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. 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. Dividing yet again, it made short work of Conley's Patch. 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 North Division, 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--even simultaneously--tried to get the best view and flee for their lives with what little--which was often nothing--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 drily. "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.
The Ruined City
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," a map of which appeared in virtually every account of the fire, 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, an uncounted number 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 to "the besom of destruction" 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 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.