The First Great Chicago Fire
While many have heard of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, its predecessor is relatively unknown, yet played an important role in both the salvation of the west side of Chicago and the utter decimation of the business district and the north side during the historic Great Chicago Fire.
Where Union Station sits in modern day Chicago was once the site of Chicago’s largest fire. It held that record for mere hours before it was obliterated.
For days past, alarm has followed alarm, but the comparatively trifling losses have familiarized us to the pealing of the Court House bell, and we had forgotten that the absence of rain for three weeks had left everything in so dry and inflammable a condition that a spark might start a fire which would sweep from end to end of the city. Chicago Tribune, October 8, 1871.
This prophetic article was published in the Chicago Tribune the morning of the Great Fire. It was written after the greatest fire Chicago had known to date. A fire that started at about 11:00 pm on October 7 and lasted seventeen hours.
It was suggested that the fire that began in the basement of the Lull and Holmes Planing Mill was most likely arson, but there was no time for any formal investigation. This fire began in what insurance companies of the time termed “The Red Flash District.” It was so named because a large percentage of its occupiers were lumber yards and coal yards.
The Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne, and Chicago railroad tracks ran along the Chicago River, bordering the eastern edge of the west side. The National Elevator, presumably stocked with grain, was sandwiched between lumberyards, with the tracks on its west flank and the river on the east. Saloons, wooden tenements, and factories such as a paper box factory and a sash factory filled the rest of the space of this four city-block area.
All of these materials were very flammable and Chicago was at the peak of a terrible drought. Once this fire started, these four blocks were nearly, completely in flames within twenty minutes. A Red Flash.
The fire department was quick and effective in containing the blaze. There were some trials along their road to victory, however.
The Chicago steamer was wrapping up a small fire across the river when the call came for this new fire. Before the fire gained ground, they set up on the north end of the fire. As they were connecting the hose to the hydrant, the hose burst.
While they were fitting a new hose, the building in front of them collapsed, shooting flames into the street aiming at the steamer. The firemen had to make a run for it. With the horses unhitched and tethered safely away, the firemen had to return to pull their steamer by hand or lose the engine to the fire.
The fire soon crossed Jackson Street and spread through the next block as well. The firemen then relocated the Chicago steamer to protect the National Elevator. A fire started up a few times, but they quickly extinguished it. The elevator was one of the only standing structures when the blaze was over.
The great number of spectators who came to watch the free entertainment also had their share of calamity. A roof of a shed collapsed at Clinton and Jackson under the weight of nearly 150 spectators. A raised sidewalk gave way, as well. Each incident doled out its share of injuries. And several volunteers who were fighting the fire at the lumberyards found themselves in the river when they got caught between flames. They threw planks into the river and jumped in after them, paddling them across to the other side of river.
Some other volunteers came in quite handy as the fire was trying to spread north across Adams Street. Quirks saloon, on the northwest corner of Adams and Canal, started smoking. A number of men from the insurance patrol were in the area (perhaps enjoying Quirk’s generosity as he was giving away his stock of liquor and cigars). They were ready with portable extinguishers and kept the walls wet when they started to smoke. This action helped keep the fire at bay. Another set of volunteers were tearing down sheds and fences along the train track when a small hut on the corner across from Quirks caught. They ran in and brought out a terrified old woman who was caught inside. She lost her home, but her life was safe.
The fire raged for many hours. It was under control by 3:30 in the morning. And the last of the fire engines left the scene around 4 pm, Sunday afternoon. The Chicago steamer was one of them.
After seventeen hours of fighting Chicago’s worst fire to date, the fire department was hurting. Hoses took a beating, coal was running low, the William James steamer was badly damaged and deemed unusable. The Clybourne hose cart was lost and the 190, or so, firemen who worked it were exhausted, suffering from smoke poisoning, swollen eyes, dehydration, and burns.
Yet, the fire department was seen as the heroes of the event as historian A. T. Andreas captures, “It was not accident, nor extraneous influence that checked the fire here, but calm deliberate, intelligent heroism; and to those heroes Chicago owes eternal gratitude.”
In less than five hours from the time the last engine left the burned district, a new fire started mere blocks away in a little wooden barn that would indeed spread across the city. No cows will be blamed here, however.
The little, great fire began on October 7, 1871 at 11 p.m. on the west side of Chicago, lasted seventeen hours and destroyed four city blocks. With nothing to fuel the great fire these four city blocks that now lay in ashes, saved the rest of the west side from the same fate.
The firemen who did not work in shifts, at the time, were exhausted and hurt. The equipment was damaged, but the morale was high. It was a great victory.
The Great Chicago Fire . . . well, that’s a different story all together.
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