

By that time, it was clear that the fire, while destroying lives and property, had also spurred an ambitious, hard-working people to produce a greater, fairer city.


Panoramic photo of the city after the fire

At top is the complete picture, then three close-ups from the image are below

Panorama frame 3 from after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 (144)

Panorama frame 1 from after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871

Panorama frame 3 from after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 (143)

Panorama frame 3 from after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 (1)


A first-person account from a survivor of the Great Chicago Fire

In 1915, Frank J. Loesch wrote his “Personal Experiences During the Chicago Fire, 1871,” which SOW privately printed and read before the Chicago Literary Club on Oct. 12, 1925. His grandson, Buchanan Loesch, 51, of Reading, Massachusetts, lent his copy to The Tribune for use in this fire centennial supplement.

Although he was born and died in New York state, Loesch was a Chicagoan for some 70 years. He was a well-known corporation lawyer and, senior partner in the Chicago firm of Utah, Scofield, Loesch and Burke.

It was as an enemy of organized crime, however, that Loesch became known best to Chicagoans. He was a member of the Chicago Crime Com-mission during the stormy, Prohibition years of the ’30s, and became its president in 1928. He died in Cooperstown, N. Y., in 1941 at the age of 92. Following are excerpts from Loesch’s eye-witness account of the destructive fire.

I had been a resident of Chicago for 16 months, and in that time had made myself familiar with its business and residence districts and its topography. I lived, at the time of the fire, in a boarding house at 110 N. Dearborn St., now 548 N. Dearborn, one door south of Ohio. I was a bookkeeper for the Western Union Telegraph Co. at its main office, which was located at the northwest corner of Washington and La Salle.

The summer of 1871 was an intensely hot one. No rain had fallen in the Lake region for about three months prior to Oct. 8. Great forest fires with large loss of life were taking place in the then heavily pine-forested regions of Central and Northern Michigan and Wisconsin. I recall our excitement on Saturday and Sunday, October 7 and 8, on reading in the morning papers stories of the destruction of forests and villages, with the loss of many lives, about Sturgeon Bay and other places in Wisconsin and Michigan.

The great fire at Chicago, Octr. 8th 1871

As is generally known, the residential portion of Chicago was almost wholly constructed of wood. Brick and limestone structures were largely confined to the business district. South of that were many handsome residences with Joliet limestone fronts and brick sidewalls. Such was not the case on the North and West Sides where the com-mon structures, by the mile, were the one-story basement frame cottages with outside front steps leading to the upper floor.

The streets, where paved, were generally so with the so-called Nicholson blocks, round pine blocks laid upon hemlock planks and heavily tarred over with a surfacing of torpedo gravel which in a short time was either ground into the soft pine blocks or swept away by the wind and rains.

The sidewalks, except in the South Side business district, where limestone flags predominated, were entirely of pine or hemlock planking and many of the streets were raised on wooden supports from 4 to 10 feet above the natural surface to meet the street grades which had by that much been raised above the natural surface. It can be seen what added fuel to a general fire was made by such construction of sidewalks and street pavements.

Before midnight on Sunday, Oct. 7th, our household of about 30 boarders was aroused by cries of “Fire!” The sky was red from a southwesterly blaze. A number of the young men, including myself, started for the scene of it and were stopped on the east side of the Madison Street bridge.

From there we saw the destruction of the then Union Railroad Station, a frame structure, located on the east side of Canal Street, opposite Monroe Street. South of Adams Street to Van Buren were located planing mills and lumberyards. The fire was fierce and spectacular with such material to feed upon, but there was no wind and the fire exhausted itself without crossing the South Branch of the river.

Scenes from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (4)

That was the night before the beginning of the great fire. Chicago had no Sunday theaters, and for amusement, one had to resort to the German beer gardens or to the North Side Turner Hall, where good music was the rule afternoons and evenings. Therefore church attendance was much more general than it is now. As churchgoers were coming out of their places of worship on Sunday evening, fire bells were ringing furiously and a rapidly increasing red glare towards the Southwest Side indicated that another fire had broken out.

A strong hot wind had been blowing from the southwest during the day and it seemed to have gained in strength at this time.

FEW OF OUR fellows at the hoard-ing house cared to see another fire after being up most of Saturday night at the one just referred to. Therefore only two of us started out for the scene of the new fire. My companion was young LeRow, somewhat undersized, but exceedingly active. His enthusiasm to see the new blaze carried me with him.

