A.S. Chapman

A.S. Chapman wrote his "Boy's Recollections of the Chicago Fire" in 1910.

...I was seven years of age when the fire occurred. Scenes and incidents were what impressed themselves on my memory. The full force of the calamity I did not realize. On the Sunday when the fire started, we drove to Unity church in the morning to hear the Rev. Robert Collyer, who, I believe, once was a member of this Society. We drove into the teeth of a withering gale from the southwest. "If a fire should start, Chicago will burn up," said my father. I cannot say how many other men may have proved themselves good prophets by saying the same thing.

The next morning my mother wakened me in the early dawn to tell me that a great fire was raging in the city and that my father and two guests who were in the house were about to start to see it. We drove down to Clark street till we came to Chicago avenue. I shall not attempt to describe the fire. My remembrance is of a steadily and sullenly advancing wall of smoke shot with fire; of a burning church on Chicago avenue. The steeple was so hot that when it ignited at the base a pillar of flame shot upward to the top. I do not remember more till we returned home. Mother had not been idle. Rather she had been inspired. Going to the nearest grocery and meat-market she had bought all the provisions she could get. Forty people ate breakfast with us the next morning and blessed the foresight of my mother that they had enough to eat after being burned out of their homes. She had done more than lay in a supply of provisions. Helped by Miss Fanny Barber, a teacher in the Lincoln school who boarded with us, she had packed our Lares and Penates ready for a speedy retreat if it should be necessary.

My father at once had our man hitch the horses to a wagon we had, giving him the addresses of some friends and orders to go and offer them the use of the horses and wagon. The man got drunk. None of our friends ever saw him, nor did we again till the middle of the afternoon. Mother had him feed the horses; then she had the most valuable of our household effects loaded on the wagon and taken to the prairie. Among them were two bantam chickens and a family of kittens which I rescued from the barn. I am glad to record that chickens and kittens lived through their experience safely and lived to a ripe old age. Miss Barber went through with the goods to watch. There we remained till after midnight Monday morning.

The cows were gone from the prairie. In their place was a scene of indescribable chaos--piles of clothing and furniture--buggies, carts and wagons--people moving restlessly among them--mothers holding back their own tears to comfort their children--the contents of a thousand homes emptied on the raw prairie with the only thought of escape. There Miss Barber and I waited and watched the ring of fire draw nearer. We saw the gas tank over on the North Branch explode. Rain began to fall; then somebody came for us. The fire had stopped two blocks from our house on two sides. We left the goods on the prairie and went home. We found people sleeping the sleep of utter exhaustion in beds, on the floors, in any place where they happened to drop. I passed the remainder of the night in the barn on the hay.

Lincoln avenue was a direct outlet from the city to the open country. How can I describe the flood of stricken humanity which flowed along that street? Without thinking, it was possessed by one thought --on, onward--away from the burning city to the green country beyond. Nobody might stop to rest; he was pressed on by others as tired as himself. Men pulled buggies loaded with all they had on earth; women carried burdens larger than themselves; children pushed baby carriages containing the little saved from their homes. On they went to Fullerton avenue to scatter over the prairie--to drop in their tracks and wait for they knew not what.

It's all a blank to me from the morning after the fire till the ruins had cooled downtown sufficiently for men to begin to hunt for their safes. My father had an office in Randolph street, just east of Clark. Safe-breaking was a popular industry for a few days, conducted with the full approval and in the presence of safe-owners by skilled men who sprung into sudden demand. My mind yields another picture. Along Randolph street safes have been dragged into the street. Men grimed with soot and ashes work like fiends with sledge hammers and steel wedges. It must have been the practice to keep money in safes. Money--money; everybody looking for money in safes. I see men and women standing round a safe as its door is forced open. The air rushes in and I see their hopes turned to ashes as rolls of bills crumble at its touch. The books in my father's safe escaped with no more than a scorching.

Next I am with my father hauling relief supplies from some point on the Northwestern near the North Branch to the Methodist church at Grant Place and Larrabee street. It was a time when people over all the world forgot their own troubles in responding to Chicago's cry of distress. After the answer to the first call for food and clothing came comforts and luxuries. Even the children were remembered. As my share of Christmas gifts sent to the children of Chicago I received some toys from Paris.

The rails of the horsecar line in North Clark street were curled into great bows. After dark the streets were illuminated for months by the light of fires where people had hard coal stored in their basements. When on the first anniversary of the fire some of the Unity church people visited the ruins of their home, the men of the party lighted their cigars at the coal pile which was still burning.

The people of Unity church have a large part in my recollections of the fire and the winter following. Many of them moved to our neighborhood, including Mr. Collyer, the minister. His first services after the fire were held in the parlors of Mr. William C. Dow's house on Orchard street, near Belden avenue. Mr. Dow, too, was a member of the Historical Society, I believe. Mr. Collyer's son Sam had bought a lot on Orchard street from my father and built a cottage the summer before. The date for his wedding with Miss Rebecca Moore, of Odell, Ill., had been set for a day or two after the fire. They were to have been married at the home of friends of the bride, whose house was burned. A change in their plans was necessary. All of the bride's trousseau had gone with the house, but she had stored some of her clothes in a trunk in the cottage, among which was a calico dress. She was married in the calico dress at the home of a friend on the West Side. My father brought the bridal couple to their home in his carriage, and they began housekeeping in their cottage at once. Mrs. Collyer lived but a short time. The last I heard of Sam Collyer, he was in Seattle.

The Unity church people were thrown in so closely the winter after the fire that it was very active in a social way. One of these activities was a class taught by a one-eyed dancing master named Fitzgerald in the parlors of the members' houses. None of our houses had reception rooms in those days. I even fear that our homes may have been furnished in a fashion which the exacting critics of the present would view with horror. Social life was along simple lines. Most of the women did their own housework and the men who kept horses took care of them themselves. I don't remember a man who wore an evening suit, though I recall that Sam Collyer's high collars were an inspiring spectacle to me. Our social gatherings were free from formality; characterized by a hospitality and friendliness which is pleasant to remember. And the few Unity church people whom I meet occasionally are just as hearty and friendly as they were forty years ago. Perhaps it was a lesson they learned from the great-hearted man whose preaching they heard.