Friday, October 9, 2020

October 9, 1921 -- Chicago Fire, a 50-Year Recollection

October 9, 1921 – On the fiftieth anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, the Chicago Daily Tribune features the recollection of the only newspaper reporter who covered the 1871 story who is still alive.  Michael Ahern, working for the Chicago Republican, was a night reporter on duty when the fire started on October 8, 1871.  Ahern begins his recollection with a description of what happened on the night before the fire. On Saturday night, October 7, a fire started in a planing mill on Canal Street, and “it wiped out everything from Clinton street to the river and from Adams street to Van Buren street.” [Chicago Daily Tribune, October 8, 1921] That fire brought every piece of fire-fighting equipment in the city to the scene, and “all that kept the entire west side from burning up was the strenuous work of the fire brigade.” Some firefighters did not return to their quarters until Sunday afternoon and “The department was exhausted from the long, hard battle and some engines were disabled.”  That was the state of affairs at 9:30 p.m. on October 8 when Ahern is called “to a red glow in the sky east of Halsted street and north of Twelfth.”  When he reaches the scene, he finds several cottages and sheds burning “in the vicinity of De Koven and Jefferson streets.”  The fire is “only a small one compared with the previous night’s fire,” so small that Ahern does not even take notes.  The fire had apparently burned for 20 minutes to a half-hour before the first unit responded, a problem attributed, for the most part, to the fire that had occurred on the previous day.  Matthias Schaeffer, the watchman in the courthouse tower downtown, spotted the fire, but, due to the haze left by all of the smoke from the previous fire, reported it in a spot nearly a mile away from its actual location.  The attendant in the alarm office also saw a glow in the sky, but he assumed that it was the product of embers still glowing from the October 7 fire.  A druggist near Canalport Avenue and Halsted Streets tried twice to turn in an alarm from a box in the area, but the previous fire had destroyed some of the lines, and neither alarm registered at fire headquarters.  The first unit on the scene was the “Little Giant” company, but it was only half-manned. Other companies were nearer to the fire, but they were sent out of their way to fight the non-existent fire that Schaeffer reported from his perch downtown.  Engine Company No. 5, with the steamer “Chicago,” was the second company to arrive.  Its crew had worked over 15 hours in the Saturday night fire, and the men were exhausted.  The No. 5 men laid lines from a hydrant at Forquer and Jefferson, but the equipment broke down and was out of service for nearly an hour.  The Fire Chief, Bob Williams, arrived early on and called out every company in the city – 17 steamers, 54 hose carts, and 3 or 4 hook and ladder trucks.  Before long three particularly incendiary businesses – the Bateham shingle mill and box factory, the Frank Mayer Furniture company, and the Roelle Furniture company – went up in flames and the fire quickly reached the west bank of the river.  One steamer, the Fred Gund, set up at the west approach of the Van Buren Street bridge. Its crew fought until their clothing caught fire, and the men were forced to run for their lives.  Ahern reports, “The Gund went down in a sea of flame with steam up and fighting the foe.”  Not long before midnight the fire crossed the river between Adams and Van Buren Streets.  In its path were a tar works and the gas company’s reservoir.  All of the fire apparatus was still on the west side of the river, and at this point Chief Williams ordered a few companies to the other side of the river.  But  the battle was lost.  “Blazing bits of timber were carried to the court house from the west side … more than a mile distant … The flames swept east toward Michigan avenue, and there were a dozen fires burning at the same time.”  Several companies stood bravely at Michigan Avenue and Harrison Street, and their efforts kept the fire from spreading south, but “All night long the work of devastation went on ceaselessly, ruthlessly.  Business blocks, public buildings, theaters, churches, hotels, banks, newspaper offices, retail and wholesale emporiums of trade, railroad depots, grain elevators, marble mansions, and breweries – all went down in the blazing mass.”  Only two buildings escaped the flames downtown -- the Lind Block, at Randolph Street and the river, and a three-story building on the northwest corner of La Salle and Monroe Streets, a building under construction.  Just before 2:00 a.m. the courthouse on Washington Boulevard caught fire.  In its basement sat 150 prisoners awaiting trial.  Except for a few who were kept under guard, they were all turned loose. At about 6:00 a.m. the waterworks on the north side caught fire, and with that, with no water, the fire department’s efforts were at an end.  Just about that time the huge Galena elevator on the north side of the main branch of the river caught fire between State and Rush Streets.  The fire continued on, burning all the way north to Fullerton Avenue, consuming “twenty-nine churches, nineteen hotels, nine theaters and halls, five public schools, twenty-seven daily newspaper offices, about seventy-five other publications, seventeen breweries, the post office, the courthouse, the chamber of commerce, one police station and every big store in the city.” The last paragraph of Ahern’s reminiscences contains news that Catherine O’Leary’s cow, Daisy, would appreciate … “I wish to state that the fire was not started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lamp.  Nothing of the kind occurred.  That version of the origin of the fire was a concoction which the writer of these reminiscences confesses to a guilty part.  In justice to the maligned animal and to Mrs. O’Leary, who died many years ago, I make this belated reparation.”