We made our way speedily to about Franklin and Monroe. The fire had just leaped across the South Branch at about Adams. In that vicinity was located the gas reservoir which supplied the South and North Sides with illuminating gas.

All about that neighborhood were many small cottages inhabited mostly by Irish people. The destruction of their homes was an immediate certainty. The possible explosion of the gas tank could not be long deferred. The frantic excitement among the people in their fear that they could not save their household goods was most moving.

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The panic which paralyzes human faculties under conditions like that is illustrated by one instance. From one of the cottages a mother had carried into the street, of all things, a bed tick filled with straw, where burning brands were everywhere falling in increasing numbers, and rushing back brought out and dumped a pair of twin infants upon the straw tick, and hastened back into her home just as LeRow and I dropped some household articles and noticed a burning brand fall into the straw tick. He grabbed one infant and I the other. We gave the babes to their frantic mother, urging her to run with them for their lives.

As we started to run we noticed the straw tick ablaze. No houses had then begun to burn but most of the people joined us in getting away. We stopped a few moments at the northeast corner of Monroe and Wells to watch a scene there. Barrels of whisky were being rolled on skids into Wells Street from several large stores of dealers in beverages, presumably awaiting immediate carriage, tho no drays were visible.

However, what we did see was a number of men, each two or three with a scantling or piece of board ramming some of the barrels, and as soon as part of the head had been driven in and the liquor was gushing out the men would throw themselves flat into the street to gulp the whisky as it poured over them. No one interfered with their amusement. It is very likely that some of those men were among those reported “missing” later on.

Damage and aftermath from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (1)

There was no time to lose. The streets were being littered with burning brands. We ran east on Monroe to La Salle and north towards Washington. North of Madison Street we were literally running over a coating of red and smoldering fire brands. We saw no other people in that block.

About halfway in the block, LeRow cried out that he was smothering. I grabbed him by the collar and dragged him as fast as I could go to Washington Street, where the air was free of smoke with few cinders on the street, but a strong hot wind was blowing eastward and carrying many burning brands high in the air. Here, LeRow revived and we parted, he to go north, I to go into the telegraph company’s office to learn if I could be of service.

Some three or four of my fellow clerks were there, besides the manager. Someone had opened the vault door, into which we put all the books of account that were about, the men having worked on them that day. I saw the manager place a lot of gold coins into a small portable office safe at his desk. Is was suggested to him that we move the safe into the large vault, but he declined to have it done as being unnecessary.

After the fire, the stack of vaults in that building was found upright amidst the debris of the rest of the building, the contents of each vault being intact, but the manager’s safe had been melted down, and after diligent search amidst the ruins, there was found only a little trickle of gold in the shape of a thin vein over some bricks.

All salvage work in our office was being done by the light of the flames. The building opposite on Washington Street was ablaze and the roof of our building was burning. The telegraph operators had abandoned their instruments on the upper floors and were running down the stairway as I hurried into La Salle Street and ran north to Randolph.

The La Salle Street tunnel at that time — and until the late Eighties, when it was turned over for the exclusive use of North Side cable cars — had a foot passageway on the east of the teamway. I stopped for a few moments at the north corner of Randolph and La Salle to look about me.

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All the buildings south on La Salle as far as I could see, south of Washington, were ablaze. So were some north of it. My particular attention was, however, called to the Court House and City Hall. The former had for its center building a brownstone structure surmounted by a cupola in which was hung a large bell. The interior of the building was burning and the flames being carried up through the open space had set the bell to ringing.

Above all the sounds of the roaring fire, the wind and the excited shouts of a moving mass of people the bell whirled on its frame and over its stanchions, ringing out with a weirdness and a despairing clangorous volume, as though it were possessed of sense and were agonizing in its struggle against destruction. For many years thereafter, the memory of its clangor often awoke me at night to recall the scene.

The east and west wings of the Court House were constructed of Joliet lime-stone—the west wing being the City Hall. I watched for some moments, with a fascination which only the growing danger to myself drew me away from, the effect of the fire upon City Hall. The strong southwest wind was driving the heat in sheets of flame from the hundreds of burning buildings to the west of it, upon the southwest corner of the building, with such terrific effect that the limestone was melting and was running down the face of the building with first a slow then an accelerating movement, as if it were a thin white paste.

