Clarence Burley

Clarence Augustus Burley was a young man at the time of the fire, living with his family in the heart of the North Division's Old Settler neighborhood. He later served as President of the Chicago Historical Society. This excerpt is from "The Clarence Augustus Burley Family Record."

In 1870 my father bought of Joseph Stockton a house on the northwest corner of the intersection of North Dearborn and Chestnut Streets. This was a two-story and attic frame house on a brick foundation. There was a stable back of the house. We lived there until driven out by the great fire in October, 1871. To the North of us lived Mr. and Mrs. Voluntine C. Turner in a two-story frame house facing South on Washington Park and well to the West side of his lot, so that the North windows of our house had a view across his place and Washington Park to the house of Mahlon D. Ogden, and up Dearborn Street. Washington Park as I remember was merely an open square, covered with rank, coarse grass and surrounded, as I first remember, by a high picket fence with openings at the corners. Later the fence was taken away, but I do not remember that there was any attempt at improvement, except mowing the grass occasionally. West of this park on the square bounded by Clark, La Salle, Chestnut and Locust Streets was the handsome place and residence of Mr. and Mrs. E.B. McCagg. (She was the sister of William B. Ogden and Mahlon D. Ogden, and was the widow of William E. Jones when she married E.B. McCagg.) North of Locust Street, occupying the Southeast corner of the block, was the place and dwelling of Felix J. Canda...

Sunday morning, Oct. 8, 1871, I was much interested to pick up large cinders about our house, some of them apparently whole shingles turned to charcoal. We learned then from various sources of the great fire that had occurred the night before and had been put out with so much difficulty. It was a wonder that these huge cinders had come so far, over two miles, and that they had not started other fires. The wind had been from the Southwest for a long time, there had been no rain, and everything was as tinder. Sunday was as dry as before, with the same wind and quite warm.

My father at the time was duck shooting on one of the Wisconsin lakes. The household consisted of Mrs. Burley, her sister Mrs. Eli Whitney from New Haven, who had arrived for a visit on Saturday, two maids, a man who slept in the stable in the rear of the house and took care of our horses, etc. On Sunday evening we had as guests for tea Mr. Vanderpool of New York, who had come West to hunt and was staying at the Tremont House.

My room in the second story had one window to the North. Just after getting to bed, after my light was out and the shade raised, I saw falling past my window a flaming cinder--it seemed like part of a burning shingle. I went at once to the attic where there was a South window and from there saw that a tremendous fire was raging, and though most of the cinders were falling to the east of us, many were coming our way. I at once roused the rest of the house, then called the man and had him get out the garden hose and began wetting down everything that could be reached.

I did not notice at what time this was, but think it was after eleven o'clock. I then started walking South on Clark Street. As I reached Chicago Avenue, the great fire bell on the Court House began to toll. I learned later that the watchman in the bell tower started the apparatus for ringing the bell as he left his post and the bell kept on ringing in strokes about one second apart until it fell. As I reached Kinzie Street I saw that flames were leaping across Clark Street some blocks South of the river. Many people were coming across the bridge. I thought the tunnel would be a better way to get to the other side. I found the foot passage of the tunnel full of people, with bundles and trunks of belongings, and just as I reached the entrance the gas went out. I then went East on Kinzie Street to State Street and crossed the bridge. I stopped a few moments at Burley & Tyrrell's crockery store between State Street and Wabash Avenue, then No. 48 Lake Street (There I saw my Uncle Mr. Tyrrell)..., and then coming back to State Street and looking North saw the light of a fire North of the bridge, and started North on a run. At the corner of Randolph Street was a fire engine standing idly without hose or any appliances for fire fighting, and as I passed a plank about six feet long, all on fire, whirled over and dropped beside it. Huge cinders of like kind were dropping all about and I did not consider it wise to wait. Upon reaching the bridge I found it on fire in many places, but passable and ran over it. The fire I had seen to the North proved to be freight shed of the C. & N.W.R.R. on the East side of the Viaduct. It was burning so furiously that it could not be passed, and I went down a stairway at the north end of the bridge to the dock and along that to Dearborn Street.

At that time my father was Superintendent of Lincoln Park, and the Park Commission had offices in the building at the corner of Clark and Michigan Streets, and I was occupied there as a sort of clerk without pay. I went there, opened the safe and took out a few papers which I regarded as most valuable and what little money there was, closed it again and started for home. I omitted to take out one note for $15,000. The safe was opened after the fire and the note and other contents found intact, except that everything was turned to a rich coffee brown, but all writing quite legible.

At home I found every one dressed and that there was some alarm about me. Also there was Mr. Vanderpool with a handbag and his hunting dog. He and all other guests had been told to leave the Tremont House and he came to our house, knowing no other place to go.

On my advice Mrs. Burley, Mrs. Whitney, Mr. Vanderpool and the man with the horses and carriage, with the silver and such articles as could be carried, went to Lincoln Park. I remained to see what became of the house.

