The Great Chicago Fire

Besides the fact that the Great Chicago Fire started around 9 o’clock on Sunday evening, October 8, 1871, somewhere in or very near the O’Leary barn, the exact particulars of its origins are unknown.

But, given the dry summer and the careless way the city had been built and managed, a kick from a cow would have been all it took to burn Chicago down.

As A.T. Andreas, the city’s leading nineteenth-century historian, put it, “Nature had withheld her accustomed measure of prevention, and man had added to the peril by recklessness.”

Chicago averaged about two fires a day the previous year, including twenty in the preceding week. The largest of these occurred just on Saturday night, the day before.

Firemen still might have been able to contain the Sunday blaze but for a series of technological and human failures in the alarm system.

The fire, driven by a strong wind out of the southwest, headed straight for the center of the city. It divided unpredictably into separate parts by hurling out flaming brands on the superheated draft it generated, leaping the South Branch of the Chicago River around midnight.

By 1:30 it reached the Courthouse Tower, from which the watchman barely escaped through the burning stairway by sliding down the banisters. When city officials realized that the building was itself doomed, they released the prisoners from the basement just before the great bell plummeted through the collapsing tower.

As thousands fled to the city’s north side, the fire pursued them. By 3 a.m. it had consumed the Rumsey homes on Huron Street, and a half-hour later the roof collapsed on the pumping station, effectively rendering any firefighting efforts useless.

Back in the South Division, the luxurious new Palmer House gave way, along with the offices of the Chicago Tribune, whose editors throughout the summer and fall had exhorted the Common Council to raise the level of fire protection if they wished to avoid just this sort of disaster.

One of the last South Division structures to fall was Terrace Row. By noon on Monday the North Division fires had reached North Avenue. They advanced the better part of a mile to Fullerton Avenue, then the northern limit of the city.

Tuesday morning a saving rain began to fall and the flames finally died out, leaving Chicago a smoking, steaming ruin.

As the fire spread out of control, the mood of the population shifted from interest and concern to alarm and panic. Many heard the Courthouse bell and saw the red and amber flames in the distance but thought little of what was by this time a commonplace occurrence.

Individuals who worked in downtown buildings that were supposed to be “fireproof,” like the one that housed the Tribune, or simply people understandably fascinated with the spectacle, rushed to positions from which they could watch its progress.

Before long, however, they realized that there was no place of guaranteed safety. Fascinated as well as fearful, people alternately tried to get the best view and flee for their lives with what little they could salvage, creating havoc in the streets and wild crowding on the bridges crossing the river.

Husbands and wives, parents and children, were separated. It seemed as if the ground was itself on fire – which in fact it was, since the streets, sidewalks, and bridges were made of wood.

Even the river seemed vulnerable, as several vessels and grease along the water’s surface ignited.

Later there were reports of Chicagoans trapped or crushed in their homes, on one of the bridges, or in the Washington and LaSalle Street tunnels, the latter of which had just opened in early July. Along with the stories of narrow escapes, heroic rescues, and selfless mutual assistance, there were also tales (no doubt exaggerated but with some basis in fact) of looting and drunkenness, as well as of outrageous demands and outright thievery by those with wagons who had been hired to cart goods to safety.

“‘Pay as you go’ had become the watchword of the hour,” observed one of the refugees dryly. “Never was there a community so hastily and completely emancipated from the evils of the credit system.”

The burned-out gathered in dazed and dispirited groups on open stretches of prairie west and northwest of the central city, in the South Division along Lake Michigan, in the North Division at the south end of Lincoln Park, and along “the Sands,” a patch of lakeshore just north of the river.

Here Chicagoans who heretofore had little contact with each other were unceremoniously forced together. As a fire history put it, one could find “Mr. McCormick, the millionaire of the reaper trade, and other north-side nabobs, herding promiscuously with the humblest laborer, the lowest vagabond, and the meanest harlot.”

Once they settled themselves, there was little they could do but bear witness to this calamity beyond comprehension.

Devastated Chicago remained so hot that it took a day or two before it was possible even to begin a survey of the physical damage. According to the papers, in some instances when anxious businessmen opened their safes among the rubble of what was once their offices, precious contents that had survived the inferno suddenly burst into flame on exposure to the air.

Shortly after the fire, Stephen L. Robinson, a North Division resident whose home was not burned, set out with a printed map of the city to mark what was still standing.