Scenes from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (5)

The carelessness with which some people must have viewed the oncoming flames was evident to me when I saw numbers of guests rushing out of the Sherman House onto Randolph Street. Most of them were in nightclothing, carrying whatever other clothing came handiest in the panic. The Court House opposite must have been burning for over a half hour, for it was now near midnight and yet those people had apparently waited, or were left asleep, until the hotel was about to burst into flames before deciding to leave.

I joined the rush of people passing up La Salle Street to the tunnel’s pedestrian-passage entrance. Some time after leaving Monroe and Franklin Streets there was a loud explosion. I learned from the crowd making its way to the tunnel that it was the explosion of the gas works. Gas lights had gone out everywhere, and the escaping gas had doubtless hastened the action of the fire in many buildings.

On reaching my boarding house, I found Dearborn Street a mass of people and horses and vehicles. It appeared like an aimless confusion, but it was everyone looking out for himself and family without regard to others, and expecting others to do the same. It was exciting but not wildly panicky. We all realized that haste was necessary to get away somewhere out of reach of the flames which were shooting high above the blazing business district and by the light of which we were moving about inside as well as outside the houses, but frankly, I saw no evidence of disregard of others’ rights in the confused moving to and fro.

There were more calm people than one would expect. Individuals and groups were concerned as to the direction to take in seeking to escape the oncoming flames. I joined a company of a dozen or more, broken into smaller groups later, who decided on going directly west on Ohio Street to as near the North Branch as we could get, thence northward toward Fullerton Avenue, then the city limits, which no one thought of as ever likely to be reached by the fire.

Damage and aftermath from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (5)

Some of the others decided to go directly north into Lincoln Park. That was a bad choice. Others decided that they would go east on Ohio Street to the lake and be in safety on the beach, which was very wide at that point. That was the worst choice. I recall a lady and her family taking that direction. When next I saw her, she was minus much of her hair, eyebrows and eyelashes. They had been scorched off by the intense heat in spite of the fact that she sat in the lake and frequently ducked her head into the water.

During this time there was, of course, the greatest excitement on all sides as people were leaving their houses with whatever they could carry. The fire had now crossed the river and was making rapid progress on the North Side.

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One scene took place, the relation of which will bring a sympathetic thought for an unknown book lover from all my hearers. I was on the walk in front of the boarding house when my attention was called to a gentleman who had a set of beautifully-bound books in his two arms.

He explained to an expressman that they were a set of Shakespeare, and was asking him to take and move the books. He declined because he said be was trying to save his own goods. The gentleman then offered him $50 to carry the books to a place of safety. This was declined on the ground that he must go quick to save his family.

Then the gentleman said, “Won’t you take and save the books if I make you a present of them?” “Yes,” he would. “Then take them,” said the owner, as he put them into the wagon, turned away and burst into tears.


The roar of the flames, the air alive with flying embers, the fierceness with which the wind and fire combined were whirling the flames into and circling in and above the street, fascinated me. No voice could make itself heard above the roar. Even in the house we had to shout into each other’s ears to make ourselves heard.

As I came down the steps facing south, the three blocks south of Indiana Street caught fire with the suddenness of the explosion of a bomb, including the pavement and the sidewalks, and were a mass of flames in a moment. It was the first and only instance in which I saw an enveloping movement of the flames to that extent and especially the burning of the street pavement.

Great fire at Chicago Oct. 9th 1871. View from the west side

The dryness of the season, the superheat for hours of the fiercely driven flames, the tarred-over pavement, were sufficient explanation to account for the street’s burning, while thousands of falling burning brands added to the other factors before mentioned easily explained how three blocks of buildings, including brick business buildings, could burst into flames at almost the same instant. I was around the corner in a second after that with overcoat collar up, sheltering myself from the heat on the north side of the building.

It was now after 1 o’clock on Monday morning. When I reached Clark Street, the dense mass of people who had been moving up Clark for two hours or more had apparently not diminished in numbers, although the fire was then burning only about three blocks south, but it was burning with a backward movement slowly towards the northwest.

I use the word “slowly” in comparison with the terrific speed with which it was burn-ing directly northeastwardly, of which I have just given an instance. It will be understood that the force of the southwest wind was driving the flames in a straight northeast direction, the termination point so far as inflammable material was concerned being at about the pumping station at Chicago Avenue and present North Michigan Avenue.

