“The Year After the Fire,” by J. B. T. Marsh (from The Little Corporal; November 1872; pp. 172-176)
“Ting-a-ling-ling,” went my door-bell about 3 o’clock one morning a year ago. Now, I am not a doctor, with people coming to me at all hours of the night for pellets or paregoric, and it was the first time my door-bell had ever waked me at three o’clock in the morning. What was the matter? I wondered as I tumbled out of bed, and “What is it?” I asked, as I stood with my ear turned towards the key-hole.
“The city is burning up, and I thought you might like to know it,” was the answer from a voice I recognized as a neighbor’s. He spoke in a very quiet, steady tone, I remember, for one whose business blocks, worth a couple of hundred thousand dollars or so were being destroyed almost at that very hour. And so, while we had been snugly sleeping during that windy Sunday night, the fire had already been for five hours eating up the very heart of the great city only five miles away. We hurried on our clothes, my brother and I, and started down town as fast as our feet could carry us. The sky in the north was red and angry with the glare of flames and the rising, rolling clouds of smoke. Out of side streets and houses along the way came others who had just been waked up with the dreadful news, and soon there was one continuous procession hurrying along the sidewalks. Half way down town we began to meet those who were fleeing from the fire, like the runaways and wounded men pushing to the rear in a great battle. First and fastest came the thieves who had been pillaging the burning stores—ugly-eyed men staggering under great rolls of carpeting: old hags with their backs piled with ready-made clothing; children, who had been brought up to crime, bearing away whatever they had been able to lay hands on; and even decent, honest looking folks, who must have been new to such shameful work, lugging off for their own use the property they should have saved for its owners. People who had been able to hire some sort of a team were hurrying to a
place of safety with such goods as they could snatch from their burning shops or homes, some on hacks packed with bedding, some on drays piled high with book-cases and pianos, some in carriages saving a few home treasures, some paying exorbitant drivers a hundred dollars an hour that they might save a little, rather than lose all. Along the street were piles of household stuff, dropped there while the father went back for more, or because he could not pay for moving them further, and watched over by heavy-hearted mothers and half-dressed, scared and sobbing children. The families living in the fine houses on the avenues crowded out upon their steps and watched the progress of the fire far down the street, dreading lest the wind might turn about and bring its fury upon them. Before noon many of them, too, were homeless. While we were yet several squares away we could see the billows of flame rolling up above the tops of the buildings and beating down the brick business blocks as if they were play-houses of chips piled up by children. Already Lombard Block, in which were the pleasant rooms of the Little Corporal and that other office just over them, from which we had hoped to save some books and papers that were worth their weight in gold, was a smoking pile of ruins. With nothing else to do, we joined the great, surging crowd of lookers-on, and watched the roaring, crackling, resistless sea of fire as it moved forward. Watched it till we were too tired and too sick at heart to look at it any longer and went home again. But all day long it kept at its dreadful work—flinging its flaming brands across whole squares at once, sometimes penning up the fleeing people in the street, with fire before and behind them, and suffocating them on the spot; swallowing block after block and mile after mile of stores, factories, depots, school houses, churches, dwellings, till it had made over one hundred thousand people homeless, and destroyed over two hundred million dollars’ worth of property. I know my little reader who would feel immensely rich with a whole dollar of his own in his pocket, will try in vain to realize what a vast sum is two hundred million dollars! A minute passes very quickly, but two hundred million minutes make over three hundred and eighty years; and that great fire burned up one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars’ worth of property every minute all day long! One may try to realize, too, how he would feel if his home should suddenly burn up with all its contents—the piano, the closets full of clothing, the books, the keepsakes of friends, the treasured playthings and the little shoes that belonged to the baby sister gone to heaven; but no one can appreciate the greatness of the calamity that destroyed the homes of a hundred thousand people in a single city and in a single day.
I have no room to tell of the sufferings, the anxiety, and the excitement of the week that followed—how invalids died and babies were born out on the open prairie; how the bank vaults, standing up in the ruins of the burnt district, were guarded day and night, lest they might be robbed of their treasures; how the citizens, armed with their revolvers, patroled every street and alley by night, for fear that other fires might be kindled by incendiaries; how everybody drew a long breath of relief when the blue coats and bayonets of the soldiers made their appearance; how the daily papers, when they first came out again, but little larger than the leaf of an atlas, sold for twenty-five and even fifty cents apiece; how water was so difficult to get that it was peddled from house to house without any milk in it; how dreary the miles of ruins in the burnt district looked, and how cheerless the future seemed.
