The fire started Saturday afternoon, the 7th, just south of the business district. The Chicago Fire Department --a mere 185 dedicated men, trying to protect a city of nearly 350,000-- acted quickly to contain the blaze.
They had to act quickly. To say that the city was a proverbial tinderbox would be a gross understatement. Chicago was made almost entirely of wood, which was bad enough, but worse still the overwhelming majority of that wood, from buildings to sidewalks to even the streets, the overwhelming majority of that wood was pine, which burns remarkably quick compared to its harder, denser cousins. On top of that, the city was incredibly dry-- dried out by a long summer with virtually no rain. The tail end of a two-year-long drought had intensified, and barely an inch of rain had fallen since the Fourth of July. Now, in the first week of October, 1871, all of that quick-burning pine was warped and parched by the strong, hot prairie winds.
The fire department battled the blaze for seventeen long hours, until just after daybreak on Sunday morning, October 8th. Beleaguered and bone-tired, hair seared from their faces, soot-blackened, red-eyed, sweat-stained and heat-swollen and cinder-burnt, the firemen trudged in seeming slow-motion back to their station houses. Most of them were sent home to relax, clean up, spend some time with their families. They deserved it: It had been the worst fire in the history of Chicago...
...but it was only a prelude.
Watchman Matthias Schaffer stamped his feet on the wooden floor of the courthouse tower. He lifted his shoulders and tried to hunch his neck a little deeper into the collar of his heavy overcoat. Not even nine o'clock, yet,
he thought, and already I'm cold.
The long, hot summer hadn't really broken, yet, but within the last two weeks or so, the nights had turned uncomfortably chilly-- especially up here in the tower, with the wind whipping in through the windows.
Schaffer may not have had anybody to talk to, but he wasn't alone in his vigil. This was, after all, 1871, and a sophisticated system of fire alarm "strike boxes" webbed the whole city. They were locked against false alarms, with trustworthy citizens in every neighborhood holding the keys. Additionally, every fire station had its own observation tower. None of them, however, commanded the view as could be had by the courthouse tower. Here, with his back to the big lake, a watchman could sweep the entire eighteen square miles of bustling Chicago-- the fastest-growing city in the world.
Schaffer picked up his spyglass and leaned out, his belly against the window sill. Maybe it's this job
, he thought. Just standing around up here in this damned tower, hour after hour. Watching and waiting. Watching and waiting for something to happen, praying it never does.
Schaffer swept the glass to the north, far beyond the river, beyond even the residential neighborhoods of the North Side, focusing on the brand-new Lincoln Park, out on the edge of town. His job certainly seemed
simple enough: Sweep the horizon, end to end, then change the angle and sweep around again, a little closer-in from the horizon. Keep looking closer, closer until you can stop using the spyglass and then check the downtown area, looking for smoke and/or flame. When done, repeat... until it was somebody else's turn.
Of course, it was nighttime, which made spotting smoke tricky and, besides, there was smoke everywhere--
innocuous smoke from cooking fires and fireplaces in nearly every building. Tonight, too, curls of smoke were still rising from the vast mountains of coal waiting to be shipped or sold along the south branch of the river, where last night's Big Fire had been driven and finally beaten.
Schaffer panned the horizon in slow motion, pausing often to make sure he wasn't really seeing what his mind too often told him was another big fire. As he scanned to the southwest, he stopped... stared... stared... and felt the bottom fall out of his stomach.
Hurriedly, he pulled himself away from the window and turned to the voice box, a simple tube that connected him with the central fire alarm telegraph office on the first floor. Connected by telegraph wires to every station in the city, this was the Chicago Fire Department's dispatch center. Unable to control the rising tone of his voice, Schaffer told the operator that he'd spotted a fire near the corner of Halsted and Canalport, near strike box 342. Telegraph operator William Brown acknowledged the call.
Schaffer returned to the window. He turned his head and quickly scanned the rest of the city, hardly even seeing it. Then he raised the glass to his eye and trained it on the rising plume of smoke to the southwest. As he watched, he both heard and, because he was so close to it, felt the enormous tower bell begin to toll the alarm. Down in the control center, Brown had pulled the lever releasing the gears and pulleys...
Schaffer pulled the glass away from his eye, put it back, pulled it away. His brow furrowed into a frown, then shot up in horror. He heaved himself away from the window and stumbled to the voice box. In a rush, he told Brown he'd made a mistake: He'd mis-located the fire. It was closer in than he'd first thought, nearly a mile closer in, near strike box 319.
There was a long pause. Then Brown asked, "Are you sure?"
"Yes! Tell the station houses it's at 319!"
Again, there was a pause. Then Brown said, "I don't think that would be best."
The two argued for several minutes. Schaffer urged Brown to tap out the correction. Brown refused, saying that a second message would only confuse things. He further reasoned that since the new location was actually on the way to strike box 342 for most of the fire companies, they would see the actual fire and stop there. Brown may also have wondered silently whether Schaffer's second report was any more reliable than his first. In any case, he never sent out the correction.
Unbeknownst to Brown or Schaffer, one local fire company was already at the scene. The key holder of strike box 319, a local storekeeper, had already sent out the alarm. The strike box system was supposed to alert the operator in the central office (Brown), but had failed somehow. Brown had only Schaffer's panicked and spotty report to go on, with no confirmation.
Down on the southwest side, in an Irish neighborhood of shanties, sheds and stables, neighbors pounded on the door of Patrick and Catherine O'Leary. They and their three children had already turned in for the night. Patrick was a Civil War veteran. Catherine was trying to make a little extra money for her family by selling milk out of her barn. Bleary-eyed, they answered the pounding at their door and found a small crowd of their neighbors, shouting excitedly that their barn was on fire.