Everyone should have felt, but did not, that safety in flight lay in keeping out of the line of the fire as indicated, by walking northward and branching off westwardly and northwardly as fast as conditions permitted.

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I have indicated that many people took to the lake, in the direct line of the fire. It was strange how indifferent we all were to the contingency of a sudden shift of the wind to the south or southeast, which would have caught thousands upon thousands of us in instant peril of our lives. But the dense, slowly moving mass of people on sidewalks and roadways hindered any free or fast movement east of Wells Street or south of Ohio Street. There were few moving teams in the roadway at this time. However, the passing crowd had a puzzle nearly equal to that of “The Lady or the Tiger.”

On my first return to the house, I noticed unusual excitement two or three doors south of Ohio on the east side of Clark. Making my way there I found my haberdasher, a Jew and a genial fellow, in the most frantic condition of mind and body. He was running to the rooms above and back again and inquiring about the fire and looking down the street at the oncoming flames and rushing upstairs and down again with inconceivable rapidity.

Damage and aftermath from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (2)

I did manage to extract from somebody the information that a baby was momentarily expected upstairs, but not knowing the exigency, it was not entering the world with that expedition which the nervous father, physician and family in attendance expected of it. Their very excitement, it was said, proved a hindrance.

The puzzle, therefore, was, would the fire or the baby first come to that home? The passing crowd caught the state of affairs, took a humorous interest in it adn was extending good wishes and “hopes for the best.”

I learned a year or two later from the father that “it” came first and was a boy. The mother was carried out of the house on a stretcher when the fire had actually reached the south end of that block.

At the northwest corner of Ohio and Clark, there was a hat and cap store. Every time I passed there, I heard the proprietor invite every passer-by to enter the store and fit himself with a hat or cap without charge. His reiterated invitation shouted to the moving mass was: “They’ll all burn up anyway. Make yourselves at home with a new hat free. No charge! Take what you want.”

Not a man or boy accepted the invitation during the four times I passed there. It was acknowledged with humorous good nature by the men but time was too precious, the fire was too dangerously close: one could not afford to risk the loss of his place in the moving mass and separation from family or friends for a new hat.

By the process of slow walking to Erie Street bridge where a considerable number of people waited for an hour or two, thence by a ride with an expressman, a part of our group found ourselves at the east abutment of Chicago Avenue bridge about 4 a. m. It had a slight grade above the street.

From it, for two hours we saw the flames everywhere leaping upward, but ever steadily making their way toward us. At one time we witnessed six churches, some of them with spires, sending their flames high into the air, making the most spectacular exhibition of the fire on the North Side.

About 6 a.m., a number of us succeeded in inducing an expressman who was driving north to carry us to Fullerton and Racine, where some of the party had friends who had a comfortable home. As we drove up Larrabee Street and Lincoln Avenue, we found the residents out in force on the streets pitying us as we drove by with others in the same condition.

I spent most of Monday after 10 a. m. in wandering about the district between North and Fullerton Avenues, a distance of a mile. The houses were being rapidly vacated north of North Avenue.

The people had a better opportunity to remove their belongings or bury them than had those who were caught unprepared during Sunday night in the district south of Division. Many could be seen burying furniture. One musician told me some months after that he had so buried a fine piano only to lose it, as thieves had gotten it before he could return to his devastated home lot some days after the fire.

Scenes from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (3)

THE FIRE was burning steadily and rather rapidly northward without a hand anywhere attempting to stay its progress. It was plain to be seen and often commented on by the fire-dispossessed wanderers that three or four fire engines with hose connections and water could at any time after 10 or 11 on Monday morning, have prevented all progress of the flames north of Division or at least north of North Avenue.

The engines could have been obtained. It only needed water but there was no water. The destruction of the Chicago Avenue pumping station early in the morning had ended all hope of ending the fire so long as there were houses, streets, sidewalks and fences to feed it and no rain to quench it. I saw the pavements burning with the same fury as houses and boardwalks.

Before sunset, I had returned to my place of refuge. Some 30 or 40 men had gathered there. At a council, it was decided that active measures must be taken to guard our lives. In front and to the south of us and west of McCormick Seminary were some 60 to 80 acres of prairie, thickly covered with very dry thistles and grass. If the fire swept across that, all our lives would be put in jeopardy.

