Life Span: 1871-1873
Chicago Relief and Aid Society of Disbursement of Contributions for the Sufferers by the Chicago Fire, Chicago Relief and Aid Society, 1874
To construct barracks for the houseless, therefore, was only to postpone the solution of the problem for a few months, to find us then with a large class of permanent poor still without homes, and demoralized by a winter of dependence and evil communications. A small number, under stringent police and sanitary rule, might be kept in health and comfort and order in barracks, but the system would be manifestly a bad one for so large a number of people, and particularly for the class who made much the larger proportion of those who were sufferers by the fire.
These were mechanics and the better class of laboring people, thrifty, domestic, and respectable, whose skill and labor were indispensable in rebuilding the city, and most of whom had accumulated enough to become the owners of their own homesteads either as proprietors or lessees of the lots. To restore them to these homes would be to raise them at once from depression and anxiety, if not despair, to hope, renewed energy, and comparative prosperity. With all the incentives to industry left them , and with the conscious pride and independence of still living under their own roof-tree, they would thus settle for themselves, and in the best way, the question of title to land, and restore value to their real estate by proving it to be as desirable for occupation as before the fire.
Besides the isolated houses, there were, in different sections of the city, four barracks, in which were lodged one thousand families. They were mainly of the class who had not hitherto lived in houses of their own, but in rooms in tenement houses. Each family in these bar. racks had two separate rooms to itself, and they were furnished in precisely the same way with the isolated houses. Their occupants were undoubtedly very nearly, if not quite, as comfortable as they were before the fire, and as only one thousand two hundred and fifty people were gathered together in one community, and those were under the constant and careful supervision of medical and police superintendents, their moral and sanitary condition was unquestionably better than that which had heretofore obtained in that class.
Chicago Tribune, November 21, 1871
The sudden advent of freezing, bitter weather finds thousands of people in Chicago illy prepared for the rigors of winter, and it would seem that there must be intense suffering during the next four months in spite of all that can be done. It was with a view to seeing what had been done, what was being done, and what contemplated, that a Tribune reporter, on Sunday, made an extended tour among the barracks erected by the Shelter Committee of the Relief Society for temporary homes for the people rendered houseless by the great fire. It was a good day to see the barracks at their best, as everybody was at home, and the general aspect of quiet and cleanliness might be expected to be much better than on a week day.
THE CENTRE AVENUE BARRACKS.
The barracks at the corner of Centre avenue and Harrison street were the first visited. These are like all the rest in general outward appearance, but an inspection in detail proves them to be, in nearly all respects, worse constructed than any of the others. The long sheds of rough pine lumber are divided into family apartments by a partition of undressed lumber running from the floor to the peak of the roof, and extending from enfd to end of the entire structure. Then the family rooms are made separate by upright partitions of rough boards as high as the eaves and reaching across to the central partition. This is all. It leaves the loft, from end to end, unbroken, the roof of the shed being the only upper ceiling, and
THE WIND SWEEPS THROUGH THE OPEN SPACE,
creating a draft which chills to the bone the wretched occupants, and brings in its train a perfect epidemic of colds, rheumatism, and pulmonary affections. The floors, made of the poorest quality of rough boards, abound in great cracks, through which the wind sucks up from beneath, neutralizing what little warmth the open lofts have allowed to remain. Dirty, squalid, half-clad children huddle about the small and only stove, which, even on Sunday, when the temperature was above the freezing point, utterly failed to supply a comfortable degree of warmth. In a few instances the occupants have purchased out of their scanty earnings a little lumber with which to put up a ceiling overhead, and this, together with a judicious application of rags to the cracks in the floor, renders the room perfectly comfortable, as the heat from the stove is retained. These improvements, however, have been made “without authority” from the Shelter Committee, and there seemed to be a general fear that they would all be torn down as soon as the fact came to the knowledge of the committee. What possible reason there could be for such a step is inconceivable. The committee should rather accept the suggestion, and at once make the alteration general. To do so, it is said, would require
A MILLION FEET OF LUMBER.
Very likely it would, but it would, at the same time, result is a saving of at least 50 per cent in fuel, not to mention the absolute certainty that, unless it is done, there will be horrible suffering in the barracks this winter, if not many cases of actual freezing to death. In a majority of cases the work would be done at odd hours by the male occupants, if the lumber were furnished them, and there is no doubt but that the result would be a large gain to the relief fund in the immense reduction in the quantity of fuel required to sustain warmth. There is some talk of laying new floors throughout, which would go far toward keeping out cold, but would be of no service in keeping in the heat, which can only be done by putting in ceilings.