October 9, 1915 – Governor Edward Fitzsimmons Dunne, speechifying at nearly every stop, leads an intrepid band of travelers as they start off on the first day of the 1,500-mile drive on the new Dixie Highway.  Twenty cars leave Chicago “for the land of orange blossoms, over the ceremonially virgin road.” [Chicago Daily Tribune, October 9, 1915] Short ceremonies are held in Grant Park as Juilia Stubblefield, representing Florida, and Lucille Finnegan, representing Illinois, lead a procession of girls representing the states in between, as they place flowers at the Fountain of the Great Lakes, “forming a floral highway, over which Miss Dixie and Miss Chicago crossed the waste of mud and mountains.”  Governor Dunne says, “The main essentials for the future development of Illinois is the development of its highways and waterways.  First in agricultural development, second in the production of wealth, third in population, political and commercial importance, Illinois is nevertheless lamentably behind in the development of its roads – twenty-third of all the states.”   Representing Mayor William H. Thompson, Henry D. Miller, the city prosecutor, then leaves a letter intended for the mayor of Miami with the motorists. The first day’s drive ends in Danville, Illinois with a night’s rest there before the group continues on to Indianapolis.

October 9, 1908 – The informal dedication of the new County Building on Clark Street between Washington and Randolph sees several thousand Chicagoans tour the new government headquarters.  The County Recorder’s office on the first floor has vases of flowers on each desk while “festoons of autumn leaves [are] draped from post and pillar.”  [Chicago Daily Tribune, October 10, 1908]  The County Clerk has a store of carnations for those passing through.  County Board President Busse receives callers as they move through his offices on the fifth floor.  Busse says at the end of the day, “First of all I wish to acknowledge the indebtedness of the county board to the people of Cook County for their constant and general support.  No extras, no scandal, not even adverse criticism grew out of the work, and the cost of the building was kept within the contract price.  The cost per cubic foot was from 15 to 25 per cent less than that of some of Chicago’s notable buildings.”  The Holabird and Roche designed building is one-half of the government complex, designed in the Beaux-Arts style, stretching from Clark Street halfway to La Salle.  The Chicago City Hall, also designed by Holabird and Roche, is a near mirror image of the county building and sits west of the 1908 structure and is completed two years later.  The County Building is pictured above with the old City Hall still standing to the west.
October 9, 1881 – On the tenth anniversary of the Chicago Fire, the Chicago Daily Tribune runs an editorial that touts the strides that the city has made since the day that 90,000 of its residents lost everything in a conflagration that consumed over 17,000 structures.  On October 9 of 1871 the smoldering city had 330,000 inhabitants … a decade later that number had jumped to 555,000.  The losses suffered in the fire amounted to $200,000,000 (nearly $4.5 billion in today's dollars) with insurance and salvage payments covering about $55,000,000 (about $1.1 billion today) of that amount.  With that seed money “the people of the city undertook to cover the vacant places, and upon the ruins to build up again that stores, and warehouses, and dwellings and public buildings.”  [Chicago Daily Tribune, October 9, 1881]  Borrowing liberally and with city-mandated fire limits established, the city rebuilt with architecture that was “more ornate and the structures more costly, more substantial, more uniform, more durable, and far more numerous.”  Unfortunately, in the fall of 1873 the bottom dropped out of the nation’s economy and the borrowed money, most of it secured at high interest rates, took its toll and the city “overwhelmed with debt, private and public, was subjected to trials under which no other city less blessed with imperishable resources could have been maintained.”  Then in 1874 another huge fire leveled a sizeable portion of the newly rebuilt city.  Those who held mortgages on city property showed confidence in Chicago’s citizens and were rewarded for their patience.  “… at this date, on this tenth anniversary of The Great Fire,” the Tribune editorializes, “there is not practically a mortgage given for money borrowed to rebuild Chicago that has not been paid or discharged with interest and taxes, or on which the money to pay the unmatured mortgage cannot be obtained on demand.”  Concluding the piece, the editorial extends the gratitude of the city to all those who helped it back to prosperity.  “To the people of the United States, to whom this city owes so much of gratitude, Chicago makes report today of the great growth in all the essentials of commercial and manufacturing metropolis which she has made during the ten years which have followed the disaster which has become memorable in the record of public calamities.”  The Chicago and North Western Railroad's station on Wells Street, pictured above, was completed in 1881, just ten years after the destruction of the city.  That same year Union Station on Van Buren Street near the West Bank of the river, was also completed. 


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