Stewart House, Merchants Hotel, St. James Hotel
Life Span: Before 1861-1871
Location: NW corner Washington and State streets
Chicago Tribune, March 4, 1864
Another European Hotel.—The Stewart House, located on the corner of Washington and State streets, has been purchased by Col. Elliott, of Michigan. It will be transformed into a regular hotel, and be conducted on the European plan.
Chicago Illustrated, April, 1866
The Merchant’s Hotel
Chicago Tribune, May 4, 1867
A very disastrous fire broke out yesterday morning at the Merchants’ Hotel, situated at the corner of Washington and State streets, and the beautiful brick building, five stories in height, now stands with only its outside walls and a portion of its two lower stories to show what it has been.
About half-past seven o’clock in the morning, while very many of the regular boarders and guests of the hotel were at breakfast, the cry of “fire” rang through the halls of the house, and i a few moments all its passage-ways seemed filled with smoke, indicating that the destroying element had already acquired considerable headway. The presence of smoke was so universal as to create a general impression that the entire building was suddenly wrapped in flames.
With those best informed on the subject a unanimity of opinion exists that the fire caught in the laundry room, an apartment fifteen or twenty square, situated on the first floor of the house, about midway between the north and south outside walls, and fronting on a long narrow area on the west side, next to the Opera House building. The actual cause seems to be unknown. About the time the fire was discovered there were one or two loud explosions, whether proceeding from boilers in the barber shop located in the basement, or from the contact of the flames with some packages of liquors, was not ascertained. It is definitely stated that there were clothes undergoing the drying process on the bars in the laundry room, and it it is more than possible that an extraordinary degree of heat was being used. Within six or seven minutes the fire had extended to Bennett’s barber shop in the corner basement, and at the same time to the adjoining apartments on the same floor. Communicating in a very few moments to the elevator of the building, the strong current of air carried the flames rapidly to the uppermost story. This was of such speedy occurrence that at the time the public alarm was given from Box No. 8, the smoke was pouring in dense volumes from the rear portions of the hotel, and in smaller quantities from the middle rooms.
The alarm brought the Fire Department quickly to the spot. In the absence of the regular police force, who were on the special duty of quelling riots. a large detachment of Pinkerton’s Preventive Police, kindly palced at the disposal of Sergeant Jennings, kept the immense crowds from interfering with the arduous labors of the firemen.
The Fire Escape, which has been so long exposed to the weather at the Armory, was brought upon the ground near the building on Washington street but was found to be in quite too rusty and incomplete condition to be of any practical use. Two attempts were made to use it. The first was an entire failure. The second elevated two firemen a distance of ten or twelve feet, from which point they projected a stream of water into one of the rooms of the second story for a few moments and then came down.
As affording a grand spectacle flames pouring from every window, the fire must have been voted a failure by the thousands who were beholding it; but it is rarely indeed that such bravery is exhibited, such risk and exposure cheerfully accepted, such narrow escapes occurred, and so little personal injury sustained, as at the fire of yesterday morning.
The incidents connected with this fire which most prominently thrilling occurred with such rapidity during the first half hour after the smoke was discovered that some of them will probably, never be placed on record.
One of the boarders in the house, whose name was not ascertained, occupying one of the highest rooms, in some manner got on to the roof, and for some moments there seemed no possibility of his getting down. Finally, receiving a long rope, by way of the Opera House Building, he fastened one end of it securely to a chimney and made a perilous descent to the ground, arriving on terra firma uninjured, on the side of Washington street.
Mr. Albert Holmes, one of Holmes Brothers, Insurance Agents, who occupied the south east corner room of the highest floor of the hotel, made a daring escape. Some three months ago he provided himself with a strong rope of sufficient length to reach from his room to the sidewalk, a distance of sixty feet. This article he kept constantly in his room, and the fact being well known in the house, had often been the occasion of a pleasant jest at his expense, among his acquaintances. By one master stroke yesterday morning, Mr. Holmes “turned the tables” against his friends, which indicated his prudent foresight in securing his life against the very contingency that had taken place.
