“More About the Fire” (from The Little Corporal, December 1871; pp. 184-185)
Almost every evening a restless little story lover climbs on my lap and begs to hear about the fire that “burned up all the poor little boys’ houses, and all their clothes, only but their mamma.” And every time I tell the story, it seems to grow more sad, and while the little fellow listens, with a sigh of compassion, and tucks his thumb in his mouth for consolation, I wish I could gather all my dear little people about me, and tell the story to them. It seems to hopeless to try to write it, not because there is so little, but so much to tell. Probably every paper in the land has published some account of the fire, but few of our readers are sufficiently acquainted with the city to get any very definite idea of what [is] meant by North Side and South Side, or can at all understand the elegance of the private residences, and the magnificence of the business blocks destroyed. Your Little Corporal office was in a fine stone block known as Lombard Block, separated by a paved court from the massive, fire-proof building of the Custom-house, and surrounded by such solid walls for blocks in every direction, that it was not deemed possible, even after it was known that the fire was raging, that it would be seriously damaged. Report of the fire was brought to Evanston in the night, and the red glow upon the sky over the end of the lake was enough to send terror into every heart. By the first train on Monday morning a crowd of men hastened to the city, fearing the worst, but trying to keep up their courage by saying to each other: “The reports must be exaggerated—it is not possible that matters can be so bad.” But they had not dreamed of the truth. They reached the city to find the fields and every available place tenanted by homeless and distracted people, flying empty-handed from the jaws of death; a dense mass of men and women packed along the river bank, unable to cross, but looking with utter despair into the sea of flame that seemed every moment to grow more fearful, as the furious wind swept it onward as fast as a horse could walk. Families were scattered; wives, children, husbands gone, no one could tell where; but looking into that awful furnace it was certain that whoever was within its bounds had no possible escape. Thousands had taken refuge on the lake-shore, where the burning of the bridges cut off other means of escape. Could they live with that awful rain of fire beating down upon them, and the suffocating clouds of smoke and ashes, almost hiding them from each other? No one could say—no one dared to think. The men of Evanston turned away from the destruction they were utterly helpless to stay, and went home to call a meeting of citizens. No one thought of loss in deep thankfulness that home and family were safe. In an hour’s time men were going from house to house to say, “There will be 100,000 homeless people to be fed and sheltered to-night; open your houses; prepare food and clothing, and send out and bring them in.” Every one went to work, and as the telegraph flashed the news over the country, from every quarter aid was nobly tendered. From five cities the firemen rushed to the rescue, and by dark the fire was so nearly checked that there was time to think of the sufferers. No one can tell the story of that dreadful Monday night, when to the sufferings from cold and hunger and thirst were added the terror of mothers whose children were lost, and children separated from their parents, and of the sick, and the burned, and the dying. In many cases the alarm had not been taken until the gas was shut off by the burning of the Gas-works, or the melting of the pipes; and groping in the dark it was impossible to find clothing. One lady was alone in the house with her six children, and from its position her room was perfectly dark. With her baby in her arms she gathered the frightened group, and not daring to leave them an instant, lest one should be lost in the darkness, led them out in their night-clothes to the street. It was estimated that 15,000 children escaped from the fire with but scanty clothing. On Tuesday, when the refugees came flocking into the churches, school-houses,
and every public building on the West Side, for food and shelter, the greatest demand was for water. Many had not a drop since Sunday evening, for the only branch of the river which they could reach at all was a black stream of pollution and crowded with shipping, while the burnt bridges and the miles of smoking ruins shut them from the lake, except as the water was brought a long distance in barrels. The scenes at the churches were harrowing. The ladies stood guard over the precious water-barrels, and dealt it out in tiny portions, though it was enough to break their hearts to hear the sufferers as they crowded in begging for “Just one swallow of water.” As fast as it could be brought, from the lake and the artesian well, the supply was increased, but there were so many places to supply, it was impossible to get enough to equal the demand. Ah, how the provisions poured in, and how they were welcomed! “They have thought of everything,” said a lady, with the tears running down her face, as she opened a box from St. Louis. A noble woman knelt in the chancel of a church holding the head of a poor sick Norwegian, while she administered nourishment drop by drop, and the sufferer kept her eyes fixed upon the face of her nurse, with a look of speechless gratitude. “We have lost everything,” said the ministering angel; “home, business, property; but this poor creature was dragged from a sick bed to see her husband and child buried in the ruins. God has been good to me and mine.”
The work to be done was so immense it was almost disheartening, but not once did those brave hearts falter. Men and women forgot their own heavy losses, and worked incessantly to minister to the suffering. I know at least of one young lady dependent upon herself for support, who, for three weeks, never left her post until late at night, and did not once see the ruins which thousands flocked to look at, until at the end of three weeks she found time to consider that she had lost home and business, and must find work or come herself to be fed.
From morning until night, from night until morning, for days and weeks the work went steadily on, as the whole world thrilled with one impulse of pity and sympathy, and aid from every direction poured in upon Chicago. It was long before scattered families were reunited, and many and many a household has added some of its members to the dreadful list of missing, or had the sad uncertainty changed to a sadder certainty, as the smoldering ruins were at last explored. At the present time the work of distributing supplies has been reduced to so careful a system, that there is very little possibility of waste or imposition. Temporary barracks were at once erected upon lots belonging to the city and filled to overflowing with those who could not find shelter elsewhere. The shelter committee are furnishing to all the poor who own any land, lumber and nails to build small houses, while many more are being built upon land given for the purpose for a term of years. The sufferers are supplied, as rapidly as possible, with necessary clothing, and with stoves, beds, and indespensable articles of furniture. This is what is done with the money sent in, and we mention it in answer to many inquiries. Not a cent of it goes for any other purpose than to supply the actual wants of those unable to provide themselves with food and water.
Oh, children, East and West, North and South, how warmly your hearts have responded to the call for help. We should like to put on record the donations that have come in from the children of the public schools, and of the Sunday-schools all over the land; dimes and half-dimes and pennies; the precious savings that have been rattled out in haste from the little banks, and boxes, and pocket-books. There was a little Irish boy in Massachusetts who, not owning a cent, sold his only toy for five cents to add to the fund, and the six little infant-class scholars who raked leaves, and sold rags, and cleaned the door-yard and picked up old iron, to earn their share. I should like to put on record the poor boy in Chicago, who was intrusted during the fire with a box containing things of great value; and who was found on Tuesday night sitting on the box which he had buried in the lake-shore, faint, hungry, and scorched, after his watch of twenty-four hours, but true to his trust as a noble soldier. But it is pleasant to remember that upon one unfading record every deed of love and mercy is entered, and counted by the Master as done unto Him.