Francis William Test

Francis William Test wrote to his mother on October 13, 1871.

My Dear Mother:

Your letter of the 9th inst. came duly to hand. I wrote to you on Monday last--told you of the great fire. I had not seen it all, nor have I yet; it makes my heart sick to go through the ruins. Our office is gone, entirely cleaned out, but singular to state the appraiser's room was unharmed. It stands alone--all but that and the outside walls are leveled to earth. The furniture, papers, and few that were there are safe. The carpet is unscorched though the roof and all above this room melted like lead, not a cinder fell upon it. This room was situated on the second floor (the building had three stories) and to the Southwest. From this point came all the fire and heat. It is indeed a strange thing that this room of all others is saved--every record is lost in the Custom House, not a vestige is left save the few invoices the Appraiser had. No bullion was removed. It was the intention of the collector to take out the stamps, money and all valuables, for he stayed there till the roof was all gone, he and several others of the Government employees. They advised him to leave it there as it was safer and if lost there it would be different than to be lost by his removing it. There was a large amount of gold in the vault and so many thieves as were then in our city it would have been a dangerous undertaking to remove it.

It may be interesting to know how this Government building took fire for it was considered fireproof. The wind was blowing a living gale from the Southwest when we saw the fire was coming near, or rather that our office was in the line of the sweeping flames. The inside iron doors were closed on all the windows. The outside shutters are always closed after office hours by the watchman. There is an area around the house. Mails are received in the basement and distributed in the first floor. The iron shutters in the basement were also closed but a failing wall burst in these north windows and in less than five minutes the first floor (the post Office proper) was in flames. We still thought the second floor (Customs House) was safe; so it would have been had it not been for the flooring that was nailed over an old stairway that used to connect the second floor west room with the first floor. It was a private stairway that was used when this story was occupied by the Post Office. It has been used by the C.H. for a little over the year since.

The well hole, as I stated, was boarded over. The fire burst through this and in a short time burned out the interior--forced its way through the wooden doors, bounded through the hall to the East side; the main offices of the Custom House are situated here. In a few moments the flames rushed like a tornado of fire through the windows; there are no outside shutters to the second story but there are on the inside. Unluckily these shutters are fastened to wooden stiles; these burned and let the shutters fall.

Mr. ______ was burned out--lost everything--there was not a moment for preparation. In less than the time occupied in writing this the main portion of our town was in flames. The heat was intense, indescribable. I have ten persons in my family that are sufferers, burned out of house and business. I sent you a map; you may see how much of our city is destroyed. I did not mark the track of the large fire we had on the Saturday previous. We have no water and we are having fires every day. Two occurred this morning-- one on the W. Side. It was put out by throwing dirt upon it.

Oh! Mother, I could write for hours of awful scenes. I will mention one. A woman just from the bed with her newly born infant in her arms rushed terrified and bleeding from her house, fled to the lake shore,--there she died. This is no fiction, but fact. On the prairie some forty children were born on the night of the fire. You know the excitement in your city on the death of Lincoln. I was there too. I know that awful night, but the terror and panic of the past week surpasses that. My heart is sick of the awful sights. At first it was supposed the fire was that of incendiarism. This is not the belief now. We have not had rain for many weeks. Everything is dry as tinder. The least spark creates a blaze, and until we have rain our city is in danger. I know not the reason but new fires continually break out. Many of our citizens, though residents of the West Side are removing their families to the country.

The heart of our city is gone, but our business men are not discouraged. Soon we will begin again. Even now over the smoldering ruins they are placing new buildings. Our houses may be burned but our energies are just the same, they cannot be destroyed. It looks like rain tonight. The clouds are very dark and on these the light from the burning coal heaps reflect a living red that is surely visible for miles. We have the fire departments from all the larger cities in the West but the water has not been introduced into the pipes sufficient to put out the smallest fire. Water is being forced into the mains from the river by the fire engines. They have laid four inch mains above ground to a great distance on the South Side and the water is forced into them by the same means.

