On 12 March 1849, the Chicago River was the scene of a disastrous flood. This was caused by the rains of several days and the breaking up of the ice in the river. The bridges at Madison, Randolph, Clark and Wells Streets were swept away and many of the wharves were damaged. Many vessels were total wrecks and some were carried into the lake as debris.
Gem of the Prairie, March 17, 1849
TERRIBLE CALAMITY—Monday, March 12—Never before has Chicago been visited by so great a calamity as this day has witnessed. Our harbor exhibits a scene of the most terrible devastation. In the confusion which prevails it would be idle to attempt to give the details, but we believe it is not too much to say that one-half the shipping in the harbor has been destroyed and every bridge upon the river has been swept away…. On, on, rushed the terrible flotilla, the whole river being completely filled with steam boats, propellors, schooners, and canal boats, scows, and every kind of craft in the harbor—above, the booms, bowsprits, and other portions of the rigging, crashing as the mass moved on—below the hulls coming together with a still greater crash, the smaller craft being ground to fragments between the larger and the ice. The hulls gave way as if they had been eggshells—those at the end ground against the wharves, tearing up the planks—the rigging was mingled together in the greatest possible confusion—spars, cordage, and cables of the largest size snapped every moment, the latter as if they had been but twine—the vessels were crowded with persons shouting and endeavoring to do something to arrest their progress—the shore was lined with an excited and awestruck crowd—together forming a scene which must be left to the imagination of those who did not witness it.
From Andreas’ History of Chicago:
The flood which occurred March 12, 1849. was an event of most calamitous nature. For two or three days previous to that date the citizens of Chicago had been reading accounts of the remarkable rise of rivers in the interior of the State. The heavy snows of the winter had been followed by frequent and hard rains. Rock, Illinois and Fox rivers were threatening to burst their bounds and devastate the country. Their waters were higher than in 1838, and, in some localities, even than in 1833. The bridges on Rock River were nearly all swept away, and the Illinois had partially destroyed the village of Peru. The Des Plaines River was also higher than it had ever been before.
At about ten o’clock the mass of ice in the South Branch gave way, carrying with it the bridges at Madison, Randolph, and Wells streets—in fact, sweeping off every bridge over the Chicago River, and also many of the wharves. There were, in port, four steamers, six propellers, twenty-four brigs, two sloops, and fifty-seven canal boats, many of which have been either totally destroyed or damaged seriously. The moving mass of ice, canal boats, propellers, and vessels was stopped at the foot of Clark Street, but withstood the pressure only a moment, crashing vessels and falling spars soon giving note of the ruin which was to follow. A short distance below the river was again choked, opposite Kinzie’s warehouse; vessels, propellers, and steamers were piled together in most indescribable confusion. A number of vessels are total wrecks, and were canied out into the lake a mass of debris. A boy was crushed to death at the Randolph-street bridge, a little girl was killed by the falling of a topmast, and a number of men are reported lost upon canal boats which have been sunk, and upon the ice and bridges as the jam broke up. The bridge over the lock at Bridgeport is gone. The wharves all along the river have sustained serious injury. A son of Mr. Coombs was lost at Madison-street bridge, and James L. Millard had his leg badly fractured while on board his vessel. One poor fellow on a canal boat waved his handkerchief as a signal of distress, about ten miles out, during the afternoon; but there was no boat which could be sent to his assistance. The vessels were without their riggings, and the engines of the steamers were out of order.
The loss by the flood is thus estimated:
- Damage to the city $15,000
To vessels $58,000
To canal boats $30,000
The figures given are rather below than above the actual loss. The city went to work with a will to repair the great damage. In the meantime the river was crossed by a number of ferries. Besides the boat at Randolph Street, a canal boat lay across the river, upon which passengers were allowed to cross on payment of one cent each. The ferry at the Lake House, the safest and the pleasantest on the river, was free. A schooner was used at Clark Street; fare, one cent. Mr. Scranton’s old ferry was running at State Street; fare the same as the others. Other temporary appliances were brought into use to bridge over the inconveniences of the next few months. These ferries were generally overcrowded with passengers who, in their eagerness to cross, sometimes rushed aboard, recklessly, and it is a wonder that fatal results did not sometimes follow.
Daguerreotype of the Great Flood.
