Chicago Tribune, October 8, 1871
from Box 248, at about 11 o’clock last night, was the solemn prelude to one of the most disastrous and imposing conflagrations which has ever visited a city which has already enrolled in her annals numbers of suc h visitations, many of them so terrible that they can serve as ers in her history. For days past, alarm has followed alarm, but the comparatively trifling losses have familiarized us to the pealing of the Court House bell, and we had forgotten that the absence of rain for three weeks had left everything so dry and inflammable a condition that a spark might start a fire, which would sweep from end to end of the city.
Only a few minutes elapsed after the striking of the alarm before the flames were sweeping to the sky, and the lurid light that illuminated the horizon grew more and more powerful, casting its brilliant rays in every direction, bringing out in bold relief the fronts of the buildings which faced it from all quarters. The wind, seeming to rise as the flames did, set from the southwest, carrying with it in its onward rush streams of sparks, cinders, and partially-burned pieces of wood, which covered the sky with dazzling spangles, sweeping northeastward like a flight of thousands of meteors, but falling steadily in a fiery shower of rain, over that broad aqrea embraced between the river, the South Branch, Wells street, and Jackson street, the lighter ones going far over on the North Division, while heavier ones and most dangerous ones fell before they reached that point. They dropped with great force on the ground, to the occasional danger of four passengers, and the scaring of horses, and showered upon the roofs of buildings, inspiring constant fears that other conflagrations would break out, and that a terrible broad area would be covered by flames, and put it out of the power of the engines to combat them.
Late as it was, the splendor of the flames and the wonderful brilliancy of the sky were such as to attract enormous crowds from every quarter. The densely-populated quarter of the West Division lying near the fire would have, of itself, been sufficient to choke up the surrounding streets with a dense and impassable crowd, but the fire showed no signs of abating, they came from greater and greater distances, forcing their way down Clinton street, in the centre of which, near Adams, were half a dozen isolated street cars, utterly unable, for some time to come, to get back to their stables; and getting over or around the obstructions caused by policemen or engines, made their way down to Jackson, near which the fire began, and stopped there, caring nothing for the smoldering ruins which lay beyond that point. They crowded Quincy, Adams, and Jackson streets on the one side of the river, while others, far more anxious, and fearful that the blaze might at any moment leap across the South Branch, and sweep toward the filled streets leading to and on the east side of the South Branch.
The map of the burned district.
A. T. Andereas’ History of Chicago, 1885.
of the conflagration may be briefly summarized as follows:
Between Clinton and Canal streets, about three-fourths of the area south toward Van Buren street.
Between Canal street and the river, about nine-tenths of the area south toward Van Buren street.
Between Canal, street and the river, and Adams and Jackson streets, the entire area.
Between Canal snd Clinton streets, and Adams and Jackson streets, about seven-eighths of the entire area, only remaining buildings being the frontage of about eighty feet on Adams, and 128 feet on Clinton street.
On the east side of Canal, north of Adams, about one hundred feet frontage—the express company freight sheds—is consumed.
As nearly as can be estimated, the total area burned over covers about twenty acres, which is by far the largest district ever devastated by fire in Chicago even eclipsing the famous conflagration of 1857.
From the Planing Mill
the flames travelled with unforgettable fury west and north, igniting all the lumber in the lumberyard attached to the planing mill. The sparks—some large brands—were carried by the draught of air on to Clinton street. Meanwhile the truck-house, owned by the city, and situated on the southwest corner of Jackson and Clinton street, ignited, and was reduced to a cinder in a remarkably short time. A row of dwelling houses on Jackson street, between between Canal and Clinton, caught fire somewhere in the middle, the flames shooting from the lumber yard on the South Side, impelled by a roaring southwest wind. These dwelling houses, dried almost to tinder by the long-continued drought, fell before the consuming flames without appearing to add to their savage brilliancy, so quickly were they destroyed. They succeeded in helping the fire into the mass of dry barns, outhouses, shanties, shops, and dwelling houses, situated on Clinton street, and in the rear. They were all on fire in a few minutes, and in a few more were reduced to ashes. All the dwellings on Jackson street from Canal to Clinton were thus destroyed, while the fire traveled half way to Adams on Clinton.
