Cassius Milton Wicker

Cassius Milton Wicker, who lived in the South Division and worked for the Chicago and Northwestern Railway, sent this letter to his family in North Ferrisburgh, Vermont, on October 15, 1871.

Dear Home,

Am sorry that I have neglected you so long but I have not had the time to write a word since my Sunday letter which you did not receive, and the short lead pencil note of Tuesday A.M. Am not certain whether I telegraphed you that day or not, I hope so for you have undoubtedly been anxious to hear from all your acquaintances in this doomed city.

Not until yesterday was I enabled to get at pen and ink save at Mrs. Bickford's, when I did get home it was to eat and go to sleep. I was so exhausted with work on my feet all day and patrolling half the night.

With the close of the fire, or rather conflagration, our troubles have not closed. Roughs and thieves from all parts of the country flocked here for plunder. Many fires have been started, but in most cases the party caught in the act has been shot on the spot. Their hopes were to burst open the safes, of which there are thousands through the burned district, but Gen. Sheridan promulgated a Death Proclamation to everybody found on the burnt district after dark. Thinking Milwaukee would be off their guard, many started for that city and we put them off the train when, for the sake of plunder, they attempted to throw a train off the track, but so far without success. Every block in the city is guarded strongly by the citizens. As an instance of our quiet times, Wednesday night while on watch between 8 & 2, I heard but 19 shots fired. Many, I hope, were false alarms, but it shows what little mercy is shown.

Evidently roughs do not like their treatment. The largest slaughter was by Catholic priests guarding a church, when seven men went under the wing and attempted to start a fire and were all shot. They had just failed in their attempt to set the front steps of a row of dwellings on fire. So it goes, but better now. Friday night while I was on watch between 12 & 2, the long looked-for rain commenced--fine at first, but at last pouring right down as I thought it never could again, all day yesterday and during the night until a fearful wind came up and drove the clouds away and dried up much good effects of the rain, but now that the long span of [drought] is ended I hope we may not suffer more. Yet our city is far from being out of danger for we have but little water on the West Side gas on the South Side and there is no North Side--beautiful North Side all destroyed in a night. Mother will remember the wide beautiful streets, grand lawns and tall trees, but all has gone.

One is unable to form any idea of where he is--lost among the streets that contain not a house for miles. They being all dwellings [that] were leveled down to the ground in the intense heat, and do not present the solid stone and brick walls that are seen on the South Side, turning their broken faces up to heaven--fit only for owls and bats.

The Post Office, Tribune, Chamber of Commerce, Safety Deposits, Union Depot and many other buildings, just as fireproof as they could be made, all crumbled to the ground. Even buildings that were lathed with fire doors and sash of same were driven to the ground with the intense heat. The old part of the Court House, being built of sandstone stood long and well against the flames, but the wooden cupola was too much for it as I passed it on the north last Sunday night about 2 o'clock, the flames were leaping the street from the Chamber of Commerce, and in a moment had gone from it, over my head, to the Sherman House. It was frightful.

After writing you, Henry, Gusta and Drake and sending the letters down for the early morning post, I looked out of my south window at the West Side fire and saw the Court House dome stand proudly between me and the bright south-west sky. Went to bed but not to sleep. Wind was blowing a gale and I trembled for our Wisconsin Division Depots, where mother took the cars for Lyons, and three Freight Depots just above. The fire bells were pealing constantly. In a few moments I went up into the cupola of the hotel, all thought it a very large fire, but would soon reach the district burned the day before and must stop. Back to my room and back to the cupola again, could not sleep. Dressed thoroughly and went downstairs, handed my watch to the clerk and said I could not sleep and was going to the fire. Was on the West Side about an hour. In the meantime the sparks were blowing high in the air, and going over all the way north over Lincoln Park like huge meteors. The fire on the West Side was fast burning to a point where it must stop--on the grounds burned over the night previous, when all at once the South Side caught, near or at the Gas Works.

I would have gone over then--had just seen the C & N Freight houses burn--but wanted the gas works to blow up before I went among the high stone buildings of the South Side. In less than half and hour I went over, after the explosion, and the whole [?] portion of the South Side seemed to be on fire--all west of Dearborn. The burning shingle[s], pieces of lumber, paper roofing and every conceivable thing came rushing down through the air like snow, all was smoke and sparks and the wind would gather them up again building in huge winnows for coals. Tops of all the buildings as well as the street were all a blaze. Chamber of Commerce and cupola of the C & N were a blaze, and flying embers and sheets of flame were born against the Skinner house, and falling would break into a thousand pieces, only to be born again into some basement, or further down the street by the perfect hurricane of a wind.

