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O.W. Clapp, who lived south of the fire, tells of his important part in the first relief efforts. This is taken from a presentation Clapp made to the Borrowed Time Club of Oak Park in 1914.
The city then was without gas or water or street car communication. My activity then began and did not cease until the Relief and Aid Society succeeded me. My son, three years old, had been very sick for a long time. I had relieved my ever-faithful wife in caring for him nights. It became my privilege to retire before church services were over that Sunday evening, October 8th. I slept until day light Monday morning, October 9th. Looking backwards it seems to me it was well I did unwittingly prepare for the strenuous duty confronting me.
I soon learned of the great destruction and ordered my coachman to hitch up the carriage team in a lumber wagon, get as many empty barrels, tubs and kettles as possible and haul water for self, and neighbors. My wife soon secured candles enough for 10 to 15 days use, also some groceries early in the day, spending all her visible cash.
I then took my horse and buggy and drove to the burnt district about two and one half miles north, finding I could not go beyond Jackson Street I turned and crossed 12th Street and drove around the Saturday night's fire district to where I had been informed Board of Trade members had secured temporary quarters on Canal near Madison Street. There I learned Mayor R.B. Mason had located his temporary office in the Congregational Church corner West Washington and Ann Streets and desired President J.W. Preston of the Board of Trade to call at once. I took him there. The Major without ceremony said, "Mr. Preston, I want you to take these telegrams and see that the donations therein mentioned, and all others that may come, are promptly distributed to burnt out citizens". Mr. Preston insisted he could not do so, whereupon they both demanded that I accept the task, both knew me and that I was totally burned out of my business, thereupon, I accepted the distribution of charities from the unknown to the unknown of all merchandise that might arrive on the south side of the City.
Mayor Mason then clothed me with a lead pencil order on the back of an old envelope and a Policeman's star and a verbal order to act on my own responsibility and not bother him.
I proceeded to ask the views of those I thought my peers in this emergency and visited certain sections of the south side driving through parts of the burnt district north of Harrison on Clark and other North bound streets passing the Grand Pacific Hotel then partially built, finding the fetlocks of my very gentle horse were being singed I retreated south and succeeded in secure the use of Tobey and Booths packing house on the corner of 18th Street and the river for a distribution center to unload and transfer the charities by wagon or otherwise to the destitute burnt out people wherever I might find or locate them. I secured an experienced Railroad switchman and gave him the telegrams and instructions to have all cars loaded with donations, wherever from or found, to be switched to the Tobey and Booth Warehouse and begin at once. Feeling I had done a masterly afternoon's work I reached home early that evening to find my coachman ANGRY because a neighbor had been using the water he had hauled from the lake, for a Monday's washing. The wife was cheerful, the boy was better. I had invited three burnt out citizens to make our home their temporary home, which they did for several months.
Dinner over I sent a neighbor from an adjoining block to request everybody in his block to be on the watch for fires or thieves and to appoint one person to continually see that the block was nightly patrolled until gas and water were secured. I did the same in the block in which I lived. Many others followed the plan.
Next morning I found the Warehouse at 18th St. had been well cleaned and cleared for use, and that some cars would be there before noon. Then I went to the Plymouth Congregational Church, corner Wabash Ave. and Eldridge Court and found Rev. Wm. Alvin Bartlett at breakfast and applied to him for men in the basement of his church to go with me to the Warehouse and help unload cars and load wagons to be filled with the charities coming to stricken citizens. The Doctor at once went to the basement of his church, mounting a chair called for recruits to aid the distribution. About 20 men volunteered, the basement had over 100 foodless and bedless people in it.
Coming out we saw one of Farwells, and one of Fields big truck wagons. I ordered the driver to take these men on their trucks to the 18th St. warehouse, near the river. They rebelled, but soon repented being persuaded by the minister and men and my showing of a police star.