Among the few scattered survivors he noted were the mansion of Mahlon Ogden (brother of William) on Lafayette (now Walton) Street north of Washington Square Park, and the much more modest home north of Armitage of police officer Richard Bellinger, both of which were saved by a combination of vigilant dousings and good luck.

And had he reached the South Division, he would have seen the Lind Block standing a forlorn watch over the downtown. Had he then crossed to the West Division, he would have found the O’Leary cottage safe and sound in front of the ashes of the barn.

The so-called “Burnt District” encompassed an area four miles long and an average of three-quarters of a mile wide – more than two thousand acres – including over twenty-eight miles of streets, 120 miles of sidewalks, and over 2,000 lampposts, along with countless trees, shrubs, and flowering plants in “the Garden City of the West.”

Gone were eighteen thousand buildings and some two hundred million dollars in property, about a third of the valuation of the entire city. Around half of this was insured, but the failure of numerous companies cut the actual payments in half again.

One hundred thousand Chicagoans lost their homes, and many more their places of work.

The North Division was the hardest hit. Officer Bellinger had been one of the rare lucky ones, for by Colbert and Chamberlin’s count 13,300 of 13,800 buildings in this portion of the city had been destroyed, leaving almost 75,000 people (the overwhelming majority of the area’s population) without a home.

Virtually the entire German community in the North Division was burned out. The fire also destroyed the genteel neighborhood of the Old Settlers, and with it a whole way of life.

Gone was I.N. Arnold’s grand home, with its extensive art collection, its library of eight thousand books, and its memorabilia relating to the Civil War and to Arnold’s old friend, Abraham Lincoln.

Gone also were the lilacs, elms, barn, and greenhouse that filled a whole block just west of Pine Street (now Michigan Avenue) between Erie and Huron.

William Ogden lost not only his Chicago home and businesses but also his vast lumber holdings in Wisconsin, which fell before the great fire in Peshtigo, near Green Bay, the same night.

But these men and their families were among the more fortunate victims, since they had solid insurance, ready credit, other assets, and a substantial network of family and friends.

The less well-to-do in many cases suffered more severely. It was likely that the fire consumed everything they owned, not to mention their sources of income. If they had insurance at all, it was probably with one of the local companies that failed in the fire.

In one of the infrequent sympathetic mentions of the poor in contemporary published accounts of the fire, Colbert and Chamberlin told of those “who had no twenty dollars to give to a cartman” and “no sympathizing friends down the avenue to give them shelter and other comforts.” If they perished, it is very possible that they had no one to record their passing, especially if they had no local relatives.

Estimates of the fatalities, which mainly ranged between two and three hundred (by contrast, the fire in rural Peshtigo was the worst in American history in terms of loss of life, with some 1500 killed), seem surprisingly low.

Without losing sight of all the loss and suffering, it is important to remember how much of the city did not burn. Most heavy industries, including the stockyards, were located west or south of the burnt district, out of harm’s way.

The downtown railroad depots were leveled, but not the far-more-critical rail infrastructure. What the fire could not touch was Chicago’s most important feature, its location, which made it more accessible than any place on earth to resources and markets throughout the globe at the very time when America was taking over world leadership in industrial enterprise.

But for the moment – and luckily it turned out to be a brief moment – the devastation caused by the fire was inescapable. There were ruins everywhere. After the first shock wore off, the post-holocaust cityscape quickly came to possess a double fascination, both in itself and because of its association with what it suggested about the past and future of Chicago.

The blocks and blocks of ruins became a popular subject for photographers and illustrators. “The town is beginning to fill with aesthetic sight-seers,” the New York Tribune reported three days after the fire went out. “The artists of the illustrated papers are seated at every coign of vantage, sketching for dear life against the closing of the mail.”

Both the quantity and the quality of the ruins seemed to some to endow the young city with a place in history. “No city can equal now the ruins of Chicago, not even Pompeii, much less Paris,” E.J. Goodspeed bragged in his history of the fire. Another contemporary chronicle, James W. Sheahan’s and George T. Upton’s The Great Conflagration, contained a six-page meditation on the sublime scene, titled “Chicago by Moonlight” and brimming with mythological allusion and historical reference.

To Goodspeed, writing in a similarly purple passage, the fire seemed to defy the usual restrictions of time, with which Chicago’s spirit had so little patience. This city with no past now “in the compass of a single night” had ruins equal to those of great and ancient civilizations.