I made my way to the Tremont and what a sight. The house was full, not only of its own people but those that flocked there from points south. I cannot describe the scene. It was every person for himself and the fire-fiend [?] take the hindermost. My trunk was soon filled with the most valuable portion of my clothing, etc. and my hand bag packed for a camping out expedition, but all was done quickly and I assure you that I disposed of many an old garment, book and trinket that under other circumstances should not have [been] deserted in their old age. The bottle of brandy that had not been opened since Mamie Bickford was sick... was found while emptying my trunk of worthless trash and safely placed in the bag and it did good service the balance of that night and forenoon at Dick's, and many a stranger took courage from it.

After helping my halls chamber girl down, and many an other trunk before I could get my own down, I reached the street and started east as the heaviest portion of the fire was not [yet there?]; already the Western [?] of the [?] was burning and every body knew the town was doomed to destruction. Down to State Street, hailing every man or team for assistance, but all had...theirs to save. Dragging the trunks a block I would set down on it, only to be run over by others equally as anxious as I to get away from the devouring element. Would have given $10 for a rope five feet long--I never knew the value of such a rope until my back was nearly broken and hands so tired I could no longer stir the trunk. At last I came to a light wagon with a horse and obtained the assistance of a one-handed man to put the trunk into it, but the owner, or a man stronger than I claimed it. But my one-handed man would work for money and away we went, quite bravely until I could no longer lift my end.

We rested more than we walked. Soon I could not stir my end and had a handkerchief through the handle and around my arm. This worked well until within a block of Dick's when both gave out entirely. Soon an Englishman, fleeing from the wrath, a large U.S. Express [?] wagon, himself as motive power, with a few household goods and a sick wife came slowly along. I saw he was about exhausted and could not hold out much longer, so speedily compromised with him--adding our two loads together as well as our united strength, and the way we did the jackass business for about a half mile past Dick's was a caution. Then we halted in Dearborn Park sand hills and I went back to find Dick's people--all curiosity, but not for a moment thinking they would run out-- though their trunks were packed.

Charlie and I went down town again, just in time to see Crosby's Opera House commence burning. Thomas Orchestral Troup were to perform this week and Mr. Wheeler and myself were going Tuesday evening.

We found Dick's store all right. Took some books and papers and carried them to the house. I found my English friends somewhat uneasy at the count of the crowds of people as the fire approached, so we moved up further and an hour later, still further. Upon my return from down town the second time, the fire had passed round to the east of the Potter Palmer's House and I saw no hopes of Dick's. That house had broken the east side of the fire, would for some time, but continued to do so no longer. The magnificent painting 16 by 32 feet of the Baron of Gillingsbury [?] just behind the hotel was burned about this time. Hurrying to Dick's after seeing church after church, stone block after block blown up in vain endeavor to save what remained and after seeing the flames come from Dick's store, Pullman Palace Car Co. Building, and the Union Depot, we had just time to kick the fine pictures from their frames, load two wagons and be off up the avenue amid fire engines, everybody's last team and crowds of departing homeless people. Not until the flames came into the dining room and leaped over the roof did we leave the house. Never did I work as hard as for the last team--never did I see the avenue so full, to say nothing of crazy people. Never did I see such a wind carrying flames across the broad avenue.

At [number]19, Mr., and Mrs. Derby's, we found rest and a chance to wash the accumulation of dust from perspiring, but burned faces. The bottle of brandy was gone. We were asked to eat but had no appetite, save for two cups of hot tea.

Then down town again for my own trunk--1 o'clock Sunday--met Sam Turner of the hotel--he was as black as I--had saved but one trunk. Where was my watch? He had thrown it into the safe--saw Frank [?] at her boarding house. She had packed the day before -- I told her if she was ready to go--to go at once, first train that went out of town and make room for others and, besides, notwithstanding, they were safe now, there was no telling when the fire would end.

I suppose they went to [?] that night. He is soon to be agent at that point. Went down to the fire line which reached three churches south of Dick's--5 streets--all gone from there north to Lincoln Park and west to the river. It's fearful. All down through Lake Park people were strung out on their few things saved, many of them fast asleep with the sand blowing over them. Was I sick? No,--I had been. When I was on the West Side I assure you I was sick--hadn't hardly strength to get back over the river until I went to work, then was well enough.