The whole of the row houses ten in number was owned by Alanson Watson, and were totally destroyed. They occupied by twenty-eight families in all, who lost their property, with the exception of a few articles they had succeeded in removing before the flames rendered ingress to dwellings impossible.
No. 67 Jackson was a two-story frame house on the corner of Clinton street. It was occupied by three families, named respectively, Peters, Williams, and Isaacs. Williams was a printer. The total loss of the three families must have been about $400, upon which there was no insurance.
No. 65 was vacant, and owned by Lazarus Silverman; total loss. No. 63 was also owned by owned by Mr. Silverman, and occupied by W. Robbins, a hackman. His loss was about $50; no insurance.
No. 61 was owned by Mr. Watson and occupied by Patrick Power. His loss was probably $800; insured for $500, though he does not know in what company, and believes the policy may have expired.
No. 59 was owned by Mr. Watson. It was a two-story house. Thomas Walker and two daughters occupied the lower part of the house. Their possessions, valued, perhaps, at $300, were all destroyed, and were not insured. The upper story was occupied by Mrs. Merrill, who was in great distress, having no shoes on her feet, which were wet and nasty. It is probable that her loss is $100. No insurance.
No. 57 was also a two-story house, owned by Mr. Watson, and occupied on the lower floor by Frederick Greenough. His loss is $600; uninsured. He was waiting for some miraculous agency to restore his property. The upper floor was occupied by Sam. McAllister, who says he lost $500, anyway, and had no consolation of insurance.
Nos. 55, 53, and 51 completed the list of ruined houses in this locality, all owned by Mr. Watson, and more or less occupied. The occupants had vanished to safe quarters, and could not be found. The total loss on buildings on this street, on the north side of the same, will probably amount to $8,000; whether insured or not could not be learned last night. The loss to the property of occupants were possibly $3,000, the insurance on which will be found very light, indeed.
In the Rear
Scattered round in the rear of these houses was an unnumbered mass of miscellaneous buildings. The carpenter-shop, owned by John Stephenson and occupied by a man named Klein, was destroyed. Loss to Klein, $250. A barn owned by Klein, adjoining the carpenter-shop, was destroyed. Loss, $300. There was no insurance in any one of these cases. There was also an unpretending two-story frame house owned by Mr. Pierce, which was also destroyed. His furniture was a total loss, aggregating $1,200, on which there is no insurance.
The south side of Jackson street as above stated, was occupied by the truck house belonging to the city. Loss, $2,500.
Adjoining the Truck-House
on Clinton street stood two one-story frame cottages, owned by Messrs. Haltslander & Rander, as a box, blind, and sash factory. Their establishment was piled up, with lumber and valuable property, and they claim to have lost $10,000 by the transaction. They were protected with a light proportion of insurance.
No. 186 Clinton street was north of Jackson. It was a two-story frame house, where Mr. Monahan lived. He was employed by the Alston & St. Louis Railroad Depot, as general porter, or in some other capacity. He succeeded in savings his goods, but claims to have lost a respectable amount. There was no insurance on his destructible property.
No. 184 was owned by M. Watson, and occupied by John Weiss (who insists that his name in decent English is White.) His furniture covered the sidewalk to an appalling distance, but he insisted on his losing $400, on which he had $300 insurance in the Fireman’s.
No. 182 was also owned by Mr. Watson, and occupied by F. Cronin, whose loss he claimed to be $800. Insured for $400. The furniture is insured for $200.
No, 180 was also owned by Watson, and occupied by an Israelitish family named Schoen. His loss is assumed to have been $1,200; insured for $700. Mr. Sullivan, who occupied the top floor, lost all his property. No insurance.