The means of escape through the interior of the building were hopelessly cut off and Mr. Holmes who had but just arisen, was half stifled with the dense smoke, securely tying his rope to a heavy stove in the room he threw the remainder of it out of the window, and immediately afterwards grasped the slender reliance firmly in his hands and swung himself from the window with the greatest coolness and self-possession. He accomplished the dizzy descent in safety.
Dr. A. C. Ellis, and lady occupying a room in the southwest corner of the third story, were safely rescued by means of a ladder and the aid of the firemen. A member of the Hook and Ladder company named Grant was conspicuous for his heroic efforts, not only in saving the life of Mrs. Ellis, but in rescuing several others from a terrible death.
An Italian was observed at one of the upper windows fronting on State street, apparently in a very frightened condition. He was half suffocated with the smoke, and at one time he so far forgot himself as to make an attempt to spring into the street. The crowd shouted to him to desist, and just at that moment a portion of the roof fell in. Finally, a rope was fastened at the top of the wall, by Mr. Chappell, the butcher, and let down to his window, while a fireman ascended a long ladder to within six feet of the window, Seizing the rope the man let himself down to the top of the ladder, and with the aid of the firemen he was enabled to reach the ground in safety, although he was half dead from suffocation and fatigue.
Another daring escape was effected by one of the inmates of the third story, who occupied a room very near to Crosby’s Building on State street. The interior of the apartment was full of smoke and flame, and no chance of escape was offered to him save by jumping in on the street. At length an expedient was hit upon the firemen o the roof, by which he succeeded in making his escape at the risk of a broken neck. A rope fastened at the roof was let down to the window, and the young man tied it securely round his waist. Then jumping upon the window sill, he made a bold swing, with all the grace and daring of a Hanlon, towards one of the windows of the adjoining building, where a man stood ready to receive him. Four times he swung to and fro on the flying trapeze without hitting the mark, but at the fifth effort he was caught by the leg and drawn safely into the window. The crowd below cheered vociferously at the feat, while the intrepid gymnast turned round and waved his hand in acknowledgement.
Several other parties, whose names were not ascertained, were extracted from their frightful situations in interior rooms by the coolness and presence of mind of the firemen. Many more secured their own escape from the burning building after making hasty and incomplete toilettes. Mrs. Barry, the popular actress, was removed from her room in a fainting condition, and was taken temporarily into Kimball’s Music Establishment, situated in the Opera House Building, and separated from the hotel by an narrow alley. Several other ladies were conveyed to the same place, who were rendered half crazed by the fear and excitement they had been subjected to. Several of the guests of the house begged the use of a portion of the store to complete their rather insufficient attire. It is stated that several of the laundry and dining-room girls jumped from the second story window to the alley below, but so far as ascertained no one was seriously injured.
Rumors were current during the morning that three or four persons lost their lives in then upper stories of the house, but they are believed to have been without foundation. It is not known that anyone has perished, and the fact may be considered almost miraculous, as many of the guests of the house were sleeping in their rooms or preparing their toilets for breakfast.
Quite a number of trunks filled with valuable clothing were saved by the firemen, who attached ropes to them and let them down the ladders.
The safe in the office of the hotel was saved, with its contents, a prominent “feature’ of which was $10,000, as reported.
A “Vose” Piano in Mrs. Barry’s room was saved in a singular and hazardous manner. By great effort it was got out of the window, (in the third story), and was being let down by a rope, when the rope suddenly broke and the instrument slid rapidly down the ladder to the ground. It is stated that the piano was not materially injured.
A gentleman named D. R. Appleby was quietly dressing himself in the second story when he first heard the alarm. Although there was no immediate danger to the locality he was in, he became greatly “demoralized” and immediately thre his shirt out of the window, appearing below stairs a few minutes later in his night-shirt. He had in his hand a cravat and a valuable diamond stud, and it is stated that the shirt had other studs and sleeve buttons upon it to the value of nearly $2,000. They have not yet been discovered.
