Eben Matthews

Eben Matthews, a bookkeeper with the grain brokers Jones & Raymond, lived in the South Division.

My recollections of the Great Chicago Fire

At the time of the great Chicago Fire, October 8th, 1871, I was living with a number of other young men in a house on Peck Court between Wabash and Michigan Avenues. On the Saturday night previous (the big fire started on Sunday night) Andrew Dixon and I had been to a large fire on the West side of the river near Van Buren Street in a lumber yard till quite late so that we were tired and were just going to bed on Sunday night (a little after nine) when the fire bells rang. Looking out of the window I saw a bright light which indicated another big fire. I called to Dixon who, as usual, was ready to go to anything that promised a big fire. We started out immediately, went over the Polk Street bridge and to the edge of the fire. It seemed to us that the fireman had it under control. So, being tired from having been up so late the previous night at the other fire, we started for home. When we reached the top of the approach to the Polk Street bridge we turned to look back. The wind was blowing a terrific gale from the Southwest, and, as there had been no rain for several weeks, everything was very dry, an ideal time for the spread of a fire. As I turned to look back I noticed a church directly in the path of the flames and about Northwest from where we stood, the wooden belfry of which had begun to smoke, supposedly from burning brands having lodged there.

I said to Dixon, if that church should burn while the firemen are engaged at the fire (which at this time was some half mile from the church) then it is not out by a long ways.

Dixon said that he was so tired he would go home anyway. He left and almost immediately the church became a mass of flames. I watched the fire from this point a few minutes. The fleeing crowd was increasing every moment and soon became a panic stricken one. A man came along dragging a trunk by the handle with one hand and leading a young child with the other. His wife had a small baby on one arm and a mirror on the other. Besides there were two or three other children. I took hold of the other handle of the trunk and helped him carry it to the corner of Polk Street and Wells or Sherman Street where at that time a long row of brick freight houses was situated. When we reached this corner the man (evidently a laborer) said that he would carry his goods no farther; that, if the fire came to that point and burned his things, he would let them burn. As a matter of fact the fire did stop just at this corner and I presume that he saved his little property. I then made my way to the Chamber of Commerce building which was situated on the Southwest corner of La Salle and Washington Streets, reaching there about the time that the fire crossed the river to the South side of the city. The basement of this building and the first story was occupied mostly by firms doing business on the Chicago Board of Trade, while the upper part of the building was used as the trading rooms of that organization. At this time I was employed by Messrs. Jones and Raymond. This firm occupied room 19 in the Chamber of Commerce building and was doing a grain business. Mr. Jones was president and Mr. Raymond was secretary of the company which owned the Chamber of Commerce building. Going into this building I found William, the janitor. He went with me to the loft over the exchange hall. This loft had long narrow ventilating slits around the sides and near the roof through which the sparks from the fire were drifting. I took a broom from William and told him that I would put out the sparks as they came in and that he could go down stairs, but that he must be sure to call me as soon as he thought it dangerous for me to remain longer. The roof of the building was covered with tin and the brands as they fell and drifted across made more noise than a severe hail storm would. After a few moments the increasing noise made by the brands and the greater number of sparks drifting in through the ventilators caused me to think that I had better be getting nearer terra firma, so I started for the stairs when I met William who was coming to call me. In Jones & Raymond's office were two safes, one belonging to the Chamber of Commerce, the other to Jones and Raymond. The Northwestern National Bank had their office in the Northwest corner of the building in which was a vault. I felt sure that in such a fire the safes would prove to be of little or no value, so I went to Mr. Geo. Sturges, the president of the bank, and asked him if I could put the current books in his vault. His reply was "I don't think that our vault is worth a d--n but you are welcome to put those books in there if you wish." I then went to Jones and Raymond's office, took the current books from the safe and put them in the bank vault. It was well that I did so for nothing left in the safes was of any value as the books came out like charcoal. There was one singular exception to this statement, however. It had been my custom to enter in the open policy book (fire insurance) with lead pencil a memorandum showing the amount of insurance I wanted, and in what grain elevator. This memorandum the insurance company would then fill in with ink. Although this book came out of the safe as black as a hat the lead pencil marks glistened when held to the light so that they could be deciphered and the insurance proved up. From the bank I went to Jones & Raymond's office to see that the safes had been locked. As I was about to leave the office a fireman, whom I suppose was connected with the engine company working on the corner, rapped on the window and called me to hurry up. This was shortly after midnight. I went out by the North door of the building and have always thought I was the last one to do so. The court house was all ablaze when I came out and the fire had skipped over the river to the North side. I went East to State Street. My friend George E. Cole was working as salesman for Messrs. Hollister and Philps who were doing a business in carpets, and were located on the West side of State Street between Washington and Madison Streets. I found Cole loading some goods onto an express wagon which were taken to the lake front hoping to save them. These with many other goods taken there for the same purpose were burned later in the day. I hired a man with an express wagon for $25.00 to take a load of curtains to Mr. Hollister's house which was on Wabash Avenue just South of 22nd Street. This load was, I believe, all Messrs. Hollister & Philps saved from their stock. There was a building on La Salle Street near Monroe or Adams which was almost completed. The Tribune building corner Dearborn and Madison Streets, the First National Bank building corner Washington and State Streets, were supposedly fire proof. These buildings being in line with the path of the fire kept it from working East of that line for a long time, so that it burned down to the river and then backed up and worked South burning the property East of the line I have mentioned. Of course the progress of the fire against the wind was slow and my recollection is that it was either late in the morning or early in the afternoon that on orders from Genl. Phil Sheridan a couple of houses on the East side of Wabash Avenue near Congress Street were blown up and the fire as to the South Side was stopped. All of this part of the city could have been saved had not the water works been burned earlier in the night. A temporary roof has been put on the water works pending a new and fire proof one. This roof caught fire early in the morning and the timbers partially burned fell on the pumping machinery putting it out of commission.

