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Chicago: City of the Century
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Primary Sources: The Chicago Tribune and the Great Fire

Before the earth had cooled from the disastrous fire of 1871, the Chicago Tribune was back in business, printing the news on a donated press. Publisher Joseph Medill not only ran a descriptive account of the fire; he also publicized the city's immediate relief needs.

October 11, 1871


Destruction of Chicago! 2,600 Acres of Buildings Destroyed. Eighty-Thousand People Burned Out. All the Hotels, Banks, Public Buildings, Newspaper Offices and Great Business Blocks Swept Away. Over a Hundred Dead Bodies Recovered From Debris. Tens of Thousands of Citizens Without Home, Food, Fuel or Clothing. Eighteen Thousand Buildings Destroyed. Incendiaries and Ruffians Shot and Hanged by Citizens. Fatalities by Fire, Suffocation, and Crushed by Falling Walls. Relief Arriving from Other Cities Hourly. Organization of a Local Relief Committee. List of Names of Over Two Hundred Missing Men, Women, and Children. The City Without Light or Water. Crosby's and Hooley's Opera House, McVicker's and the Dearbers Theatres, Wood's Museum, and all the Art Galleries in Ashes.

During Sunday night, Monday, and Tuesday, this city has been swept by a conflagration which has no parallel in the annals of history, for the quantity of property destroyed, and the utter and almost irremediable ruin which it wrought. A fire in a barn on the West Side was the insignificant cause of a conflagration which has swept out of existence hundreds of millions of property, has reduced to poverty thousands who, the day before, were in a state of opulence, has covered the prairies, now swept with the cold southwest wind, with thousands of homeless unfortunates, which has stripped 3,600 acres of buildings, which has destroyed public improvements that it has taken years of patient labor to build up, and which has set back 100 years the progress of the city, diminished her population, and crushed her resources. But to a blow, no matter how terrible, Chicago will not succumb. Take as it is the season, general as the rule is, the spirit of her citizens has not given way, and before the smoke has cleared away, and the ruins are cold, they are beginning to plan for the future. Though so many have been deprived of homes and sustenance, aid in money and provisions is flowing in from all quarters, and which of the primal distress will be alleviated before another day has gone by.

It is at this moment impossible to give a full account of the losses by the fire, or to state the number of fatal accidents which have occurred. So much confusion prevails, and people are so widely scattered, that we are unable for a day to give absolutely accurate information concerning them. We have, however, given a full account of the fire, from the time of its beginning, reserving for a future day a detailed statement of losses. We would be exceedingly obliged if all persons having any knowledge of accidents, or the names of persons who died during the fire, would report them at this office. We also hope that all will leave with or at No. 15 South Canal Street, a memorandum of their losses and their insurance, giving the names of the companies....

The West Side

At 9:30 a small cow barn attached to a house on the corner of DeKoven and Jefferson streets, one block north of [Twelfth] street, emitted a bright light followed by a blaze, and in a moment the building was hopelessly on fire. Before any aid could be extended the fire had communicated to a number of adjoining sheds, barns and dwellings, and was rapidly carried north and east, despite the efforts of the firemen. The fire seemed to leap over the engines, and commenced far beyond them, and working to the east and west, either surrounded the apparatus or compelled it to move away. In less than ten minutes the fire embraced the area between Jefferson and Clinton for two blocks north, and rapidly pushed eastward to Canal street.