About half an hour afterwards the man came back with the horses and carriage; followed by five or six park dirt wagons each with three or four Swedes in it. Mrs. Burley had gone to the house of the Park gardener, Mr. Benson, (where the Academy of Science now stands), and when he found our house was likely to burn he sent these wagons down to save whatever could be taken away. I did not know that things could be so expeditiously moved. It could not have been more than fifteen minutes after their arrival before everything on the first floor of the house, furniture, carpets, books and ornaments, were in those wagons and started for the park. It did not then occur to me that the beds, linen and clothing on the upper floor would be more useful. The man filled the carriage with various things, all the clothing in my room among other things, tied up in blankets. I did not go back with the wagons and carriage, but as the fire drew near the house went to Washington Park to see the last of it. I took with me my shotgun loaded with some heavy duck shot and a few extra cartridges in my pocket.

Shortly after, while waiting in the park, Mr. and Mrs. Turner came out of their house with some small hand bags, locked the front door and walked away. The fire by this time had gone well North on State Street and was working back on the East side of Dearborn Street. Soon the New England Church and Unity Church were blazing and the roofs fell inward, yet the brick house of Mr. William Bradley between the two on the corner of Dearborn Street and Delaware Place was untouched. Presently a large cinder lodged in the cornice of a wooden bay window and the house was quickly gone. A dipper full of water or a shovel of sand would have quenched that cinder.

There were many people, mostly men standing in the park and among them one policeman. Some of the men spoke to him pointing to the Turner house, and he nodded, whereupon they broke in the front window and brought out and piled in the park furniture, pictures, carpets, everything, and piled the articles up near the middle of the park. Many of these things were afterwards found scattered about in houses on the West Side and were recovered by Mr. Turner.

Our house took fire about this time, very quickly burned, and was completely gone by about seven o'clock. There was nothing that I could do there so I walked up to Lincoln Park going up Clark Street, as Dearborn Street, all on fire on the East Ride, was too hot. When I left Washington Park, both sides of Clark Street North of Chestnut Street was untouched. Clark Street was full of fugitives, everyone carrying something or dragging it behind them. Horses and wagons were very scarce, and enormous prices were paid for their use. Bundles tied up in sheets or blankets, trunks, handbags, clothing carried on the arm. I remember one man with a pillow on which an ordinary kerosene lamp was carefully laid.

The park was full of refugees, with all the things they had managed to save. I found my family in the midst of them near the park gardener's house.

Speculation was rife as to where the fire would stop, and the general opinion seemed to be that it was going to sweep North indefinitely, that even the park full of dried leaves blowing before the wind would be burned over. Having our horses and carriage, we could go on, and at the suggestion of Mr. Benson we started for the Northwest side to the house of Mr. Nelson, his partner, and the wagons with our furniture were sent over there except the books. These were taken up just North of Fullerton Avenue. A pit was dug in the sand, our parlor carpet put into it the books on that, then the ends of the carpet folded over and the whole covered with sand.

I do not remember just where Mr. Nelson's house was nor how we went to get there. We followed the wagons and I took no notice of the way. It was out where the houses were few and scattered and there were open fields. We must have reached there about one or two o'clock.

We found the Nelson house full of refugees, all Swedes or Norwegians. There was no water to be had.

Various plans were discussed as to where we should go. We did not know how far the fire had burned on the South Side, nor on the West, nor whether our relatives there were any better off than we were. I suggested that we drive out to the hotel at Riverside, and that plan was thought best.

We left the man to look after the furniture which had been put on a field nearby, and we started about five or six o'clock. Mrs. Burley and Mrs. Whitney with the dog Gyp inside and Mr. Vanderpool, his dog and myself outside with such things, etc., as could be stowed away.

What streets we took going South I do not know until we got to Lake Street near Sangamon. We had relatives, the Thompson and Gale families, living on Sangamon Street between Washington and Madison Streets, and we stopped to see them. They offered to take us in, but they had no water and could not well accommodate us, and after a short stay we went on, going out Ogden Avenue, the direct road to Riverside. There were no lights but the glare from the fire made it perfectly easy to see. We stopped a few minutes at the old Bull's Head Tavern to make sure of the way, and I was not sorry that I had a loaded gun across my knees, when the carriage was surrounded by several drunken men. It was entirely dark by this time except for the light from the fire. The horses were pretty well tired out, and had been without water since morning, so our progress was slow, but we reached Riverside without incident about eleven o'clock, and at the hotel were welcomed and shown to clean rooms with gas, baths, and running water. It was a great delight to get clean and into a comfortable bed. 

We stayed at Riverside a week or two and then went to live with my uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. John Tyrrell on Prairie Avenue opposite the house then or shortly after occupied by Wirt Dexter. My uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur G. Burley, lived there also. Their house was not burned. It was on Wabash Avenue two or three doors South of Harrison Street, and they moved out because high rents were offered for it for business purposes. It was occupied on the main floor by Moore & Janes, Insurance Agents of the Hartford Insurance Company and the North British & Mercantile Insurance Company, both of which companies paid their losses in full. I was then a Notary Public and was given a place there to take affidavits to proofs of loss. At twenty-five cents an affidavit, I was the only monied man in the family for some time.