It was decided to find a team and plow furrows across that field as at least a partial protection. The second protection was the tearing down of fences and uprooting posts which fenced in part of the prairie, and throwing them into ditches where we could handily find them. The final precaution was the filling of many open kettles and pans with water from a well, and placing them so that in the emergency feared each woman and child for herself or itself, or some man for them, could soak a wrap, place it about the woman or child, the man throwing what water he could over his legs and then with his charge run the gauntlet of the prairie fire.

About 1:30 on Tuesday morning when we had given up hope of any stay and when the last row of houses on Belden or the street south of it, next south of the prairie, was about being licked up, rain suddenly came down in such volume as to assure us safety and the extinguishment of the fire.

When I arose about daylight Tuesday morning, I could scarcely believe the sight which met my eyes. The prairie which we had so worked over the evening before and which we had left tenantless was filled with a mass of refugees who had drifted there since 2 a.m. Someone of our crowd made a rough count and reported over 3,000 men, women and children camped there.

Every group seemed to be engaged in cooking breakfast. Judging by smell and sight I was of the opinion that the three staples which had been handily saved from the devouring flames were coffee, rye bread and sauerkraut. At my refuge, a cup of weak tea and one biscuit was served to each adult. Immediately after that hearty breaking of a two days’ fast, several of the men started for downtown to find out something of the conditions and what we amid do about getting to work or leaving the city.

Damage and aftermath from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (3)

OUR WALK WAS down Lincoln to Clark thence into Lincoln Park at Wisconsin Street to North Avenue. There were still many graves in the old cemetery south of Wisconsin which had been incorporated within the park limits. Not a wooden marker had escaped the flames, while former granite and marble headstones were in evidence only by the chips left of them which littered the ground.

Broken china was everywhere, plainly the remnants of household things which had been carried there for safety and then abandoned to the flames which swept the dry grass, shrubbery and trees out of existence.

In our walk south of North Avenue, we were often nonplussed to identify the cross streets, since former landmarks had been completely destroyed, and where brick business buildings had existed, they seemed to have fallen into the streets making piles of debris.

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The Ogden House occupying the present site of the Newberry Library stood out prominently wholly uninjured. The rails of the street railway on Clark had almost without an exception been burned out of their ties and lay about the street and upon the former sidewalk space twisted and warped like dead black snakes in agonies of contortion.

On Chicago Avenue, a lot of water mains had been distributed before the fire. Sticking out of one of these we found the legs of a man who had been roasted to death in his place of refuge, probably blindly sought by him in a drunken stupor. We were told that a few hours after we had left Chicago Avenue bridge, and as refugees in vehicles and afoot were crowding over it in the face of advancing flames, a small oil refinery near there caught fire, exploded and caused the death of over a hundred people by burning, or by drowning in being crowded off the bridge, or jumping into the river in the frenzy and agony of the crowd following the explosion.

Damage and aftermath from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (4)

OF MY FORMER boarding place, nothing was left, even the bricks having largely been pulverized by the heat, and buried treasure of silverware was afterwards found melted to a shapeless mass.

I had only $2 in my pockets and had the impression that Chicago would, of course, disappear as a business place. I began to question my impression when I saw a score or more of men at work in the ruins of the Chamber of Commerce now replaced by the Chamber of Commerce Building at the southeast corner of La Salle and Washington.

They were actually removing debris smoking hot, preparatory to rebuilding. I was joined by two or three other of my fellow clerks, all of whom, however, were living out on the West side. One of them had known nothing of the fire until late Monday morning.

While chatting over the supposed loss of our situation and considering what to do, a messenger sent to the ruins to look up any clerks who might gather there, informed us that the main telegraph office was at State and 16th Streets, where we were ordered to report at once as our services were urgently needed. So great was the necessity of getting information out to anxious relatives that no telegrams whatever were being taken from other places, all the operators, all wires and facilities being devoted to sending telegrams out of the city.

Before dark, I was excused from duty and walked through the five or more miles of ruins to my previous night’s refuge. The next morning found me back at my temporary desk with old Chicago only a memory, but with high hopes for the new and greater Chicago, which every ambitious young man was already convinced would surely rise out of the ashes of the old one.

The Great Chicago Fire, as the horror happened in 1871 - and a look back from 100 years later

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