When the fire first engulphed the two blocks, and the efforts of the undaunted engineers became palpably abortive to quench a single building, an effort was made to head it off from the north, but so great was the area that it already covered at 10:30 o'clock, and so rapidly did it march forward, that by the time the engines were at work the flames were ahead of them, and again they moved on north. From the west side of Jefferson street as far as the eye could reach, in an easterly direction -- and that space was bounded by the river -- a perfect sea of leaping flames covered the ground. The wind increased in fierceness as the flames rose, and the flames walled more hungrily for their prey as the angry gusts impelled them onward. Successively the wooden buildings on Taylor, Forquer, Ewing, and Polk streets became the northern boundary and then fell back to the second place. Meanwhile, the people in the more southern localities bent all their energies to the recovery of such property as they could. With ample time to move all that was movable, and with a foreboding of what was coming in their neighborhood, at least they were out and in safety long before the flames reached their dwellings. They were nearly all poor people, the savings of whose lifetime were represented in the little mass of furniture which blocked the streets, and impeded the firemen. They were principally laborers, most of them Germans or Scandinavians. Though the gaunt phantom of starvation and homelessness for the night, at least, passed over them, it was singular to observe the cheerfulness, not to say merriment that prevailed. Though mothers hugged their little ones to their breasts and shivered with alarm, yet, strange to say, they talked freely and laughed as if realizing the utter uselessness of expressing more dolefully their consciousness of ruin. There were many owners of the buildings who gave themselves up to the consolation of insurance. But even that appeared to weaken as the flames spread, and they gave themselves up to their fate. Many of the victims were stowed away in the houses on the west side of Jefferson street, while those on Clinton caught between two fires had rushed away losing all but their lives and little ones. How many of these little ones were abandoned, either from terror or in the confusion, it is impossible to guess, buy every now and then a woman wild with grief would run in and out among the alleys and cry aloud her loss....

Great Loss of Life -- Horrible Occurrence

So little idea had the people living near the Historical Society Building on Ontario street, between Dearborn and Clark, of the terrible and utter ruin which the fire would work, but snatching up what valuables they could they sought shelter in its cellar, which was unfortunately filled to a great extent with inflammable material. According to the statement of the Librarian of the Historical Society, William Cockran, who was there at the time, the following persons certainly sought refuge there: Old Colonel Stone and his wife, Mr. And Mrs. Able and their daughters, Mrs. [DePelgrom], teacher of French, Mr. And Mrs. Carpenter, musical people, Dr. Freer and family, the former having with him $7,000 worth of personal property belonging to Rush Medical College, two patients from the hospital in Mr. Richard's place, and John B. Girard and family. Mr. Cockran had hold of one end of a trunk, and Mrs. Gebler of the other. Her dress took fire, and he left her and ran for the stairs leading from the cellar up stairs. He is certain that old Colonel Stone suffocated, and from the sudden onrush of dense smoke, there is cause for fear that nearly all the others who were in there shared the same fate, bewildered by the fumes and unable to find their way out of a building with which they were unacquainted, Mr. Cockran ran up the cellar stairs and went into the reading room on the ground floor and thence hurried up into the library room. At that time there did not seem to be any symptoms of fire in the roof. Then going down stairs again into his lecture and pamphlet room, he saw the flames rushing up stairs and made his exit as hurriedly as possible. Nothing was saved from the building, not even the Emancipation Proclamation, and it is now an utter and hopeless wreck....

At Chicago Avenue

It was 10 o'clock when the fire got to Chicago avenue, and all down Clark and Wells streets was in a state of terrible excitement. The fire had crossed the river at another point, or rather, the flying sparks had set fire up near Ontario street. Encouraged by the absence of policemen, the roughs along Kinzie street broke into saloons there, and began seizing and drinking the liquor. Many others at the very moment then they most needed all the self-possession they had fuddled themselves, and in many cases, were

Surrounded by the Flames and Stifled by the Smoke.

Some were found lying on the sidewalk and since no one paid any particular attention to them, they met their fate there. Some women and their children lingered too long and were either lost in the houses or compelled to jump out of the windows, and receiving injuries, remained where they were. The incredible rapidity of the flames passes all comprehension. They sprung from side to side of the street, and, skipping extensive tracts, returned to complete their work. Often before the flames had reached a house, the thick, black smoke began to roll out of the chimneys, the result of the actions of the intense heat on the pine woodwork within. The Church of the Holy Name, which has a slate roof, was especially noticeable. From the crevices of the slates poured out eddying whirls of black smoke, which, after rising a short height, burned for a moment with an intense flame, and then went on. At an early hour is in the morning, it was possible to get teams, but it was not very long before they were all occupied. It is reported, but not on the best authority that

Fifteen Men Were Lost.

At a blacksmith's shop on Rush street. All these fires, at whatever point they crossed the river, also ignited and swept on unobstructedly northward.

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