This is one of two articles that appeared in the 28 October 1871 issue of Harper’s Weekly, one of the finest and most popular illustrated magazines of the time. Although mostly accurate, there are two things that must be commented on. First, the article stressed “gale-like winds” that carried burning lumber to other buildings. The winds in actuality never exceeded thirty miles per hour and was not capable to carry heavy planks into the air. These gusts were actually “convection whirls”, or masses of super heated air rising from the flames and given a whirling motion by brushing against the cooler air surrounding them. These whirls were commonly known as “fire devils.”
Second, the suggestion that there were a number of people shot or hanged for looting or setting new fires, was greatly exaggerated. None of these actually took place and was just a rumor that spread throughout the city and reached the press.
Group of Refugees in the Street
Drawing by C.S. Reinhart
CHICAGO IN ASHES.
It is difficult at a distance from the scene, to form a conception of the extent of the dire calamity which has befallen Chicago. For days the newspapers were filled with dreadful tidings of the fierce and swift progress of the flames, blown bv the winds of heaven from house to house; of terror-stricken men, women, and children flying from burning homes, and spreading out, a helpless, starving, half-naked~ multitude, on the open prairie; but, as a writer of the World has well remarked, “there is little to be said of such a calamity which the imagination of every reader can not build for himself upon the sImple statement that a great city has been swept away in a day. The catalogue of individual ruin is the Directory of Chicago. Let any man figure to himself to what he would endure if he were stripped not only of everything, that may make him conventionally “respectable” or eminent, but of the wherewilhul to supply the first conditions of physical existence—food and shelter—and all his neighbors stripped of all that could. alleviate his sufferings and he will form a notion, faint and far off indeed. but far truer than description, however ample. could give him, of what has befallen, and for many days to come will befall, myriads of men as capable as himself to suffer and to enjoy. ”
With the help of our artists, who were instantIy dispatched to Chicago wben the extent of the calamitv became known, we shall endeavor to lay before our readers an intelligible acconnt of this terrible conflagration, which in less than three days swept a great city almost out of existence.
The fire had an ignoble beginning. Late on Sunday evening, October 8, a woman went into a stable on Dekoven Street, near the river, on the west side, to milk a cow, carrying with her a kerosene lamp. This was kicked over by the cow, and the burning lluid scattered among the hay and straw. A single fire-extinguisher on the premises, or. Ihe immediate application of water, would have confined the flames to the quarter where the fire began; but the engines were waited for, and when they arrived tbe firemen, stupefied by their exposnre and exertions at a large fire the previous night, worked with less than their usuol readiness and skill. The flames soon obtained headway. A high wind fanned them into fury, and they became uncontrollable. They sprang from house to house and from square to square, until the district burned over the day before was reached. In the other direction Ihe flames crossed the river north of Twelfth Street to the south side, and threatened Ihe business portion of the city.
Burning of the Central Grain Elevators at the Mouth of the Chicago River
Sketch by R. Smith
‘The full extent of the danger was tben for the first time realized; Ihe firemen, already worn out and exhausted, worked like heroes, and the Mayor and other officials bestirred themselves to take measures for the protection of the city. But the opportunity was lost. The time when thorough organization could have blown up buildings, or prepared for the emergency, had been allowed to pass, and it was now a fight for life. The wind blowing a stiff gale bad possession of the flames and the beauliful buildings, Chicago’s glory, lay before tbem. Harrison, Van Buren, Adams, Monroe, and Madison streets were soon reached, the intervening blocks from the river to Dearborn Street, on the east, being consumed; and within an incredibly short pace of time nearly a mile of brick blocks was consumed, as if by magic.
It being Suuday evening, this part of the city was nearly deserted. Proprietors and employes were at home, utterly unconscious of what was taking place. Those who saw the light of this fire supposed it was the remains of the Saturday night’s fire, and, having confidence in the Fire Department, were unconcerned; but between eleven and twelve o’clock a rumor got abroad that tbe fire was in the business portion of the city. Then every body was on tbe alert, and from the southern pari of Ihe city a stream of people poured toward the scene of the conflagration. By this. time nearly all the public buildings were either consumed or in flames. ‘l’he air was filled with burning brands, which; carried north and east by the wind, kindled new fires wherever they fell. The lire-engines were powerless. The streams of water appeared to dry up tbe moment they touched Ihe flames. An attempt was made to blow up the buildings; but this availed little, as the high wind carried the flaming brands far across Ihe space thus cleared away.
Chicago in Flames
Drawing byTheodore R. Davis
Pages 1008 and 1009
The City as seen from above Lake Michigan, erroneously showing flames from the Great Fire blowing to the south, rather than northward from De Koven Street.