I give many details to enable you to comprehend a few of the conditions then prevailing; in a stricken city without water, food or gas. It was there, and then I learned the usefulness of church basements for hospital uses, whereupon I ordered signs to be put on all churches south of the burnt district pointing to the next church basement south for food, beds and clothing. Within a few days all church basements on the south side acted as hospitals, as well as the hospitals and many schoolhouses and private homes. At the end of that day, with the aid of but few men I know, or teamsters and wagons known to me, I had caused to be distributed about 10 cars of food, clothing and bedding, all of fine quality, coming from cities within a radius of 3 to 500 miles away, mostly by special trains and free freight charges. Fisk and Gould of Erie R.R. notoriety New York City dispatched a special train load of splendid food and bedding on Monday when our City was still on fire, as their gift. News had spread far and near that free food, bedding and clothes could be had at the 18th Street Warehouse. New York and other special trains began arriving Wednesday. It was then I began to find new cares, responsibilities and demands resting on me. Alderman, City Officials, Clergy, Priests and Citizens had rights to these charities and I must admit and deliver to each his wants.
Human nature appeared to me as never before. My position as to responsibility and duty as never before. Days passed, order soon began to appear out of Chaos and I soon found sleep a necessity. [There was] but one real charitable fault finder, an elite Clergyman who demanded better goods, because he had [a] high class of parishioners. Upon his request I had sent his church the last of the Warehouse supplies that Wednesday evening about 6 p.m. He wanted a better quality delivered. Being informed I had sent all I had in store he departed with bent head.
About October 22nd upon returning from the water works on the north side where I had been diligently and daily sending loads of bedding and food to keep the workmen there busy night and day repairing the waterworks, to provide the city with water. I was again confronted with a view of how things were going on at the Warehouse during my short absence. A wagon loaded with good stuff by order of General J.A. Hardie, Manager of the U.S. Warehouse Supplies in Chicago under General Sheridan was about to leave the Warehouse and I asked by what authority is this? General J.A. Hardie said he was in charge of Shaw's Warehouse across the street and had ordered the goods sent to his people. I at once countermanded his instructions, put a policeman on the load with the driver as usual and told them to take all the goods to the waterworks at once, which was done. Soon thereafter General Hardie accompanied with Lieutenant General P.H. Sheridan (my neighbor) drove up. Sheridan called me to the carriage and after a few words with the General they drove off and I continued in controlling affairs the Mayor had imposed upon me....
I issued fully 100 R.R. passes to people anxious to leave the City. These passes bore printed signatures of General P.H. Sheridan, R.B. Mason, Mayor and countersigned by me. Many bits of paper during these three weeks contained many names and eccentricities that would seem to be nice souvenirs these days, but many friends being anxious to have, this or that scrap containing the signature or views of some noted clergyman or office holder they have been given away save a very few signatures of John. H. Kinzie, General Sheridan, General Hardie, Murry Nelson and others.
The Relief and Aid Society during the latter part of October had secured some order out of their arduous task and commenced to bring order out of disorder, and requested me to remain with them indefinitely, I gave the officials to understand I could not stay longer than October 31st, but would at once arrange to turn over things visible, to them or to a successor appointed by them. They requested me to name the successor, which I did by appointing my old bookkeeper, Mr. E.P. Hall. He accepted and thereafter reported daily receipts and disbursements and expenses to the Relief and Aid Society receiving a salary.
Allow me to further say that during all those strenuous days nor since have I even been asked to report from whom those 500 or 600 carloads of charities came or where they were distributed. My individual orders on the chartered Relief and Aid Society were cashed for expenses incurred as soon as they were organized well enough to do so. They having secured hundreds of thousands of dollars the first week of the fire. Certainly, I must have made some mistake, but there was no time for correction. It is with great pleasure to treasure no ill will toward any fault finder; and have kind remembrances of encouragements from Reverend Robert Collyer, Reverend W.A. Bartlett, Bishop Charles Edward Cheeney, Doctor Lock and many others.