Chicago, IL The Great Fire, the fire begins
THE GREAT FIRE OF THE EIGHTH OF OCTOBER.
Since the day when "tall Troy" crumbled away in flames, no fire has surpassed the Chicago conflagration in its terrible work of destruction. The value of the merchandise alone consumed by the flames was at least double that of the goods destroyed in the great fires of Moscow and London combined. No city ever suffered a greater pecuniary loss by fire, whether Jerusalem smitten by Titus, Rome when sacked by Alaric, or Carthage when given up to fire and sword by her Roman conquerors. The estimate of loss of life, great as it seems, is really astonishingly low when we consider the extent, rapidity and fierceness of the fire whose devastating power was trebled by the furious gale. For two days the city was a rolling ocean of flame, and presented an aspect whose awful grandeur might rival the spectacle of a seething roaring volcano crater. The torrent of fire swept over a space of from five to seven miles in length, averaging a mile in width, and no building, probably in any city of the world could have withstood the typhoon of flame and fire combined. In many instances the action of the fire bore a strange resemblance to that or lightning. Blank walls were pierced in an instant by a vast tongue of flame, as though struck by powerful artillery - indeed a sheet of fire would frequently leap from the roof of a blazing edifice over a space of several hundred feet, and dash through the blank wall of a loftier edifice opposite, at one flaming bound.
It must of course puzzle the reader to imagine how the fire could make such appalling and rapid progress, licking up marble edifices like wax-work, and sweeping over a space of hundreds of square acres, all in a few hours from its commencement. To understand this appalling fact it must be remembered that in the first place the very finest and most solidly built portion of the city was surrounded and sprinkled with a vast number of frame buildings, and were thus, as it were, encircled by fuel of the driest and most inflammable description. Once the wood, tar and shingles were well lit the more lightly built portion of the city was a terrific furnace, and the buildings of iron and marble were as nothing to withstand the fearful force of the flames. It is pretty generally known that shortly before the fire, an agent of one of the great English Insurance companies visited the city with the intention of establishing a branch office there, but immediately abandoned the design, upon observing the material of which a great part of the city was built, and its exposed situation. He expressed his opinion freely enough that were a conflagration once well started the city must be partially if not entirely consumed; and scarcely had he returned to England when his predictions were verified. If any one desires to comprehend accurately the effect of the flames upon those massive buildings of iron and stone which we considered impervious to flame - let him build a small model of such a building with the usual materials, and place it in an iron blast furnace. In the furnace-fire of Chicago the blast came in the form of a strong wind from the south and west, which fanned what might otherwise have been but a serious conflagration into a Phlegethon of looming, flashing, rolling, rushing, crackling billows of furious fire, which hurled a fiery spray into the red bosom of the incandescent heavens above.
"For nearly fifteen weeks," says the Chicago Journal of Commerce, "there had not fallen enough rain to penetrate the earth one full inch.
Everything in and around the city was heated, dry and parched. Indeed, all through the West, fires were devastating extensive forests and destroying ripening crops, driving frontier settlers from their cabins and even overwhelming entire villages. For days the prevailing atmosphere of our city seemed ready to kindle into a blaze." With such surroundings and antecedents, with a hard gale blowing over the city from the hot, parched-up prairies, we can hardly he surprised that the fire did its work with such fearful rapidity at the outset, that the efforts of the firemen to master the terrible scourge proved wholly unavailing.
Much has been said on the subject of the demoralization, real or imagined, of the Fire Department on the night of the 8th. It has been hinted that several were intoxicated, and that the brigade, as a body, were utterly inefficient to accomplish their duty properly. These shameful rumors have happily proved to be without foundation. A more gallant struggle against an overwhelming, all-powerful, merciless league of wind and fire, was never sustained by braver men who freely risked, and lost, life and limb in the terribly unequal fight.
The truth is that courage and strength and energy must wither under excessive fatigue consequent On unintermitting labor and want of rest; and. at the time of the general alarm, on the evening of the eighth, the whole department was almost worn out with the labor of previous weeks. "During the first week in October," affirms the same able periodical, from which we quote above, "our fire department had been alarmed more than thirty times, and within a few previous weeks there had been several very large and fearful fires. The burning of an immense warehouse, in the rear of Burlington Hall, had involved a loss of three quarters of a million. When the great calamity came upon us, these ruins had hardly ceased to smoke. * * *
On Tuesday, October 8th, the last day of the Chicago of twenty years, our fire department was "used up" It appears that in addition to the labors of weeks, weary labors of fighting flame, the entire department had worked unceasingly for twelve hours immediately preceding the final summons of the alarm bells. Human strength, whether constitutional or muscular, cannot endure such a strain without yielding to fatigue. Nor is it to be supposed, as many seem to have imagined, that, under these circumstances they could compete in vigor and celerity with the firemen of Cincinnati or St. Louis, who rushed to bear aid in the terrible emergency. All such comparisons as those we hint at, are at least cruelly unjust, not to say imbecile.