While the tenements themselves are badly constructed, and poorly calculated to afford more than the poorest protection from a long, cold winter, their surroundings and accessories are still more unsatisfactory, showing a neglect which seems to be almost unpardonable. No drainage whatever has been provided beyond a shallow gutter in which are are thrown the slops from the houses, and in which the filthy accumulations stand stagnant. The sight and the odor are alike sickening, and it will be a wonder if the effect is ostensibly under the inspection of the sanitary policemen in the employ of the Board of Health, but there are no evidences of the influence of these officials in keeping the premises in a healthy condition.
THE WORST FEATURES OF ALL,
however, are the water closets. Beside being situated within three or four feet of the dwelling, they are constructed roughly, and without any of the conveniences which ordinarily obtain. There are no provisions for privacy, and scarcely any for the separation of the sexes, while the interior arrangements are such as to leave children entirely out of the question, unless, indeed, the design was to provide facilities for innumerable “mysterious disappearances” among the juveniles. The consequence is, in the quarters of some of the least neat and orderly occupants, a condition of things simply beastly.
MADISON STREET BARRACKS.
At the barracks at the corner of Madison and Elizabeth streets there is also much room for improvements equally needful. The roofs require tightening to keep out the rain, which, during the storm of Saturday night, came the cracks and seams, completely deluging the inhabitants. The lofts are divided here, but the work has been roughly done, and needs a thorough going over. The same is true of the floors, which are very defective. In regard ti water closets, the objections noted above hold good here, both as to location and plan of construction. So foul and dangerous to health had many of the tenements become inconsequence, that the matter was made the subject of an elaborate report to the Board of Health, last week by Dr. Adolphus, the Sanitary Inspector for that district. Steps are under advisement for the correction of the evils, and it is probable that something will be done in a few weeks.
Washington Square Relief Barracks
The two towers are the Unity Church, can be seen in the background. The church was located on the southeast corner of White and Dearborn streets, the barracks at Washington Square.
WASHINGTON PLACE BARRACKS.
At the barracks in Washington Place, on the North Side, there were many complaint as to leaky roofs, and defective flors and partitions, and with plenty of reason, for much work must be done at once to render the houses habitable this winter. The sanitary arrangements here are a decided improvement over those at the two other localities noted above, and the place presents a neat and respectable appearance. The reason for this probably may be traced to the character of the occupants, nearly all of whom are of the class of North Siders so thrifty and prosperous before the fire.
CLYBOURNE AVENUE BARRACKS.
The best arranged of all the barracks are those at the intersection of Clybourne avenue and Halsted street. Some tightening up will be needed in the buildings to exclude rain and frost, but the general plan of the barracks is admirable. Although situated on low ground, good drainage is obtained by ditches of suitable size in front of the doors. the earth thus dug up being banked up against the buildings—a valuable idea, which seems not to have occurred to the builders of the other barracks. But it is not yet too late to carry it into effect, and it should be done at once. A complete system of of sidewalks has been adopted, whereby both neatness and and convenience are cheaply attained. Instead of being placed directly against the dwellings, the water closets have been located several rods distant…Large sign-boards indicate for whom intended, and the interior arrangements are quite unobjectionable. These barracks now contain 158 families, with an average if from five to six persons each, and eighty more families are waiting until buildings are constructed, for their accommodation.
Unity Church and the Washington Square Barracks
HOW THEY LIVE.
Life in the barracks is not especially attractive or enjoyable even under the most favorable circumstances. Filth and squalor are the rule, and any approach to neatness and comfort the exception. A family—it may be of nine persons—is crowded into an apartment scarcely large enough to contain the bed and stove. In some cases a small bedroom is partitioned off and supplied with two-story bunks, but as a general thing the people eat and sleep in the same room, and not uncommonly in the same bed. There is no pretense at the most ordinary cleanliness of person or surroundings. Parents and children are alike ragged and dirty, and the floors and wood-work denote the utter disuse of broom or scrubbing. The joint odors of stale cookery and personal uncleanliness fill the room, and the visitor’s offended nostrils compel him to beat a retreat before he has half finished his investigations. Drunkenness, debauchery and theft run riot, and if not unfrequently happens that a family of quietly disposed people find themselves adjoining the apartments of a party of wretches whose drunken brawls are brought shockingly close to them, as nothing but a rough board partition, full of wide cracks, separates the two households. The children, half clad and wholly unwashed, lead a fearful life of it. “It’s purty hard on the young ‘uns.” said the father of five, aged from one to seven years, whose hollow eyes and pinched cheeks, as they shivered around the stove, were pitiful to see. There are occasional examples of neatness and taste—a few pictures, a bit of matting or carpet, a sewing machine, and a sofa saved from the fire, skillfully arranged in the small room; but these are exceptional cases. The general condition is one of poverty, degradation, and distress. In all cases where any member of the family is able to work, they are not allowed to draw rations, fuel only being furnished. There is no arrangement by which they may buy of the Relief Society their provisions at actual cost, but they must go to the groceries and pay the large profits of the retailer. Were the self-supporting poor permitted to avail themselves of the low prices paid by the society, the cost of living would be largely reduces, and the surplus might be applied toward the purchase of shoes and flannels for the little ones. The interest of several gentlemen has been aroused in this matter, and it is probable that an effort will be made to induce the Relief Society to permit the purchase of provisions at cost by those of the poor from whom gratuitous relief is now withheld. The existing plan of relief admits of many needed improvements, and it has been the purpose of this article not to find fault, or to locate blame, but simply to direct attention to those evils and deficiencies which most require a prompt and thorough remedy.