“Here all time is reproduced in a moment,” he wrote, conveniently forgetting that it was the city’s hasty growth that had put its future at risk in the first place.

Mayor Roswell B. Mason reached his office in the Courthouse about midnight, and for the next two hours he followed the fire’s progress, issued commands, and sent telegrams to other cities beseeching them for additional men and equipment. Forced to flee the burning building, he was now only one more frightened fugitive in the crowded streets, with no alternative other than to try to make it back to his nearby South Division home, if it was still standing.

As it turned out, his house was spared, though the advancing flames forced him to take a long detour into the North Division before heading back. Almost three hours later he completed his nightmare journey.

On Monday morning, with the city still ablaze, Common Council President Charles C.P. Holden called a combination of elected officials and prominent citizens to a meeting later in the day at the First Congregational Church, out of harm’s way in the West Division. They turned the church into a temporary city hall (the first of several makeshift provisions for government services) and arranged to enlist citizens as special deputies, as well as to provide food and water to the burnt-out.

Mayor Mason joined the meeting by mid-afternoon, in time to sign a proclamation pledging “the faith and credit of the city of Chicago” to “the preservation of order…the relief of suffering,” and “the protection of property.” Other executive orders established the price of bread, banned smoking, limited the hours of saloons, and forbade wagon drivers from charging more than their normal rates.

This group also established a Relief Committee, consisting of private citizens and elected officials from the three divisions, whose task it was to organize and administer the distribution of food, supplies, and money that, thanks to the telegraphed reports of Chicago’s distress, began arriving that evening.

Contributions eventually totaling about five million dollars in value came from towns and cities across the country and the world, from schoolchildren, labor organizations, and civic associations.

Given the appalling circumstances, the Common Council’s actions seem admirably clear-headed and effective. But to those who felt that the dying out of the flames hardly meant the end of danger, they were not enough. In the wake of the stories of looting, drinking, and arson came reports that professional thieves from elsewhere and local low-life were now eager to take advantage of weakened Chicago.

“The city is infested with a horde of thieves, burglars, and cut-throats, bent on plunder, and who will not hesitate to burn, pillage, and even murder, as opportunity may seem to offer to them to do so with safety,” warned the Chicago Evening Journal a day after the fire.

The national press carried similar stories, which also appeared in personal accounts. Cassius Milton Wicker, a freight agent for the Chicago and Northwestern railroad, wrote to his family in Vermont, “With the close of the fire, or rather conflagration, our troubles have not closed. Roughs and thieves from all parts of the country flocked here for plunder.”

These kinds of paranoid tales inevitably follow any large-scale cataclysm, and how much truth was behind them is one of the many things about the fire that is impossible to ascertain. Virtually all such anecdotes were not based on personal observation but on hearsay, and it is likely that people like Wicker got their information from reading the papers.

But there is no question that the fears, which generated and sustained the rumors were real, especially for some middle and upper class native-born Chicagoans. In their eyes, what was immediately required was the assertion of authority. At the same time, however, they had little trust in local government, particularly the members of the Common Council. Such fears and distrust were prompted by notorious events that preceded Chicago’s tragedy and influenced how people understood it.

The fire was all too reminiscent of the Paris Commune, which had been put down in late May of 1871 in a bloody battle that ended with Paris set afire by radicals in a last-ditch act of defiance against the Versailles government.

Closer to home, the exposure of New York’s Boss Tweed bolstered suspicion of urban political organizations.

In this context Mayor Mason followed the urging of the city’s social and economic elite in taking two extraordinary steps to assure the rescue and relief of Chicago. The first was to entrust the “preservation of the good order and peace of the city” to Lieutenant-General Philip Sheridan, the Civil War hero and Indian fighter who now lived in Chicago and who commanded the Division of the Missouri from his South Division office.

Two days later, on October 13, Mason turned over the administration of the relief to the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, which had appealed to him to take this step. On the Society’s board sat some of the Old Settlers who had established the organization two decades earlier, but its driving spirit was a younger group of businessmen and professionals that included merchant Marshall Field, sleeping car manufacturer George Pullman, and attorney Wirt Dexter.

These men had a very substantial stake in the city’s future and an equally firm belief that this future depended on reestablishing a defined social order that had been severely disrupted in the social chaos of the fire.