P. von Schneidau
March 12, 1849
Discovery and Conquests of the North-west, R. Blanchard & company, 1879
THE FLOOD OF 1849
The last thing one might expect in Chicago, situated as it is, on almost a dead-level, is a flood in one of the branches of its river. But this actually took place one fine morning in March,1849. After a two or three days heavy rain, which had been preceded by hard snow storms during the latter part of the winter, the citizens of the town were aroused from their slumbers by reports that the ice in the Desplaines river had broken up; that its channel had become gorged with it; that this had so dammed up its water as to turn them into Mud Lake; that in tum, they were flowing thence into the natural estuary, which then connected the sources of the South branch of the Chicago river with the Desplaines. These reports proved to be correct. Further, it was also rumored that the pressure of the waters was now bl’eaking up the ice in the South branch and branches; that the branch was becoming gorged in the main channel at various points, and that if something were not done, the shipping, which had been tied up for the winter along the wharves, would be seriously damaged.
Of course each owner, or person in charge, at once sought the safety of his vessel, added additional moorings to those already in use, while all waited with anxiety and trepidation the result of the totally unexpected catastrophe. It was not long in com-ing. The river soon began to swell, the waters lifting the ice to within two or three feet of the surface of the wharves; between nine and ten a. m. loud reports as of distant artillery were heard towards the southern extremity of the town, indicating that the ice was breaking up. Soon, to these were aclded the sounds proceeding from crashing timbers, from hawsers tearing away the piles around which they were vainly fastened, or snapping like so much pack-thread, on account of the strain upon them. To these in turn were succeeded the cries of people calling to the parties in charge of the vessels and canal boats to escape ere it would be too late; while nearly all the males, and hundreds of the female population, hurried from their homes to the banks of the river to witness what was by this time considered to be inevitable, namely, a catastrophe such as the city never before sustained. It was not long before every vessel and canal- boat in the south branch, except a few which had been secured in one or two little creeks, which then connected with the main channel, was swept with resistless force toward the lakes. As fast as the channel at one spot became crowded with ice and vessels intermingled, the whole mass would dam up the water, which, rising in the rear of the obstruction, would propel vessels and ice forward with the force of an enormous catapult. Every lightly constructed vessel would at once be crushed as if it were an egg-shell; canal-boats disappeared from sight under the gorge of ships and ice, and came into view below it in small pieces, strewing the surface of the boiling water.
At length a number of vessels were violently precipitated against Randolph street bridge, then a comparatively frail structure, and which was torn from its place in a few seconds, forcing its way into the main channel of the river. The gorge of natural and artificial materials——of ice and wood and iron—kept on its resistless way to the principal and last remaining bridge in the city, on Clark St. This structure had been constructed on piles, and it was supposed would prevent the vessels already caught up by the ice from being swept out into the lake.
But the momentum already attained by the great mass of ice, which had even lifted some of the vesselsjjodily out of the water, was too great for any ordinary structure of wood, or even stone or iron to resist, and the moment this accumulated material struck the bridge, it was swept to utter destruction, and with a crash, the noise of which could be heard all over the then city, while the ice below it broke up with reports as if from a whole
park of artillery. The scene just below the bridge after the material composing the gorge had swept by the place just occupied by the structure, was something that bordered on the terrific.
The cries and shouts of the people, the crash of timbers, the toppling over of tall masts, which were in many cases broken short off on a level with the decks of the vessels, and the appearance of the crowds fleeing terror-stricken from the scene through Clark and Dearborn streets, were sounds and sights never to be forgotten by those who witnessed them. At State street, where the river bends, the mass of material was again brought to a stand, the ice below resisting the accumulated pressure, and the large number of vessels in the ruck, most of which were of the best class, the poorer ones having previously been utterly destroyed, helping to hold the whole together. In the meantime several canal boats, and in one instance a schooner with rigging all standing, were swept under this instantaneously constructed bridge, coming out on the eastern side thereof in shapeless masses of wTeck, in the instance of the schooner, and of matchwood in the instances of the canal boats. Presently the ice below this last gorge began to give way, clear water appearing, while a view out into the lake showed that there was no ice to be seen. It was then that some bold fellows armed with axes, sprang upon the vessels thus jammed together, and in danger of destruction.