① Harrison and Centre Streets; ② Madison and Elizabeth Streets; ③ Dearborn and Walton Streets; ④ Halsted and Clybourne Streets.
Chicago Tribune, January 24, 1872
The United States Sanitary Commission represented the greatest contribution ever made to relieve the world’s suffering. Next, in the greatness of of its gifts and the extent of its labors, comes the Chicago Relief and Aid Society. It is no small labor to support a number of persons, equal to the population of Detroit or Milwaukee; giving them food, clothing, shelter, and the means of again earning a living. It requires financial skill, and extensive and complicated machinery to disburse $4,000,000, with all the friction caused by the necessarily imperfect knowledge of some of an immense force, the fault-finding of those who consider themselves neglected, and the carping of the censorious. The Chicago Relief and Aid Society, thoroughly organized many years ago, really only came into existence when over 100,000 persons were homeless, a cold Northern winter was impending, and they must have food and shelter. It was not desirable that they should leave the city; Chicago could not spare so large an element of her past prosperity and her prospective restoration. All these persons must be fed and clad, and put in the way of business again by charity. The charity was ample for immediate necessities. Food was sent in abundance to stop the mouths of all the hungry. Money was contributed by the whole world for their alter needs. The Relief and Aid Society was at once strengthened. A mountain of labor rested on its shoulders. Its offices were established, and men were called in to assist in a labor that was new to them. The heads of departments could not, under the circumstances, be expected to have a surplus of information. The clerical forces collected at the various points of distribution had even less experience than their masters. Sympathy, grief, passion, disappointment, and a desire to do justice, contended for mastery. Whichever way the almoner turned, he found obstacles in his path. Whatever he did, he found some one always asking why he had not acted differently, and ready to point out infinitely superior methods of reaching the desired ends.
THE CONFLICTING INTERESTS.
There were many conflicting interests. Everybody wanted a share of the relief funds. Each considered his claim paramount. Small business men wanted it divided among themselves in sums sufficient to get them new stock and set them agoing again. Persons who had lost houses wanted them rebuilt. Many who had lost the conveniences of life hoped to get them replaced as good as before. Benevolent societies wished a portion of it given to them in bulk, for distribution among their members. The representatives of societies in our midst, composed of recent arrivals, desired the money to be sent to the general fund by their respective nations to be entrusted to their keeping. Churches wanted a hand in the business, in their ecclesiastical capacity, and clergymen, as a rule kind-hearted and benevolent, wished to be the alms-givers of their own congregations. Every one has a way of his own for doing that which is anomalous, or without precedent. It would be impossible to recapitulate projects that were formed in busy and discontented brains.
A BRIEF COMPENDIUM.
But, it seemed best to the managers of the world’s charity that all the contributions should pass through one channel, and be disbursed without regard to religion, class, or nationality. It appeared to them that in this way the interests of all would be best subserved. It is probable that they acted wisely. The society commenced its operations by furnishing food, shelter, and clothing. Even this was more than it was then able to do thoroughly, with the immense demand upon its resources, and delays by lake and railroad. It built barracks and supplied houses, and in a space of of time incredibly short, all were provided with temporary homes. For a while all who desired passes by railroad to other cities were granted them freely. The city was districted and work gradually systemized. The employee became familiar with their duties, and the machinery of the society worked more harmoniously. As the city gathered heart after the great calamity, business began to seek its old channels. Work became plenty, and fewer passes were granted. Employment was found for the pensioners of the society, and they became self-supporting. The visiting system was perfected, and greater pains taken to find out the deserving. More diligent work was done in the directions of special aid and assistance. Persons were furnished more liberally with the means of making their own living by giving them any kind of tools or machinery to the use of which they had been accustomed.
Improvised Shanties After the Fire.