Nos. 178½ and 178 wee owned by C. B. Farwell. They wee but slightly injured. No. 176 was also owned by Mr. Farwell, and occupied by James Hanley.
In a house in the river lived a hackman, named Lewis, who saved his hack. Near him was the wagon shop of Messrs. Bolzer & Co., who had just at the present time a great press of repairing on hand. The lost not only their entire stock, but a number of wagons sent over for repairs. Loss about $8,000. Insurance probably light.
An Unwholesome Suggestion
was made by some bystanders. There was a story current that a wake was being celebrated in one of the wretched shanties in the rear, the party undergoing the ceremonies being a woman. The corpse was left in the house and was burned. Whether this was true of false it was impossible to discover last night.
The fire originated in the boiler room of the large planing-mill of Lull & Holmes, at No. 209 Canal street, and thus far as could be ascertained, was groundless—that is, no possible or probable cause was assigned to its origin. The building was of brick, two stories in height, and about 100×60 feet on the ground. The whole building, machinery, and material of the firm were consumed, involving a loss of not less than $20,000. The insurance on the planing mil was about two-thirds that amount.
In the rear of this was a box factory belonging to a Mr. Foster. The loss is stated to be about about $3,000; insured for $1,500.
Directly north of the planing mill was a two-story frame dwelling, which was totally destroyed; no insurance as far as could be ascertained. North of the dwelling on Canal street was a two-story frame building used as a saloon and dwelling. This was totally consumed, with a total loss if $1,000 to the occupant; and no insurance as far as could be ascertained.
At Nos. 180 and 191 South Canal street was situated the Excelsior Vinegar Works of F. Weigle. The building and machinery were entirely consumed, involving a loss of fully $12,000 to the proprietors. On this there was an insurance of $9,000 as follows: Teutonia, of Cleveland, $1,000; Alps, of Erie, $1000; Hibernis, of Cleveland, $1,000; Chicago Fire, $2,000; Knickerbocker, of Chicago, $1,000; Lycoming, of Pennsylvania, $1,000.
On the East Side
of Canal street the wind permitted a scarcely less disastrous conflagration in proportion to the value of the property than occurred on the West Side. The Racine House was located at No. 210, and suffered the fate of the rest of the street, being totally consumed. The building belonged to a man named Magie, and was uninsured.
The Union Wagon Works, situated at No. 190, on the same street, were also totally consumed. They were owned by Mr. E. F. Flood, whose loss on building and stock will approximate $17,000. Mr. Flood is understood to have been insured for $6,000.
Messrs. Chapin & Foss, manufacturers of shingles and lath at Nos. 220, 220, 224, 226, and 228 Canal street, had, in addition, a large lumber yard, in which were contained not less than four million feet of lumber. About one-third of this was destroyed, the loss involved between $50,000 and $60,000. Their insurance was $12,500, all placed by the Fireman’s.
At Nos. 216 and 218 were the lumber yards of John Sheriffs & Son. These yards contained not far from three million feet of lumber, valued at over $65,000. Their insurance was large, but not commensurate with their loss. Among the items may be mentioned $6,000 in Germania, and $15,000 in the Liverpool, London and Globe. Other companies could not be learned until the opening of the firm’s safe. The whole sum was stated to be $35,000.
At No, 212 was a two-story frame, also belonging to Sheriffs & Son. In this building was the office of the firm. It was totally destroyed.
The Greatest Loss
of the destructive fire, next to the planing mill, was in the coal and wood yards on the east side of Canal street. The first of these was at No. 176 Canal street, where Mr. B. Holbrook had an immense amount of coal in store. The value of the stock was set at $36,000, and it will be nearly all lost. The insurance was not large enough to cover everything, being not far from $25,000. This was placed in the Fireman’s, Mutual Security, Germania, and two other companies.
The next firm north of Holbrook’s yard was a smaller one, Messrs. Lamon & Cornish. They were entirely burned out.
