Chicago, IL The Great Fire, the fire - part four
The gutters of the sidewalks and roads were frequently filled with blazing whiskey, alcohol, petroleum, or other inflammable fluids, which ran in streams of curling blue fire, or dancing red flames down the pavements. In several places the tar between the seams of the newly-laid wooden pavements caught fire and blazed from end to end; yet with few exceptions the wooden pavements proved a success and still remain in a marvellous state of preservation. The flagged pavements did not escape so well, and the huge stones cracked and splintered in the vast heat. Brick is the material that best endured the terrible ordeal; indeed, the greater part of the brick is still serviceable for building purposes. But marble was burnt to quicklime, free-stone and limestone crumbled and splintered, iron melted and trickled like lava among the glowing ruins, and strong iron pillars were twisted and warped into strangely fantastic shapes.
The rails of the street-railways were subjected to such terrible heat, from the blazing buildings on either side of the street, that they were raised in the middle from six to twelve inches and even two feet above the ground, the center bolts being drawn and those at the ends remaining undetached.
Anything combustible would of course be burnt to a cinder by the mere heat of that awful furnace, even though the actual flames had left it untouched. One curious fact with regard to the manner in which the various kinds of pavements endured the heat, which is chronicled by the Journal of Commerce, is well worthy of record. "On the north-west corner of the Court-House Square is now to be seen artificial stone flagging, perfect, while the sandstone on both sides of it, and also the curbing, are entirely destroyed." But we are also told that even where the rails were lifted from the center of the streets and bent like a bow, from the terrific heat, the wooden pavements remain materially uninjured.
The panic of that great multitude was truly terrible. With, in some instances, fire on three sides of them, they rushed to the waters, of the lakes and dashed the liquid over themselves to keep their garments from being burned by the shower of falling fire or the intense heat of blazing buildings. The cattle rushed blindly about bellowing with terror and trampling upon men, women and children. Rats, cats, pigs, and dogs, rushed among the crowd uttering cries of terror flocks of pigeons rose in the red glare and sought safety in flight until scorched by the fearful heat, bewildered and blinded by the terrible rain of fire, and the stifling smoke, they fell back into the blaze. Horses, maddened with terror, shrieked with that horrible shriek which is never forgotten by those who have once heard it, kicked and plunged, and often lay down in their harness under the rain of sparks, foaming at the mouth, and shivering in every limb. Perhaps the roar of the fire was even more appalling than the spectacle.
The thieves had, as the popular phrase goes, "a fine time." Among the struggling, cursing, praying, shrieking crowd, their nimble fingers worked unceasingly, and we have no doubt they reaped a rich harvest. It is tolerably certain, however, that many of them perished in burning houses, where, in their eagerness to obtain booty, they remained until after every chance of escape had been cut off. The police at such a time were almost powerless to act, and crime was, perforce, permitted to revel in well-nigh unrestrained freedom for a, while. Under the guise of friendship, sharpers would frequently volunteer to take charge of valuable goods, which, of course, were never again seen by their rightful owners. The hack-drivers were little better than swindlers, charging from fifty to a hundred and fifty dollars fare even to crippled invalids.
The reports of incendiarism, hanging, shooting, and summary popular vengeance, or mob-law, are probably without foundation, or, at least, may be regarded as imperfectly substantiated. Several very horrible, and numerous romantically dreadful stories, have been circulated, we believe, by the lovers of the sensational. That a mob, under such circumstances, and in such a state of hall-mad terror and frantic despair, would not hesitate to execute summary vengeance upon any parties who might be even slightly suspected of incendiarism, is pretty certain. But the accounts of this nature lack evidence and can hardly be credited for want of proper substantiation. With regard to romance, however, there have certainly occurred more hair-breadth escapes and thrilling incidents than would fill a large volume, and these, too, of such a nature as would vie with the wildest fancies of the sensationalist.
Twelve hours after the first alarm on Sunday night, the greater part of Chicago was dust and ashes. The fire soon began to work south against the wind, actually traveling along State street and Wabash avenue with almost as fatal swiftness as where the burning gale helped it along. It is curious, too, that the wind seemed to veer and blow from all points south, east and west as the fire proceeded, but the prevailing point was steadily south. Here, however, Phil. Sheridan led a forlorn hope against the flames, and began to oppose their progress in a new and yet more efficient manner. Powder was brought from the arsenal and buildings blown up all along the line of fire, but it was only by superhuman efforts that the fire was last checked at Harrison street.
The sufferings of the women and children no pen can depict. The terrible shock brought on premature delivery in numerous instances. It is said that between four and five hundred children were born within twenty-four hours after the fire, and many an infant's first cry was heard by the bleak lake shore, or upon the cheerless prairie, on that terrible night. Many of the little sufferers born under a sky of flame, and many a fair and delicate woman, perished before the sun had risen upon the smoking ruins. A great number of children and young women were compelled to fly in their night-clothes, and died from the consequent exposure. In the fire itself, probably nearly two hundred souls perished, and the total loss of life, from all causes connected with the fire, must come to nearly a thousand.
The telegraph operators stuck to their posts with an unshrinking heroism well worthy of record, until the flames had snapped, curled up, and whitened the wires, consumed the poles, and even destroyed the lamp-posts at the corners of the streets.
Before the fire had ceased, except where the coal piles continued to blaze furiously and the shivering thousands returned to look upon the ruins of their homes, the city was placed for a time under martial law. Sheridan brought down troops, the command of the city being given into his hands, and Allan Pinkerton issued orders to shoot all thieves, incendiaries, or malefactors, without mercy. It was a timely order, roughs, thieves, sharpers, swindlers, robbers, burglars, came from all quarters like vultures to prey upon the corpse of Chicago. But after the panic was over, and the authorities were enabled to give their undivided attention to the preservation of law and public order, these rascals found themselves utterly baffled.
When the news of the terrible fire flashed along the glowing wires to St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Louisville, the horror of the announcement lay like a nightmare shadow upon every heart and brain when even the last means of communicating with the sister cities was cut off, the alarm almost grew into a panic. A whole city on fire in the "Northwest! Five square miles of splendid buildings roaring to the skies in flames! Five hundred millions worth of property destroyed! Thousands homeless, thousands starving, breadless, dying, millionaires reduced to beggars!" The richest city of the west, whose wonderous speedy growth and prosperity was the admiration of the whole land, even of its rivals, turned into a hell of fire! Such was the news which appeared on the bulletin boards of every daily newspaper office, surrounded by awe-struck, sympathizing crowds.
For an instant all was horror, astonishment, and terror. Then the trance was broken by the cry of "give us food, give us shelter, as you are men and brothers. Our beautiful city, of which the world was proud, is gone. Our women and children are dying, without food, shelter, or money. Help us in our terrible affliction." And then the great sympathy of millions awoke, the sister cities forgot all petty rivalries, and nobly set to work to rescue the desolate people. Firemen and engines poured from all quarters to the scene of smoke and flame. Money, food, and clothing, came in plenty, and the mother country, too, poured forth her gold, remembering that the new world had sent succor to the old in the day of need. The Nineteenth century showed it had a heart.