In all, seven fire companies responded to the blaze on the north side of DeKoven Street, between Jefferson and Clinton Streets, a few blocks north of Roosevelt Road. It took most of them the better part of an hour to get there, however. By that time, the fire had already consumed the entire block to the north and east of the O'Learys' barn. Strong prairie winds, twenty to thirty miles per hour, drove and fueled the blaze. Virtually everything in its path was combustible, extremely so, and the fire quickly became an inferno. It was a live thing, a nightmare hell-beast unchained, gorging itself and wailing its banshee wail, the impossibly tall flames dancing frenzied and wanton, Satan's fiery harem had come to Chicago to celebrate the Apocalypse, writhing with abandon to the white noise of speed metal not yet invented.
And, like a live thing, it began to breathe. Before being forced to abandon his post, the official in charge of the U.S. Weather Signal Office on LaSalle Street reported his anemometer registering winds of sixty miles per hour. That wind was created by the inferno itself, a confused, swirling vortex of updrafts, downdrafts, backdrafts, spawned by the blast-furnace heat and fueling that same heat in an ever-increasing cycle. The Great Chicago Fire roared with full-throated rage and burned in its very soul: Before the night was over, its temperature would far exceed 2500 degrees-- hot enough to melt steel.
The surging, swirling winds drove the inferno forward, and cleared its path: Entire timbers were sucked into the fiery pit of the beast and spit flaming high and far, as if shot from an ancient catapult. A continual shower of sparks, embers, cinders fell on the panicked and fleeing people: A rain of fire. The air grew to hot to breathe. Clothing burst into flame a quarter-mile away or more. Tree trunks exploded, tearing themselves apart from inside, their sap virtually flash-boiling, the shrapnel splinters bursting into flames before they hit the ground.
The firefighters, steadfastly trying to battle the blaze, found themselves caught in a pincer: The flaming timbers hurled up and out of the heart of the inferno landed hundreds of yards behind them, igniting more fires and trapping those who were in between.
By quarter after ten, sawmills and factories along the south branch of the Chicago River were ablaze. Soon after, the grain elevators lining the riverfront became the world's biggest Roman candles. By eleven-thirty, a horse stable and the South Side Gas Works caught fire... on the east side of the river.
Hell had officially broken loose. (Before too much longer, the river itself would be awash in flames-- even in 1871, it was that
The Hell-spawn was now in the heart of the city... and it drove straight toward the courthouse, where the great bell still tolled. Mayor Roswell B. Mason ordered the courthouse --the symbol of civic pride-- evacuated. Most of the prisoners being held in the basement were released outright. Those considered too dangerous were put in chains and led away under guard. The inferno swept into downtown, consuming the commercial district. The courthouse bell continued to toll --a barely-heard death knell, now-- until sometime after two o'clock in the morning, when it finally came crashing down through the gutted ruins of the courthouse. The cacophony of its passing could be heard a mile away. Afterwards, only the screams of the fleeing crowds and the mad cackle of the beast itself could be heard.
Now a wall of hellfire more than a hundred feet high, more than a thousand feet wide and shrieking mad, the beast bore on. Just minutes after the great bell had tolled its last, the roaring inferno hurled a flaming mass over the main branch of the Chicago River. It landed on an Illinois Central rail-car... loaded with kerosene. Bulls-eye.
Now loose on the North Side, the inferno tore like a mindful thing directly toward the last enemy it had, the last thing that had any chance of stopping it: The city Waterworks. This, the city's main pumping station, drew water from deep in Lake Michigan and supplied pressure to the water mains. It was, stategically, in these early hours of Monday, the most important building in town.
The importance of the Waterworks to fighting fires had not been lost on its builders. Constructed of thick, heavy stone, it occupied a large, open plat of land that kept it far from neighboring buildings. Although the roof was wood, it was covered in a layer of slate.
On this night, however, they needed a thicker layer of slate. Again the great beast of fire shot a flaming missile, this one landing on the roof of the pump house. Within minutes, the Waterworks became a raging furnace and the great pumps ceased. Chicago was now utterly defenseless.
Free to roam, the Great Fire now ran in every direction, chasing citizen all the way to the edge of the hinterland, or driving them --literally-- into the lake, where they huddled or stood neck-deep and tried to breathe without searing their lungs. Throughout the day on Monday, the refugees crouched, or stood, and watched the ghost that had been Chicago burn.
Late Monday night, a cold rain began to fall.
Almost as soon as it had started, the story began to circulate that the fire had been ignited by Catherine O'Leary's milking cow. Either startled or simply clumsy in that way that milking cows so often are, surely it had kicked over a lantern and set the hay-strewn barn ablaze. In truth, there is very little to substantiate this story. Recent, speculative tests and theories have targeted the vast stack of hay itself: A case of spontaneous combustion. It would fit.
The O'Learys' house, mere yards from the original blaze, but to the south of it, was virtually untouched.
All the credit in the world goes to my source and inspiration for this post: Donald L. Miller's City of the Century; the Epic of Chicago and the Making of America.
Miller did a phenomenal amount of research on nineteenth-century Chicago, covers a lot of ground and does it well. Unfortunately, much of that ground is rather dry, making for a rather dry book, overall. That isn't the fault of Miller's writing, it is the fault of the material. It is the kind of book that had to be written --the world is better for it-- but is best left to be cataloged by someone with not much else to do, and used for spot references.
P.S... Bud "Hmm, Things Are Looking Grimsley" Selig must go.