But the work to be done was too great for the people to sit down and groan over it. Winter would soon be at hand, and food, and shelter, and clothing must be procured for the thousands who had lost everything[.] Besides this, millions of people in the states around were depending on the merchants of Chicago to buy their corn, and wheat, and chickens, and sell them
their winter supplies of clothing, coffee and Christmas presents. To give the homeless ones temporary shelter, the churches and school houses that had not been burned were thrown open, and committees went around in wagons, begging mattresses and bedding for them to sleep upon. Those whose homes had escaped were too thankful not to give all that they could spare for the sufferers. And, while the fire was still burning, long trains of cars began to arrive from the nearest towns and cities, loaded with bread and meat and blankets. The whole world reached out its helping hands to Chicago. The traffic of the great railways “turned out” for the express trains loaded with supplies that came speeding from the east at the rate of forty miles an hour. The sewing circles met and worked in the old war-times way. The children gave their pennies, and the rich men their thousands. The Atlantic cable quivered with the promises of help from London, Paris, Berlin, and the cities of far-off China. As the world had never seen such a catastrophe, so it had never seen such generosity before. At first, as was unavoidable, the food and clothing was given out to all who asked for it. It was better that some of it should be wasted on people who did not deserve it, than that any who did should suffer for lack of it. But in a few days order was brought out of confusion, and for weeks and months some of our best business men, whose time was worth thousands of dollars, under such circumstances, to themselves, gave all of it without pay to the relief work. Regular rations, composed of meat, flour, potatoes, tea or coffee, sugar, rice, soap, and dried apples, were issued every week to all who were unable to provide for themselves. It was not very “high living,” but, better than our soldiers got during the war, and better than many a poor family had been accustomed to before the fire. Everything was good, and there was enough of it, if people were not wasteful and did not try to board big dogs. Little folks are not supposed to know much about such things, but the fathers and mothers who pay the butcher and the grocer for what a family of hungry little folks eat, will agree that it was very wonderful that the Relief Society were able to procure such a ration for a family of five at a cost of only $1.98 a week. That no one might draw rations who was able to work and support himself, every family asking for food was visited, and whenever any were found who could work but would n’t, their supplies were promptly cut off.
Of the 100,000 people who were burned out of their homes, many, of course, were able to secure others without asking help from the relief fund. But it was found necessary for the “shelter committee” of the Relief Society to provide places to live for nearly 10,000 families. For these, one-story houses were built, usually twenty feet by sixteen in size, with two rooms and three windows, and lined on the inside with building paper instead of being plastered. Each house was furnished with a cooking stove and its utensils, a table and sufficient crockery, a bedstead or two and bedding, and some chairs, pails, wash tubs, etc. I need not say that this was not a very elegant mansion, but in it a family of four or five could be tucked away very comfortably, and with the society’s marvelous knack for economy, each house, with its furniture, cost only $125. But food and shelter was not all that was wanted. Of other committees, one issued regular supplies of coal, using nearly 200,000 tons during the winter; another provided medical attendance for the sick, and under its supervision over 60,000 persons were vaccinated, to prevent the spread of the small pox; another dealt out clothing as it was needed, and enough was needed during that bitterly cold winter to cost, at the lowest wholesale rates, over $800,000. Besides such supplies as these, over 2,100 mechanics were fitted out with the tools they needed in order to get work at their trades, and over 6,000 sewing machines were furnished, at reduced rates or for nothing, to poor women who could thus earn their
living, instead of being dependent on the society. How much good the relief fund did its givers can never begin to know. The contributions received by the Relief Society reached the noble sum of five and a half million dollars, and it is estimated that one and a half million more were sent through other societies and private individuals to the sufferers by the fire. Seven million dollars to help her in her calamity—Chicago will not soon forget such generous sympathy! Nor must I forget to mention the plan so happily formed and so happily carried out by some good friends in New England to give the children of Chicago a “merry Christmas” last winter. Their big boxes, packed with dolls, and skates, and pocket-knives, and toys of all sorts, were large enough to supply every burnt-out Sunday-school in the city with a well-loaded Christmas tree, and no Christmas tree in the land could have given more pleasure, I do believe.
