Chicago, IL The Great Fire, the fire - part three

Chicago Post Office before the fire, 1865 lithograph Chicago Fire, lithograph

The fire then leaped the stone-yards and open lots to the north of the Michigan, Southern and Rock Island Railroads, and in an extraordinary short time devoured the famous Pacific Hotel, one of the largest in the world; and the huge depot with its lines of cars soon melted away in the flames. Far north of Van Buren street the fire licked up gigantic squares of marble palaces, and approached the court house. This splendid building occupied the center of a square, and owing to its isolated situation, and its being surrounded by fire-proof buildings, was considered free from danger. But even before the sea of flames surrounded it, the ruthless wind hurled flaming brands and sparks upon the great dome, and. the edifice was soon a mass of flames. The watchman started the machinery that tolled the ponderous bell, and fled from the building, the bell boomed forth the news of the terrible catastrophe until the vast dome tottered, reeled, and fell, crashing into the interior with all the weight of its several million pounds. The awful shock shook the burning city, and then the Chief of the Fire Department threw up his arms in despair; for he felt that all hope was gone.

The prisoners were liberated when it became evident that the court house was doomed, and all escaped with the exception of five murderers who were securely handcuffed and marched off by the police. It is said that the liberated thieves commenced their nefarious trade under the very walls of their blazing prison, and cleared a wagon load of clothing that was passing at the time.

The interior of the Post-Office was completely eaten out by the devouring fire, but its walls successfully resisted the raging element, and even checked the flames for a time in a northeasterly direction. Near this were many of the finest buildings Chicago could boast of, including the elegant hotels between Madison and Lake streets; and the splendid office of the Chicago Tribune, McVickers Theatre, and the Palmer House, all stood within a few squares of the glowing walls of the Post-Office. Soon, however, the flame advancing eastwardly seized upon the Palmer House, wrapping it from roof to basement in a shroud of yellow fire, and the flames bursting from the roof, leaped astonishing distances to yet intact edifices. In a very short space of time all the surrounding buildings were blazing as fiercely as the Palmer House, itself, and the Tribune building, as well as McVicker's theatre, crumbled away before the flames which rushed in upon them from the rear.

The North division was untouched until a little after twelve o'clock, on the same night, when the fire leaped the main branch of the Chicago river, and licked up everything combustible with its vast tongues of flame. The people dwelling in the North division - which indeed - was composed mostly of dwelling houses' soon found themselves compelled to fly to the lake-shore. Many, however, plunged into the North branch of the river, or sought to cross on anything that would sustain them. This side of the city contained the greater number of the fine churches, palace residences, shade-trees, several depots, and enormous warehouses and manufactories. The North pier extended far into the lake a thousand feet, and close by were great stores of valuable material of all kinds. One of the finest buildings in the West was here consumed McCormick's Agricultural Implement Works, containing property and stock valued at over $1,000,000. But the chief loss which the city endured was that of the Water Works.

It may as well be known, that although the water works were uninjured at the time when the fire seized the North-side of the river, yet soon after they ceased to supply water. This may prove a good lesson to those who believe that a city can always depend upon an engine-supplied reservoir for its supply pf water. Although the Water Works’ structure was deemed fireproof, yet there was a considerable amount of woodwork about it. The Journal of Commerce wisely exclaims: "A few thousand dollars additional expense on the water works would have saved many lives and much treasure." The flying brands and sparks set fire to the roof immediately above the engine-room, the furthest point from the sweeping surging ocean of flame, that had already traveled at least three miles in. six hours. This was instantly extinguished, but soon after the great breweries close by burst into roaring flames, and tongues of fire were darting over the turreted roof of the Water Works' building. Within the atmosphere became heated to a degree that rendered it almost impossible for the workmen and engineers to perform their duties through danger of suffocation. At last the fire burst through the roof above their heads, and they were compelled to abandon the building having first stopped the machinery in order that it might be injured as little as possible, and the safety valves were raised in order that the ponderous boilers might not burst. Then the immense roof crumbled in upon the three mammoth engines, and for ten days and ten nights, three hundred thousand people suffered from the want of pure water, even for cooking purposes, many being obliged to content themselves with the water from the river. Happily the canal had lately been deepened, which caused the cool pure water of the lake to flow towards the Mississippi; and the South branch of the river was sweet and pure compared to what it had been one year ago. Even at this time, however, it was water only to be used in cases of necessity.

Now the fire advanced without enemy to oppose it, and swept on towards the cemetery which bounded Lincoln Park on the South. The fire department had drawn off to the lake-shore, there to oppose the progress of the rushing whirlwind of fire by another mode of attack, while the flames were swallowing all the buildings in the direction of Lincoln Park. One remarkably handsome wooden residence, together with a fine conservatory, were spared, however, by the hungry element which left no other building standing it its destroying path. The ghoulish flames even battened upon the tombs and monuments in the burial ground, cracking and calcining marble monuments, licking wooden crosses and signs, and even devouring the trees that shadowed, and the grass that grew upon the graves of the dead. It could gain no hold, however, upon the green foliage and shrubbery of Lincoln Park, whereupon it changed its course to the North-west. It licked up everything until it reached the prairie, and then it burned up acres of prairie grass and trees. All the bridges to the West-side soon disappeared, and the La Salle street tunnel, which communicated with the South-side, was so heated by the surrounding flames, that at the entrances on both sides of the river the iron railings were twisted and bent as though warped by the hands of a fiery Vulcan, and the rocks split and shivered as though by lightning. As long as the bridges remained intact, they were covered with fugitives and vehicles of every description. But soon the only means of communication with the North, South, and West sides of the river was cut off and fugitives could only obtain succor through vessels along the lake-shore, or by a circuitous route to the remoter bridges, which were soon as crowded with fugitives as the others had been. And so the fire rushed on with its appallingly rapid work of destruction, until the prairie about the city was crowded with homeless men, women, and children, without shelter, food or drink.

As long as liquor could be obtained many men drank freely, and not a few fell in a state of sleepy intoxication upon the scorching pavement, little heeding the swiftly approaching and their terrible death. Alcohol had deadened their consciousness of all things. Then the roar of the red flames grew louder and louder, and the earth-shaking crash of falling buildings sounded nearer and nearer, till the scorching pavement upon which they lay seemed to rock beneath the terrible weight of the falling walls, but they slept on under the red rain of fire, till they became as the ashes which fell upon them.

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