For two weeks Sheridan oversaw a de facto martial law of dubious legitimacy enforced by a mix of regular troops, militia units, police, and a specially organized “First Regiment of Chicago Volunteers.” They patrolled the streets, guarded the relief warehouses, and enforced curfews and other regulations.

John DeKoven, cashier of the Merchants’ National Bank of Chicago, wrote to his wife of his experience as a sentry, “I have not had my clothes off for a week, the city is paroled [sic] every night, you should have seen me last night paroling our alley with a loaded revolver in my hand looking for incendiaries for there are many about.”

For several months after conventional law and order had been restored, state politicians disputed whether such measures were justified and legal, but their immediate calming effect was evident.

Former Lieutenant-Governor William Bross, part owner of the Tribune and refugee from Terrace Row, later recollected his response to the arrival of the soldiers Sheridan summoned from Omaha and Leavenworth:

“Never did deeper emotions of joy overcome me. Thank God, those most dear to me and the city as well are safe.”

The Relief and Aid Society’s fire activities were considerably more long-lived, extending into 1874. Dividing the city into districts, the Society opened offices and supply depots connected by telegraph and separated its work into different areas – contributions, shelter, employment, transportation, distribution, and health – each overseen by a different committee.

It not only distributed food and clothing, but also made available the materials for several thousand simple “shelter houses,” erected four barracks for the homeless poor, helped secure necessary tools and appliances to those who required them, and performed some 64,000 vaccinations against smallpox. It was a model of a new kind of “scientific” charity whose work was conducted by paid professionals carrying out the policies of an executive board.

These policies reflected the board members’ particular social vision. Concerned about losing the city’s labor force, they soon suspended the issuing of free railroad passes to fire refugees. Similarly, they took better care of certain members of the population than others.

The shelter houses were reserved mainly for skilled workers. The Committee on Special Relief looked to the needs of those more genteel fire victims who “were borne in a single night from homes of comfort and plenty into absolute destitution.” It was assumed that such people of refinement would have to be found and helped discreetly, since they would be too proud to ask for help.

As for the able-bodied poor, the barracks were good enough; probably better, the Society maintained, than the housing they had lost. The best thing was to get them off relief and back to work as soon as possible.

The Society took great care “to detect and defeat imposition” on its charity by such people and “to aid in establishing order by withholding encouragement to idleness,” which was a threat to social order. It was determined to “give no aid to any families who are capable of earning their own support,” at the same time assuring the productive labor necessary to rebuild the city.

It required applicants to fill out various forms if they wanted aid and to supply a reliable reference, such as an employer or minister. Then a “visitor” would check personally on the merits of the case.

A labor exchange was set up with the philosophy that “Any man, single woman, or boy, able to work, and unemployed at this time, is so from choice and not from necessity.”

The Relief and Aid Society deserves a great deal of credit for its extraordinary efforts. It probably did dispense the world’s charity more effectively than Chicago’s overburdened and underfinanced post-fire city government could have done. But its supporters’ assessment of the dangers of entrusting the funds to local officials, like many other rumors connected with the fire, were exaggerated by concerns about the balance of power in a democracy defined by class and ethnicity (the Society took care to identify its clients by national origin).

Journalist Sydney Howard Gay, who later wrote the Society’s self-congratulatory report, claimed that its leaders were men “above personal temptation” who saved the relief from “the utter corruption of our city politics.”

The alternative, the Tribune agreed, was “the foul brood of city politicians who greedily counted…upon retaining place and putting their enemies under their feet, with the personal and pecuniary power which the handling of the relief fund and provisions in kind would give them.”

Meanwhile, some applicants grumbled about inefficiency, impersonality, and favoritism. In late February the Society terminated assistance to 800 families on the grounds that they were now the responsibility of the financially-strapped county government, drawing severe criticism for withholding aid to the needy in the dead of winter when the organization possessed the only resources available.

Common Council President Holden proposed that the Society be made to hand over the remaining relief funds to the city. But the proposal failed, and the consensus remained that the Society, like Sheridan and his soldiers, had saved Chicago in its hour of need when its own worst enemy was perhaps itself.

“In the midst of the most pressing demands of their private affairs,” Frederick Law Olmsted told readers of The Nation, “men of great good sense and well informed have taken time to devise and bring others into a comprehensive and sufficient organization, acting under well-guarded laws.”