To add to the horrors of the scene, the wooden pavements took fire, driving the firemen from stations where their efforts might have beeu continued for many precious minutes. Nothing could long resist the terrible heat of the flames. They seemed to strike right through the most solid walls. Buildings supposed to be fire-proof burned like tinder, ond crumbled to pieces like charred paper. Block after block was consumed, the red-hot coal shot higher and bigher, and the flames spread further and further, until that part of the city lying north of Lake Street was a vast sea of fire. At one time the people were so hemmed in by the circle of flame thai thousands were in danger of perishing, and escaped only by a precipitate retreat. The hotels were hurriedly emptied. of their guests, who swarmed onto the streets with whatever Ihey could carry away. Those who could do so made their way to the yet unburned bridges, and escaped across the river, while others fled to the lake shore and found a safe line of retreat to the southern’ part of the city. This. It must be borne in mind was in the night-time, but the city and the country and lake for miles around were illuminated with a lurid light.
When morning dawned at length there was but one block of buildings lefl in what the day before had heen the most flourishing business part of the city. The magnificent Court-honse, the Board of Trade building, the Sherman House and other hotels, and hundreds of stores and offices, were in ruin. The Tribune block alone remained unharmed. A wide space had been burned around it, and its safety was supposed to be assured. A patrol of men, under Mr. Samuel Medill, swept off live coals and put out fires in the side walls; and another patrol, under the direction of the Hon. Joseph Medill, watched tbe roofs. Up to four o’clock in the morning, writes the correspondent of the World. the reporters had sent in detailed accounts of the fire.
Crosby Opera House
At five o’clock, the forms were sent down. In ten minutes the two eight-cylinders in the pressroom would have been throwing off the morning paper. Then the front basement was discovered to be on fire. The plug on the corner was tapped, but there was no water. The conflagration which had for some time been aging on the north side had destroyed the Water- works. Tbere was not a drop of wnter in the city. The pressmen were driven from their presses. The attaches of the office said goodby to the handsomest newspaper office in the Western country, and tearfully withdrew to a place of safety. In a very short time the office was enveloped in fire, and by ten o’clock the whole block was a mass of blackened ruins. McVickar’s fine theatre, the Crosby Opera House, which was to bave been reopened Monday evening, the office of the Pullman Car Company, the great Union Railroad Depot at the foot of Lake Street, all the banks, and muny of tbe finest churches in tbe city, bnd already been destroyed. It is reported that a number of prisoners confined in tbe basement of the Courthouse were burned to death.
Chamber of Commerce
By tbe destruction of the Water-works, on the north side of the river, early in the day, the efficiency of the Fire Departmenl was fatally impaired. It was impossible, owing to the smoke and fire, to get to the lake or river. So intense was the heat that the sluggish river seemed to boil, and clouds of steam rose from its surface to mingle witb the smoke from the flames.
Early in the forenoon of Monday it be more evident that notbing could save the city, and all the streets leading southward and we.twnrtl from the burning quarter were crowded with men, women, and children, all flying for life, and attempting to save something from the general wreck. The number is vaguely estimated at 75,000. Every sort of vehicle was pressed into service. With the selfishness wbich on such occasions comes uppermost in some natures, the truckmen charged enormous prices for transporting trunks, boxes, and packages, and turned a deaf ear to all who could nol pay the money down. Thousands of persons, inextricubly commingled with horses and vehicles, poor people of all colors and shades and of every nationality from Europe, China, and Africa-mlld with excitement, struggled with each other to get away. Many were trampled under foot. Men and women were loaded with bundles, to whose skirts children were clinging, half-dressed and barefooted, all seeking a place of safety. Hours afterward tbese people might have been seen in vacant lots, or on the streets far out in the suburbs, stretched in the dust. These are the homeless and destitute, who now call on tbe rich world for food and clothing.
Many pitiful sights. were witnessed in the course of Ihis terrible scramble for life. There were mothers and fathers wbo, leaving children in places of supposed safety, had gone to save clothing and valuables. from their burning houses, and returned to find their little ones swept away, and were seeking tbem in vain among the maddened crowd. There were men and women whom terror had made insane. An eye-witness tells of one poor woman of middle age, bending under a heavy load of bundle, who strnggled through the
crowd singing the Mother Goose melody,
Chickery, Chlckery, Crany Crow,
I went to the well to wash my toe!
Among the saddest incidents of this calamity was the appearance in the streets of hundreds of men and boys in a state of beastly drunkenness. In the North Dhision the liquor saloons were broken open, and their contents flung into the streets, wbere they were eagerly seized upon by the maddened crowd, who seem to have felt the same impulse that leads sailors on a sinking ship to drown their terrors in the delirium of intoxication. There call be hardlv anv doubt that many of these poor wretches found their death in the tlames from which they were helpless to escape. Several hundred persons sougbt refuge on a barge, and were towed out into the lake where they remained all night. The loss of life can not yet he definitely ascertained, but will probably reach several hundred.