The days after the fire were indeed gloomy ones, the churches and public buildings filled with people whose homes had been burned, the streets patrolled at night by citizens in effect martial law. On the Sunday night after the fire it rained which was a great relief from the anxiety caused by the fear of another fire while without water. For some time after the fire, owing to the fact that the water works were not in service, all of the water used was taken from the lake, carted about the city and sold.

It had been my custom to pay for grain and take the warehouse receipts to the Merchants National Bank for safekeeping. This bank was then located on La Salle Street nearly opposite Jones & Raymond's office. This afternoon I had paid for quite a little stuff after banking hours. These receipts together with some seventy-five dollars in currency I put in my pocket, thinking that that was a safer place than was the bank vault. I did not find Mr. Raymond till the following Thursday, when I turned the property over to him. I was right glad to do this (he was glad to get it, particularly the currency) for it was no joke at such a time to have about one's person ten thousand dollars worth of negotiable paper.

Immediately after the fire there was organized a citizen's patrol. All persons ordered off the streets at dark. The patrol marched by twos up and down the streets as soon as it became dark and halted every passerby asking his destination. Then he was passed to the next patrol on his way and so on. Of course such procedure was illegal, but it had the force of public opinion back of it, and so was most effective in giving us the much needed security. In addition General Phil Sheridan who was in command of the area in which Chicago was situated, had ordered all available troops here to preserve order. The effect was the criminal element was kept under and order maintained. In addition to the resident criminal class we were obliged to look out for persons of this character who began to come in great numbers, this added to our trouble. At this late date one, who was not an eye witness, can hardly imagine the fear of incendiarism, looting, etc. which prevailed. Stories of all kinds were afloat concerning thefts murders and the like.

One peculiar thing I remember about the street car rails which showed the intensity of the heat. Downtown, the heat being confined by high buildings, the rails had been pulled up by expansion from the road bed and in some instances the ends were curled up several feet in the air. Direct communication between the North and South sides had been cut off early Monday morning, the bridges having been burned, so that we of the South side had little knowledge of what was going on on the North side for some little time. About a week after the fire the bank vaults were opened and it was a great relief to all when their contents were found intact.

Frame shanties were put up on the lake front from Randolph Street to Park Row which were used as temporary quarters for business purposes. Some of the banks and merchants found quarters in the residence district near to the unburned sections.

And so we went into Winter quarters with less discomfort and with greater hopefulness than could have been expected.