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The only street name in Chicago that bears any relation to the Great Chicago Fire belongs to Magnolia Avenue (1235W and ran from 1400N to 6500N). Magnolia (US No. 16430) was the name of a tugboat operated by Captain Gilson and it was his efforts that saved lives during the tragic event.
Chicago Tribune, November 14, 1871
A GALLANT SAILOR
Heroic Conduct of Captain Gilson, of the Tugboat Magnolia, on the Night of the Great Fire –
A Late Acknowledgment of Priceless Services.
Captain Gilson, of the tug boat Magnolia (U.S. No. 16430), called at the Tribune office, yesterday afternoon, and was interviewed by one of our reporters. He was in bed when the great fire of October 9 broke out, and when he saw the reflection in the sky he went to his boat, which was lying in the Illinois Central slip, to see if his men were there. he found then, and started up the stream, with the intention of going to the foot of Illinois street, and saving his household goods, his dwelling being No. 150 on that thoroughfare.
When he reached Rush street bridge he saw no other tugs around and realizing that the fire was approaching rapidly, and that it would soon be on the docks, he concluded to remain in the vicinity of the bridge, and save as much property as possible. The fire soon made its appearance on the wharves west of Rush street bridge, and observing that it was eating its way east with alacrity, he passed out his hawser to several vessels and towed them into the lake.
Upon returning he found that the propellers Ira Chaffee, Skylark, and side wheel steamer Manitowoc were crowded with men, women and children who had been driven on board by the fire, there being no other place for them to seek shelter. The commanders of these vessels had steam up, and were ready to leave their moorings, but their engines were powerless to move them an inch, the wind being so strong that it locked them, as it were, to the wharf.
When told of this, Capt. Gilson towed the vessels one by one into the lake, and thereby saved the lives of all on board. Had not this tug been there, every one on board would have perished, as there was no available avenue of escape. After the vessels were gone, many persons assembled on the docks, and they would have been burned to death or drowned had not they been taken on board the Magnolia and carried to the propeller Ira Chaffee, which was kept at the North Pier to receive any who should make their appearance on the wharf. One man, who was nearly frightened to death, jumped into the river, and was picked up by the Magnolia.
After leaving the propellers in the lake, the tug ran into the river again, and the brave Captain, seeing that the wharf lines of several schooners were already on fire, and feeling confident that, if the vessels ignited, the warehouses facing the river, then untouched, would surely be destroyed, picking out those nearest the warehouse and towed them away. he continued the good work all night, and saved an immense amount of property.
When daylight appeared he learned that there were eight or ten thousand people on the lake shore, north of the lighthouse, who could not move on account of the fire. He stopped his tug at the North Pier, took aboard as many as the deck would accommodate, and landed them on the West Side. There were too many people for one boat to take to a place of safety, and he reported the fact to Captain Crawford, President of the Towing Association, who sent other tugs to assist in the work, and they were engaged all day Monday and until Tuesday afternoon in moving the crowd from the lake shore.
With a view of placing the matter before the public, who are always willing, when satisfied of the worthiness of the applicant, to contribute something to show their appreciation of heroic conduct, a number of prominent gentlemen, among them Mr. J.E. Buckingham, have drawn up a petition and signed their names to it. As the document shows what Captain Gilson did, it is subjoined:
To the Public: We the undersigned citizens of Chicago, do hereby certify that Captain Joseph Gilson of the tug Magnolia, was burned out by the great fire of October 9, while at the peril of his life and the destruction of his tug, he was fearlessly engaged in saving the lives and property of many of the sufferers. His was the only tug that remained below the ruins rendering assistance to the distressed. We know him to be a brave temperate and industrious young man, who has employed his earnings in contributing to the support of his brother and sister, who are not able to earn their own living. We believe he is deserving of a liberal reward from those immediately benefitted by his exertions, and that the public in general should by their liberality, encourage such generous self-sacrifice. Capt. Gilson distinguished himself in 1867 by saving the crew of the schooner Alpena, at the immediate risk of his own life, while she was a wreck at the mouth of the Chicago River. and no other tug would venture out to render her and her crew assistance.
Appended to this petition is a statement of General McArthur of the Board of Public Works, setting forth that he witnessed the efforts of Captain Gilson to save lives and property and that he was ferried across the river by him, while endeavoring to reach the Water Works on that Monday morning.
The Magnolia, was built in Buffalo, NY during 1866 and her homeport was registered as Chicago, IL. She was owned by Captain Jon Anderson in 1870 and under the command of Captain Joseph Gilson saved lives and property during the Chicago Fire. In 1895 the tug was abandoned, so apparently the tug was salvaged and put back in service.
As to why the City of Chicago chose the ship’s name and not his will remain a mystery. Perhaps the tug had more pull?