Among the foremost and most fearless were : P. C. Bristol, of the forwarding house of Bristol & Porter; Alvin Calhoun, a builder, brother to John Calhoun, founder of the Chicago Democrat newspaper, and father of Mrs. Joseph K. C. Forrest, Cyrus P. Bradley, subsequently Sheriff, and Chief of Police, and Darius Knights, still an employe of the city. These gentlemen, at the risk of their lives succeeded in detaching the vessels at the Eastern end of the gorge, one by one, from the ruck, until finally some ten or twelve large ships, relieved from their dangerous positions, floated out into the lake, their preservers proudly standing on their decks, and returning with salutes, the cheers of the crowd on shore. Once in the lake, the vessels were secured, in some cases by dropping the anchors, and in others by being brought up at the piers by the aid of hawsers.
The Democrat of the 14th, in its record of the event, says (speaking of the upper jam):
- Below all this lies another more solid dam, composed of larger vessels, and consequently stronger material, wedged in so firmly as to defy extraction. …Thus is formed one of the most costly bridges ever constructed in the West, and the only one Chicago now boasts of. Crowds of persons were at the wrecks yesterday, and crowded the decks of the various vessels. Many ladies were not afraid to venture over this novel causeway, beneath which the water roared, falling in cascades from one obstruction to another, the whole forming perhaps the most exciting scene ever witnessed here.
Chicago Tribune, December 12, 1897
One of Chicago’s earliest calamities, the disastrous flood in the Chicago River on March 12, 1849, Which carried away every bridge and half the shipping in the river, doing a damage of over $100,000, is recalled by the discovery in an old vault of a woodcut made from a daguerreotype taken on the day of the flood by P. von Schneidau, Chicago’s first photographer.
The picture shows a scene of disaster at a point near where the Rush street bridge now stands, and presents a view of jumbled vessels, bridges, ice, and logs—all jammed together in one mass, the result of water and ice. The flood began its work of destruction south of Madison street and swept north in the South Branch to the main stream, and thence toward the lake to the old military garrison, where it was partly checked by its own work of wedging tightly together every object that joined in the whirling mass.
The picture really portrays only a small part of the damage done by the flood. Out in the lake dozens of craft, from canal boats to steam vessels, which were swept past the garrison before the jam occurred, sank or turned keel upward from the effects of the crushing received in the passage with the swift current.
For a mile out in the lake the surface was dotted with what was even then Chicago’s pride, its shipping. Upon a mudbank at the entrance to the river lay the Randolph street bridge, side by side with sailing craft in positions just as undignified, while floating hither and thither out in the lake, as if undecided as to how to take its new experience, was the structure which a few hours before had spanned the river at Clark street. In every direction from the mouth of the river were steam and sail vessels, canal boats, barges, and other craft, some still carrying human beings and others totally deserted, floated in the open lake. Occasionally a hole in the hull of a vessel would take in its last gulp of Lake Michigan’s waters, and then one of the unlucky fleet would disappear from sight. Some succeeded in anchoring and all that did not sink from sight were eventually brought safely in by the more fortunate vehicles.
No Loss of Life.
That with the record of damage done by the flood there was no occasion for adding a loss of was considered a wonder.
Twenty-five vessels lost, sixty damaged more or less, four bridges swept away, and lines of docks torn from the banks. $100,000 damage done to shipping, $10,000 to bridges, and $10,000 to docks was the record of the rush of water and ice which brought consternation to Chicago’s early citizens. Shipping was demoralized for a time, plans for municipal improvements were revised to allow funds to be used in repairing the damage done, and popular sentiment called for tunnels under the river instead of bridges that a flood could sweep away. The movement for tunnels resulted soon after in the construction of the Washington street passage under the river.
While the work of destruction was going on in the river its banks were lined with citizens watching the fearful work work of the rapid current. At the garrison, where the jam occurred, the banks of the river were lined with people watching the restless mass of ice, vessels bridges, and parts of docks, and listening to the crunching, the snapping of spars and cables, and the shouts of men endeavoring to save something from the general wreck.
The trouble began at 9 a.m. on Monday, March 12, 1849, when a dam of ice which had formed in the South Branch gave way. The hawsers of the nearest vessels immediately snapped, giving the whirl its first victims and aid to other destruction. The first obstacle—Madison street bridge—soon gave way and joined in the rush, together with every craft between Madison and Randolph streets. The bridge at the latter point suffered similarly, then Wells and Clark street bridges and everything between them, a good part of the whole mass piling itself high where the Rush street bridge now stands.