North of the last-named firm was the establishment of W. E. Johnson, agent of the Wilmington Coal Company. He has quite a large amount of coal on hand, and his loss will not be less than $30,000. The insurance will amount to about two-thirds of this sum.
Directly north of Holbrook’s yard was the blacksmiths’ shop of the Pittsburg, Fort Wayne & Chicago Railroad Company. In this were a large amount of valuable tools and machinery, which were entirely consumed. The loss will be about $4,000.
Two barns were included in the fire on the east side of the street, and the loss in them was, perhaps, even more unfortunate than in the yards. The barns belonged to Messrs. Johnson & Holbrook, and in each of them were consumed valuable live stock. The loss of Mr. Holbrook under this head will, it is understood, be exceptionally heavy. The number of horses lost could not be ascertained, but will not be less than half a dozen, and may reach twice that number.
Soon After Midnight
the fire began to appear in the rear of the buildings fronting on the south side of Adams. The flames came out in vast volume, and in less than five minutes Nos. 38, 42, and 44 were enveloped. They were as dry as tinder, and burned rapidly. The flames ran up the rear of the houses, along the roof and sides, burst out of the windows, and in twenty minutes not a vestige was left. The firemen had all they could do to prevent the fie from leaping across the street, and the buildings on the opposite side were only saved by being deluged with water.
So Fierce Was The Heat
that the crowd fell back voluntarily before it, glad enough to get beyond the reach of its scorching power. No. 38 was owned by Samuel Wagner, who lived in the basement, and the first floor was occupied as a saloon. Nos. 42 and 44 were totally destroyed, the latter being owned owned by Mr. Stephenson. Fortunately, there were vacant lots along the street, and the loss of property was, therefore, less, as nothing could have stayed the progress of the fire had the block been entirely built.
When the fire threatened to consume the houses on Clinton street, the inhabitants began to move their goods and furniture out on the street. They were mostly poor people, some of them boarders, and all of them will be at a serious loss, to say nothing of the inconvenience and discomfort they suffered. Beds, chairs, tables, bureaus, clothing, and everything that makes up household furniture were heaped up in an indiscriminate mass, guarded by the owners, who stood gazing upon the fiery sea that spread out before them.
The Adams Street Viaduct.
The new viaduct over Adams street was wrapped in flame, and about 100 feet of the flooring was burned. The paint was scorched and blistered, the total damage amounting to about $1,000, which the city will have to pay. From a distance the view of the viaduct was weird and grand. The iron railing stood out like the ribs of some gigantic skeleton condemned to the lower regions, the flames and smoke twisting and twirling around and in and out amongst them.
The Adams and United States Express Companies had a small shed for the delivery of goods, near the viaduct, and fronting on the railroad track. Some men who were looking after the property were driven away by a shower of sparks falling as thick as snowflakes, but they returned and moved away two or three cars standing near the shed. The shed itself took fire soon after the viaduct and was totally destroyed. The loss and insurance, if any, could not be definitely ascertained.
The National Elevator,
owned by Vincent, Nelson & Co., made a narrow escape. For a time it seemed to be almost surrounded by the flames and looked some tall rock looming up in the midst of a seething ocean of fire. It was expected momentarily to fall a prey to the flames, but happily it was saved.
A Steamer In Danger.
At an early stage of the fire the attention of the spectators were diverted for a time to the Chicago engine which was overtaken by an unlooked-for disaster. It was stationed at the northwest corner of Canal and Jackson streets, and had commenced operation when the entire side of a house seemed to give way, and the flames burst out in a furious volume. The engine was almost enveloped in the flame, and the engineer and all the men were compelled to desert her, and flee for their lives. After a time the flames at that point subsided, and a crowd of citizens rushed to the rescue and dragged her off. She was considerably damaged, but not to such an extent as to prevent her from going into active service at a subsequent period of the night.
Chicago Fire Map showing the area of the October 7th fire. It was possible that the burnt out blocks prevented the fire from spreading northward.