Thus the dreadful day wore on, and night drew near. The principal business portion of the city, and the North Division from the river to Lincoln Park, had been swept by the flames, comprising an area of more than five square miles. As the awful day drew to Its close, thousands of anxious eyes watched the clouds t)f .moke tbat hung over the scene of desolation, dreading lest a change of, wind !might drive the flames upon that portion of the clly whIch was still unburned, and fervent were the prayers for rain.
No pen can describe the horrors of the night. A hundred thousand people encamped in the fields and in Lincoln Park. The weather was tempestuous and cold. A heavy rain the day previous had drenched the turf, which the trampling feet of the thousands of fugitives from the fire had soon beaten into a morass. And then on, on the bleak prairie, shelterless and half naked, delicate women slept with their babes. clasped to their breasts, or moaned in unspeakable anguish throughout the dreadful night, longing for day and yet dreading its dawn. What hearts were broken during that awful watcb in cold and darkness and terror, what lives of lingering sickness and pain prepared can never be known. It would seem as if such dIstress might soften the most obdurate beart; yet even Ihere armed patrols were needed to guard the helpless from robbery and the baser passions of desperate ruffians, who, under cover of the general panic and disorganization, sought to inaugurate a new reign of terror. Houses were broken open and pillaged all over the town. Rape and arson and murder were not unfrequent; and It became necessary to form vigilante committees who promptly disposed of the culpnts by hanging ,or shooting. Fortunately General Sheridan was at his post. The city was placed under martial law and wretches cnught in the act of pillaging or setting fire to buildings—for, incredible as it may seem, men became incendiaries in the midst of the burning town—were executed on the spot. In some cases the citizens, maddened by the sight of pillage or arson, fell upon the miscreant and beat him to death. The number executed is estimatetl at about fifty. Among the ruffians so disposed or were four desperadoes well known to the police of every cily in the Union—BARNEY AARON, BILL TRACY, JIM MUNDAY; and JIM BROWN—as vile a set of scoundrels as ever picked a pocket or cut a throat.
During the whole of the uight of the !ltb the fire continued to burn on the north side; but the wind went down, and shortly after midnight rain commenced falling. and by daylight the flames were under control. Freed from anxiety in regard to the further spreading of the flames, the citizens took measures for the protection of property and for the care of the thousands “ho were homeless and shelterless. The first night few could be provided with shelter, and the most harrowing scenes were witnessed on every hand. Several children were born into the world in the midst of the storm, only to die. There were invalids of every age and condition of life, who had been taken from their beds and csrried where death came to them less swiftly but not less surely than in the fiery flood.
Chicago in Flames—The Rush for life over Randolph-Street Bridge
John R. Chap
In response to the cry for help that went up from the stricken city, instant and abundant relief was sent from every part of the Union. The general government sent thousands of tents and army rations. Socielies. and private citizens sent money, clothing, and provisions. Railroad companies dispatched special trains laden with these gifts. From Canada and from Europe came expressions of sympathy and proffers of assistance. Whereyer the news was carried it awakened the best impulses of human nature. But it must be borne in mind that more is wanted than temporary relief. Of the thousands of people who have been thrown out of employment and deprived of their bomes. just at the commencement of winter, many will require assistance for weeks and months to come, and this assistance must be afforded by the country at large.
The spirit and courage exhibited by the business people of Chicago is above all praise. The smoke still hung over their ruined city, when they met and resolved upon measures that would restore its fame and magnificence, nnd maintain its credit unimpaired. The newspapers. with their accustomed enterprise, immediately resumed publication as best they could, and generous assistance was afforded by the press of other cities, in the style of type, paper, etc. Temporary buildings were erected in every direction, and in less than a week after the cessation of tbe fire hundreds of houses were ready for occupation. ‘l’he spirit of prostration gave way to one of confidence and hope. every business man who could hire a shed resumed business. One hundred thousand doilars was subscribed toward rebuilding the Chamber of Commerce, and the work will be commenced at once. With this spirit animating her citizens, Chicago will soon recover from this great calamity, more magnificent and beautiful than she was before the fire.
Our illustrations this week, referred to in general terms in the preceding article, deserve special attention. That on page 1004 represents the terrible rush for life over Randolph-street Bridge, so graphically described in our correspondent’s letter. On the left of this picture will be noticed the incident of five men escaping from a burning roof by means of a rope. The double-page illustration will enable our readers to form some conception of the sombre desolation that hung over the city as the night of Monday drew on. Three of the illustrations on page 1013 show the general character of the buildings which have been swept away by the fire. They are drawn from photographs furnished through the courtesy of Messrs. Anthony, of this city. Probably no city in the Union possessed a greater number of elegant public and private buildings than Chicago; and of these only one, the residence of Mr. William B. Ogden, remains in the burned district. It owed its safety to its isolation in spacious open grounds. The pathetic sketch by Mr. Reimhart, printed on our front page, conveys a more graphic idea than can be expressed in words of the privations and sufferings endured by the multitudes who sought refuge in the parks and fields from the devastating flames.