Chicago, IL The Great Fire, the First Fire Oct 7th

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The Great Conflagration



Saturday night, October 7th, witnessed one of the fiercest conflagrations that had ever previously occurred, not excepting the conflagration of 1857, in the Garden City. At about two o'clock the alarm sounded from Box 248, and ere the quivering boom of the great bell, had ceased to vibrate over the empty streets, the sky grow fiercely red in the direction of Canal and Van Buren streets, and soon long bright flames leaped through the glow, and lit up the whole neighborhood with wonderous brilliancy before the fire department could arrive at the scene of destruction. Late as the hour was, the glare of the fiery illumination soon attracted vast crowds to the neighborhood of the fire from all quarters of the city, who thronged and choked up all the streets in the neighborhood. The wind rose as the flames gained in strength, blowing strongly from the Southwest, so strongly, indeed, that blazing fragments of wood of no inconsiderable size shot along on the gale like rockets, to the distance of many hundred yards. Indeed, as lookers on beheld, the meteor shower of white and crimson charcoal sparks raining all over the space enclosed between the river, the South branch, Wells street and Jackson street, and even flying over the river to the North-side, they began to fear, with reason, that the conflagration might spread beyond control of the fire department.

The fire had been raging for some time before discovered, and owing to the nature of the substance feeding it, soon converted the building into a furnace. It originated from, some unknown, cause in Lull & Holmes planing-mill on Canal street near Van Buren, the wind then blowing due North, and the flames conse­quently spread in a Northward direction. But soon after the wind veered to the North-east, and the, flames commenced to rush that way. The fire had already spread to the right and left, and burnt a distance of two blocks from Clinton to the river; but when the wind changed everything combustible from the East line of Clinton to the river, midway between Jackson and Van Buren streets, was swept away by the flames.

Unfortunately frame buildings - lumberyards, and substances inflammable as tinder almost, covered and surrounded the space which the fire was threatening, and the fire department was powerless to quench such a hell of flame as roared over several squares within a very short time. Then the bright waves of fire swept to the North of Jackson street, and seemed as though they would spread in the very heart of the city. Jackson street, between Clinton and Canal, was composed in great part of wooden buildings, lumberyards, carpenters' shops, frame dwelling houses, and saloons, and in little more than a quarter of an hour, the whole of this space was enveloped in roaring flame. Between the railroad tracks and the East side of Canal street, bounded by Jackson and Adams streets, were several coal and lumber offices, to the rear of which lay vast piles of anthracite coal to the amount of many hundreds of tons. The slight office buildings were licked up by the flames within the space of a few minutes, and the coal-mounds actually set on fire. And then the fire ran under and over the Adams street Viaduct, licked up the railings and sidewalks of the iron bridge, and devoured the timber freight depot of the United. States and Adams Express Companies at the North-east corner of Adams and Canal. But a comparatively small quantity of the contents could be removed in time, the greater part of the goods being consumed.

To the east of the long shed, then blazing, stood a number of passenger cars belonging to the Pittsburg and Fort Wayne Rail­road. To save the cars it was necessary to tear down the shed, which was effected in time to prevent the cars catching fire, in which case the flames must have communicated with the Pittsburg and Fort Wayne depot, and thence burned as far as Madi­son street bridge. The citizens, however, worked desperately here, for they recognized the possible danger of the fire spreading still further to the East and Northeast, and the fire department was unable to operate with any chance of success in this locality. Here the fight with the flames was successful, and the citizens conquered, in spite of a hail of crimson cinders and clouds of acrid dun-colored smoke, so thick, that it might almost have been cut with a knife.

Meanwhile the firemen were battling with desperate energy against the progressing flames on the South line of Adams street, West of Canal, and stretching nearly to Clinton street. The buildings were nearly all frame residences, and should the flame make good its position here, or cross to the North line of wooden structures, the consequences would be terrible. The firemen could, as it was, being but twelve hose-nozzles to play upon the leaping battalion of lire that was marching grandly over the roofs. The heat was so terrible that the crowd, several hundred feet away, shrank farther back before the angry glare, yet the heroic firemen would stand within a few yards of the blaze itself, only retiring to take breath. Of course so hot a wood fire must burn itself out to a certain extent, there was no possibility of absolutely extinguishing it, but they subdued the fiery ardor of the flames and prevented them from spreading to the houses on the other side of the street.

The crowd that stood upon Madison street bridge, and thronged the thoroughfare itself, were appalled by the spectacle before them. The sight was almost sublime, the heavens were speckled and spangled with flying cinders and vivid sparks, and the flames of the burning coal-heaps and lumberyards threw a vast Rembrandtesque light far down the streets on the North side, upon the rigging of the tall-masted vessels in the river, and upon the sea of awestruck faces that gazed into the crimson sky and the tossing sea of flame.

Many were obliged to flee for their lives, mostly poor laborers who lived in the consumed frame buildings with their families, or in the cheap boarding houses in the burnt quarter. But happily no lives were lost as far as is known. One old woman was only awakened from her sleep by the entrance of the flames into her bedroom on Jackson street, and was only saved by the heroism of a printer, Robert Campsie by name, who, at the risk of his own life, brought her out of the burning building. Both rescuer and rescued were severely, but not dangerously burnt. Her daughter-in-law, a young woman of the name of Margaret Headley, was left behind, and has not been heard of; it is, however, probable, that she succeeded in making her escape.

One accident of a rather serious nature occurred during this conflagration. A large shed stood at the corner of Clinton and Jackson streets, whose roof afforded a splendid view of the fire, and was moreover easy of access. The crowd continued to gather upon it, until it suddenly gave way beneath the weight of about 150 persons, and the whole structure caved in. A considerable number of the victims of this disaster were severely injured, none we believe fatally. Many of the saloonkeepers in the burning district, distributed their stock gratis to the crowd, when they perceived their property was doomed.

The "Chicago" steam fire-engine was working away at the northwest corner of Canal and Jackson streets, when the side of a burning edifice close by suddenly fell in, giving vent to a whirl­wind of flames which enveloped the steamer in an instant. The engineer and firemen were compelled to desert her as they valued their lives, but shortly the fury of the flames spent themselves in that quarter, and they rushed in and pulled her out of the reach of the fire. The engine was considerably damaged, but was able to continue operations during the latter part of the fire.

The heat destroyed the western wires of the Western Union Telegraph Company, as well as several of the fire alarm telegraph wires. In one of the lumber yards a party of eight men found themselves overwhelmed by fire on all sides, and only saved themselves by throwing a quantity of lumber into the river, and paddling across. The only effective method of saving about thirty wagons and trucks belonging to the coalyard, was by sinking them in the river.

Altogether the fire of Saturday night, October 7th, covered about twenty acres of ground and destroyed in the neighborhood of $700,000 worth of property. The insurance cannot cover more than a third of the loss, according to the Chicago Tribune. The following extract from the same paper gives perhaps the most accurate summary of the extent of the conflagration.

The boundaries of the fire may be briefly summarized as follows:

Between Clinton and Canal streets, about three-fourths of the area south toward Van Buren street.

Between Canal street and the river, about nine-tenths of the area, south toward Van Buren street.

Between Canal street and the river, and Adams and Jackson streets, the entire area.

Between Canal and Clinton streets, and Adams and Jackson streets about seven-eights of the entire area, the only remaining buildings being the frontage of about 80 feet on Adams and 128 feet on Clinton street.

On the east side of Canal, north of Adams, about 100 feet in frontage, consuming the Express Company freight sheds.

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