Mr. William A. Johnson, General Passenger Agent of the Illinois Central Railroad Company, with his wife, occupied a room in the third story of the hotel, and had much difficulty in saving their lives. Another gentleman named Green, connected with the same company, afterwards volunteered to visit the same room room to secure a valuable silver tea sett (a presentation to Mr. Johnson), a valuable sett of lady’s jewelry, and a diamond pin worth $500. In thisw he was successful, and returned safely to the street.
The artists in the Opera House were in a terrible flutter. Several of them were seen at a very early period of the fire running about with pictures in their hands, and, as is usual in such cases, going in a very contrary direction to that which would lead them out of the building. They did not take their treasures into the street, better counsels prevailing before the panic had reached its height. The proposal to remove the pictures in the Art Gallery was vetoed by Mr. Crosby, and the place remains intact, no further hinderance being given to the ingress of visitors excepting wet and dirty staircases. Professor McCoy’s room and the Music Hall were both flooded to some extent, pipes being taken up into those rooms by the firemen, and the water thrown from them did good service in confining the flames to the hotel, and in finally extinguishing them. The damage to the Opera House by water was comparatively nothing, and the building was only in danger from the heat that was anticipated from the west wall of the hotel. The east wall of the Opera House Building is stated to be rather insecure, and for a short time it was feared that the masonry might bulge out in the centre and create a catastrophe. This was happily averted.
The basement of the Merchant’s Hotel was occupied as a hair dressing and bathing establishment by C. E. Bennett, on Washington street, and by F. Belo, as a saloon.
Immediately over the Washington street basement (No. 53) the room was occupied by Messrs. Whelock and Hibbard, the former in the boot and shoe trade, and the latter a cigar commission merchant.
The corner building, No. 100 State street, was occupied by Mrs. M. E. Stoughton, as a millinery store.
No. 98 State street was occupied by O. Sumner, as a grocery establishment.
Frank Allen, of Wood’s Museum, who boarded in the house, lost about one-half of his wardrobe. It had been insured but having been recently moved to the hotel he neglected to make the necessary transfer of policy, and what is lost is therefore total. Mrs. Barry lost about one-third of her wardrobe, which was fully insured.
Rice & Allen, picture frame dealers, sustained much loss by water.
Mr. J. A. Holmes, boarding at the hotel, lost his furniture.
It is impossible to ascertain the exact amount of loss. The following are the losses as near as could be gathered:
The building and fixtures were valued at about $150,000. The walls are still standing, and a portion of the third floor is available for repair. The cost of putting in order will probably be $120,000.
The insurance owned by Munger & Jenkins, was valued at $40,000. Loss about $20,000.
The building was originally called the Stewart House, from its owner, General Hart L. Stewart. In 1861 it was remodeled, and to some extent rebuilt, and was then called the “Merchants’ Hotel.” It has always been a favorite boarding place for families who wished to secure the comforts of hotel life without the expense of the Tremont or Sherman. Probably about one hundred of these were burned out yesterday. Many of the rooms were occupied by families furnishing their own apartments, and a great number of these lost portions of their furniture. The above estimate of losses does not take into account the partial destruction of wardrobes, which would stll further swell the aggregate.
It is noteworthy that the lessees, Messrs. Munger & Jenkens, had agreed on the previous day on terms to transfer to Messrs. Johnson & Moore, the papers were made out, and were to have been signed yesterday.
Merchants Hotel and Crosby Opera House
Stewart House/Merchants’ Hotel
Chicago Evening Post, September 24, 1867
C. E. BENNETT, who, in months past, had such an elegant sharing and hair-dressing saloon under the Merchants’ Hotel, on the northwest corner of State and Washington streets, and was burned out last spring, reopens his establishment to-day. He has put his rooms in complete order, and employed a strong force of the very best workmen, who are capable of doing the most stylish work in the city. You may be sure of a most fashionable cut at Bennett’s, and you are made comfortable while the operation is performed. He invites his old customers to call, and hopes to make his place so attractive as to gain many new.
St. James Hotel, left of Crosby Opera House
St. James Hotel
Sanborn Fire Map
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