All day long, part of the night before and in many cases, Monday night, hundreds and thousands of people lay out on the sand in the wind strong enough to blow a chair left alone clear across the park. The air was so full of dust and sand that it was impossible to see the fire, and there, utterly exhausted, lay the lowly and the proud. On my return I saw a suspicious wagon on 16th street which turned out to be the one I wanted--but all asleep under the wagon. I found the trunk and bag all right, and took them to Mrs. Bickford's and asked them to keep a wanderer.

Dick's people slept on the floor that night. Home and business gone and slept soundly, I presume. That night I went to our 16th Street Station to find out how far west the fire had gone. Then, for the first time, I learned our Wells Street Depot, Palmer Freight Depot, and three Elevators had gone, but all our Depots (3) on the West Side were safe.

Wheeler saw it coming but did not think the hotel would go, packed two trunks and got them onto the Wells Street Depots with Mrs. W., but soon saw that they too must go and by good luck got a team to carry them onto the West Side to friends. All their pictures and books are gone--saved six dresses for Mrs. W. but not a change for Mr. W.

Ed Stone saved his trunk--think his safe is all right and his bank is said to be good. Story's business gone but I think they lived in the West Division. Gross['s] shingle is out, showing that he is alive. Have not see or heard of Lewis. Mrs. Bickford went to New York Tuesday but returned today. Henry Reeds drug [?] house is gone but his home is all right. The Sherwoods are all right, as also Hanallys [?]

What destruction--73 churches and whatever not burned are full of homeless people, as also the school buildings. 5 theaters, 15 hotels, almost all we have of Elevators. We lost 3 out of our seven--one passenger and one freight depot out of two passenger and four freight. So we are better off then C & W, Ill. Central, Mich. Central which lost all their freight and passenger depots. In offices--our [?] all gone. Some of the North Side boys came to the Gen. Freight and Central Office and loaded seven cars with Dick's books, papers, etc. from their offices. The two Division Supt. Officers and our accounting department, but saved only our Book of Tariffs and Special Rate Books. Not a paper or letter books, but put them all in the vault which proved to be worthless. The Gen. Supt., Sec.Treas./Engineers, Etc. Offices are burned save the vaults which are all right, save that of the Engineers. Every thing has been on wheels all week. No offices, had to go from one to the other of the freight offices, over two miles away, as telegraph lines all down. Yesterday we got four rooms washed out and undertook to move in -- the excitement was too much for Mr. W. and he went home sick. Think of undertaking to set 15 to 18 clerks to work with no desks, paper, ink or pens, to say nothing of papers all gone. My new desk, the old gold watch, my letter book, all gone--gone.

Everything will date from the great fire now. Our suffering on the South Side is nothing compared with the three [?] miles of North Side--the homeless 100,000 people, driven to the sand and into the Lake to escape the fire, or to Lincoln Park.

Mother will remember Mr. Dunlap's house--all full of magnificent paintings, to say nothing of 13 large trunks just from Europe--all gone save the pictures of Mr. D's dead wife.

A lady now at Mrs. Bickford's lost many a fine picture one valued $5000. Of the thousands of safes taken from the fire about half are worthless, of the remaining not yet taken from the fire not one in ten will be good. Our safe was taken out Wednesday and found very fair. I had bonds and notes to about $5000. which will be all right, do not require duplicating.

Monday morning. Have got a desk for all but five of the clerks. Did you get my telegram? Letter from Gusta today. She spent one sleepless night--just like her. Sure I did not intend any such thing. Henry sent me a pair of shoes and the Windhams [?] furnished a bowl, Flour and Butter for Mrs. Bickford, so we yet live.... As an idea of the intense heat--I saw car wheels melted. How could iron safes stand it!

There is no forming an idea of my loss. Got my watch Saturday. It was taken out of the Hotel Safe with the books and carried to Mr. Drake's home. The safe proved to be worthless and I supposed until Friday that the watch was gone. Bonds all right. Heaviest loss is the depreciation of the acres of land south of the city belonging to [?] and I. I may consider to put up cheap homes to rent.

I doubt your ability or desire to read all this letter for much of it was written while people were talking in the parlor--we talk of nothing but the fire and individual incidents.

Address as usual. Love to all. Yours truly, 

C.M. Wicker