The work of relief will always be remembered, I think, as one of the two wonderful features of The Year After the Fire. The other has been the work of rebuilding the burnt district. As I said before, though the business part of the city was almost entirely destroyed, the business had to go right on. The farmers of Iowa must have a market for their wheat, and the children of Michigan for their dried apples; Minnesota could not go without its groceries, nor Montana without its mining supplies; school desks were wanted in California, and dry goods in Indiana; and the whole country looked this way for its Pullman sleeping cars and its Little Corporal! So, while the bricks in the ruins were still hissing hot, shanties began to go up, in which to do business until better buildings could be erected. A row of them a mile long, and some of them nearly two hundred feet deep, were put up side by side in Lake Park. Ruined churches, whose walls were partly standing, were boarded over and used as stores. The occupants of the fine residences on the avenues, outside of the burnt district, moved up stairs and turned their parlors and dining-rooms into book-stores, banking offices, and business establishments of all sorts. Wabash avenue, with its house fronts painted over with signs, and its basements built out to the sidewalks, still looks, for a mile, as if it were acting charades! But while Chicago was doing business in shanties, and stables, and dwelling houses with one hand, it was hard at work with the other rebuilding the burnt district. An army of shovelers and an army train of teams were set to work cleaning up the ruins. The broken bricks and the rubbish were carted off and dumped into the lake, making a mile of solid ground where the railway tracks had heretofore crept into the depot over piling. The good brick were cleaned and laid aside to be used in the new buildings. Cold weather soon came on, and cutting cold it was. But if the work slacked a little it did not stop. The carpenters kept at it in mufflers and mittens. The bricklayers swarmed on the rising walls, each man with a little fire on the scaffold to warm his brick and trowel, so that the mortar should “set” a little before it froze. Many great blocks, four, five, and six stories high were finished and occupied before spring. But it was when warm weather set in that the lively work began! Vessels and railway trains hurried in day and night with their loads of brick, and stone, and iron, and glass, and lumber. Workmen flocked here from all parts of the country. It was hard to get through the streets on account of the loaded teams, the heaps of sand, the piles of lumber, the mortar beds, the workmen dodging everywhere, and the swaying derricks lifting the heavy iron columns or the huge blocks of stone into their places. The walls of one of the great elevators rose, it is said, at the rate of a foot an hour. And though it sounds like a large story, it is a fact that, since spring opened, enough new stone or brick buildings have been put up to average one twenty-five feet in front and four stories high for each working hour of every working day. A city would certainly need Aladdin’s lamp to put up houses any
faster! Already much over half of the old business district has been rebuilt, and so much larger and higher are the new buildings than those which they replace, that here is really more room in those already put up than in all that were destroyed. No one who saw the great business blocks falling in windrows before the fire a year ago, could have dreamed of such a rapid rebuilding. Here is the Sherman House, in size 161 by 181 feet, and seven stories high, and costing $650,000, and the Pacific Hotel, covering a whole square 186 by 322 feet, six stories high, and costing $1,500,000—both of stone, and both already rebuilt to the roof. Here is the Palmer House, 248 by 254 feet built as fire-proof as iron and brick and stone can make it, which is to cost the bewildering sum of $2,500,000, and is so soon about half completed. Here is the Michigan Southern Depot, 172 by 600 feet, of substantial iron and stone, almost finished, which will contain three-quarters of a mile of track, and will cost a round million dollars. Here is the Chamber of Commerce, looking as solid as the hills and almost as handsome, which cost $320,000, and is again noisy with business. Here is the vast business block of J. V. Farwell & Co., of which if you should go only once round each salesroom, you would make a trip of a mile and a half. And everywhere are to be seen business blocks with fronts as elegant as plate glass and carved stone can make them, costing all the way from $50,000 to $250,000 each. Madison street, for instance, in the distance of about half a mile, has no less than seventeen buildings, each of which cost $100,000 or more. In the business district alone, the buildings erected or under way cost about forty million dollars, and, set side by side, would reach in an unbroken row just ten miles! One wonders where all the money came from to build them, but while the fire turned up about $200,000,000 worth of property, there was still considerable left. In addition to that, about $40,000,000 of insurance has been received, and a great deal more money has been borrowed in other cities and in Europe.
But my story must stop somewhere, and must stop far short, any how, of a full description of all that has been done in this busy, wonderful first year after the fire. It has been good to live here, and feel the pulse of such stirring life, and those who came from far and near to see the ruins of Chicago after the fire, would be still better repaid to come this fall and see the wonders of its resurrection.