From the narratives of classical historians and the Great
Fire of Rome to information culled from various sources
by school kids on the Great Spokane Fire, I thought it
would be good this time to cover accounts of eyewitnesses
on the Great Chicago Fire. These accounts were taken from
a website on the fire done by the Chicago Historical Society
and Northwestern University. Some additional information I
pulled from Wikipedia.
The Great Chicago Fire began on Sunday, October 8, 1871
and burned until the following Tuesday morning. Before it
was over it had destroyed a four mile swatch of the city
and approximately 17,500 buildings. Between 200 and 300
lives were lost and 90,000 were left homeless. A spurius
story had it that the fire was started when a cow belonging
to Patrick and Catherine O'Leary kicked over a lantern in
their barn. Although the story is not true, the origin of
the fire was determined to be on or near their property.
The wind, blowing a hurricane, howling like myriads of evil spirits
drove the flames before it with a force & fierceness which could never
be described or imagined; it was not flame but a solid wall of fire
which was hurled against the buildings & the houses did not burn, they
were simply destroyed. The flames would dash themselves against the
sides of a solid block, in one instant passing out through the other
side & the whole just melted away & disappeared. The courthouse burned
in twenty minutes, while that long block of forty houses on LaSalle St.
opposite Lincoln Park burned in just seven. The air was full of cinders;
pieces of blazing shingles & boards & great strips of tarred felt fell
in every direction, now on the roofs of houses yet unburned & then on
the loads of furniture & bedding which people were trying to save &
which they were continually obliged to abandon in the street in order
to save themselves.
The fire was on us, the wind blew the blazing boards for a long distance
and set fire to all the goods on the prairie. A dry goods store, on the
corner of Wells and North Ave had their stock here, and the fire ran
along the long grass too, we had no rain for a long time, and everything
was very dry. I had to wake the children up, and we had to run again,
and leave everything to burn, this time we felt the heat on our backs
when we ran, like when one stands with the back to a grate fire. Well we
ran a good way North, then father thought we were safe and we stopped,
then the sky was clouding up and getting dark, there was an old board
fence where we were and father pulled four boards off, and laid them on
the grass and laid three of the children on them and covered them with
his large cloak again, but my oldest child, a boy about 9 yrs old stayed
with me. I set on the grass holding the baby, and the boy laid his head
on my lap and went to sleep, then it was dark, and from where I was
sitting I could see a circle of fire at a distance, then I saw a church
steeple topple over in the flames.
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. Many fires have been started, but in most cases the
party caught in the act has been shot on the spot. Their hopes were to
burst open the safes, of which there are thousands through the burned
district, but Gen. Sheridan promulgated a Death Proclamation to
everybody found on the burnt district after dark. Thinking Milwaukee
would be off their guard, many started for that city and we put them off
the train when, for the sake of plunder, they attempted to throw a train
off the track, but so far without success. Every block in the city is
guarded strongly by the citizens. As an instance of our quiet times,
Wednesday night while on watch between 8 & 2, I heard but 19 shots
fired. Many, I hope, were false alarms, but it shows what little mercy
Evidently roughs do not like their treatment. The largest slaughter was
by Catholic priests guarding a church, when seven men went under the
wing and attempted to start a fire and were all shot. They had just
failed in their attempt to set the front steps of a row of dwellings on
fire. So it goes, but better now. Friday night while I was on watch
between 12 & 2, the long looked-for rain commenced — fine at first, but
at last pouring right down as I thought it never could again, all day
yesterday and during the night until a fearful wind came up and drove
the clouds away and dried up much good effects of the rain, but now that
the long span of [drought] is ended I hope we may not suffer more. Yet
our city is far from being out of danger for we have but little water on
the West Side and…no gas on the South Side and there is no North Side
— beautiful North Side all destroyed in a night. Mother will remember
the wide beautiful streets, grand lawns and tall trees, but all has gone.
One is unable to form any idea of where he is lost among the streets that
contain not a house for miles. They being all dwellings [that] were leveled
down to the ground in the intense heat, and do not present the solid stone
and brick walls that are seen on the South Side, turning their broken faces
up to heaven — fit only for owls and bats.
The days after the fire were indeed gloomy ones, the churches and public
buildings filled with people whose homes had been burned, the streets
patrolled at night by citizens in effect martial law. On the Sunday* night
after the fire it rained which was a great relief from the anxiety caused
by the fear of another fire while without water. For some time after the
fire, owing to the fact that the water works were not in service, all of
the water used was taken from the lake, carted about the city and sold.
*Matthews' memory is faulty — the rains came on Monday night.
Oh! Mother, I could write for hours of awful scenes. I will mention one.
A woman just from the bed with her newly born infant in her arms rushed
terrified and bleeding from her house, fled to the lake shore,–there
she died. This is no fiction, but fact. On the prairie some forty children
were born on the night of the fire. You know the excitement in your city
on the death of Lincoln. I was there too. I know that awful night, but the
terror and panic of the past week surpasses that. My heart is sick of the
awful sights. At first it was supposed the fire was that of incendiarism.
This is not the belief now. We have not had rain for many weeks. Everything
is dry as tinder. The least spark creates a blaze, and until we have rain
our city is in danger. I know not the reason but new fires continually break
out. Many of our citizens, though residents of the West Side are removing
their families to the country.
Our houses may be burned but our energies are just the same, they cannot
be destroyed. The heart of our city is gone, but our business men are
not discouraged. Soon we will begin again.
After the fire.