The iron safes stood the heat well, but many were burned to a white heat; their contents were destroyed. I can safely say over two thirds of them were found to contain nothing but charred masses of what once were thousands in bonds and notes. It is reported that J.Y. Scammon is crazed--that he is raving. I doubt this, as I see a sign over a smoking pile, once a beautiful office, stating that his quarters are taken up on the South Side. Iron safes were like fireproof buildings; they could not stand the pressure. The vault has proven most successful. Those of the First National were opened and, as a friend remarked, "A man might have frozen to death in there," not a thing was injured. It takes four men to get into the doors, that is, to lock and unlock them. Each door has two locks upon it. Each man has his combination and in this way fraud is guarded against. No one of them can open the doors singly, as one is not acquainted with the other's combination. Large safes may be seen walled in at a height of three and four stories. Some of the walls tell the place were a safe once was. The intense heat had made loose the bricks around them and they fell bursting or jammed in such a way that the fire searched out their contents. Many a man has awaited, buoyant with hope, the cooling and opening of his safe, and very many have been disappointed--thousands and thousands of dollars have been taken out charred and burned. I have seen safes completely melted and by one tap of the hammer would crumble like mortar. This fire has taught many lessons, especially in regard to iron safes and fire proof buildings.

It commenced raining last night and it is a Godsend. We have caught a supply of water, enough to do washing,--for bear in mind the water works burned on Monday last, are a total wreck. The people of the W[est] S[ide] get water from Union Park. There is a small ornamental lake there, but this is fed by the water mains and was almost dipped out till the fire engines began forcing the water from the river into it. On the So. Side they have the Lake and as I have said they are conveying water by means of a four inch main around the destroyed property and for a distance beyond.

An alarm of fire was struck last evening, indicating that a fire had broken out on the W.S. The people were wild with excitement and I can safely say last night was equally as terrible in the minds of people as Monday. The alarm from the W. Side was caused by the burning of an out house in conjunction with the Fort Wayne Depot. It was soon extinguished.

General Sheridan has control here now and this has done much to stay the confidence of the people. He is a little God here. Hotel and boarding housekeepers were trying to make money out of the misfortunes of the people. Sheridan went to one of our hotels, asked the proprietor what he asked for room and board per day. "I am charging $10.00, sir. Will you register your name?" "No sir, but I will inform you that if you cannot give room and board at $3.00 per day I can find someone that can. I suppose you understand that." The same with most of the unprincipled grocers. I saw a farmer's wagon standing near a market store. It was loaded with bagged beans and a calf. He offered the beans at an exorbitant price and the calf he wanted $50.00 for. A crowd gathered around him and drove him from the city. It was with difficulty he got away unharmed.

Our sister cities are sending us food and everything we want. If it were not for this aid God knows what we should do. Provisions are plentiful and they are being properly disbursed. Some of our people are entirely destitute, lost clothing and every comfort. The railroads are giving passes to families that desire to leave the city. They at first gave them to all that applied for them but we have need for able bodied men and the Committees have refused to give these passes. The fire is nearly all out but vast piles of coal are still burning though the water is constantly being thrown upon it. But without exaggeration, it turns to steam before it reaches the fire, so intense is the heat. I am sure coal will be very high this winter. I doubt if there is a stick of wood on the docks for the fire raged through our lumber and wood markets sweeping all before it. Luckily navigation will not close for many weeks hence and doubtless many vessels will run all winter. Many vessels were burned. Goodrich lost one of his new boats; luckily no lives were lost. She was being taken out of danger and got on the bar at the mouth of the river, took fire and burned to the water's edge. 

The city is not strictly under martial law but it reminds me of the first days of the rebellion. Soldiers march our streets; the citizens are patrolling the squares; every alley is guarded and woe be to him that lights a match or smokes a cigar on the street after nightfall. Those who have this matter in charge will not permit any such thing. Fires in the house were prohibited for a long time but the rule is not so strictly observed now as it was. There have been a few men killed and I only wonder that the number is not greater, so intensely excited are the people. Some who have been shot deserved their fate, others were not guilty but indiscreet.

Since the fire began there has been a strong wind from the S.W. and it is blowing strongly from that quarter at this time. I hope it will not drive away the rain. The clouds are drifting and this is a bad sign. Yet the people of Chicago will sleep sounder tonight than they have for a week. I can scarcely realize that our beautiful city is destroyed. Proud Chicago! The boast of the West. The greatest mart of the Union burned; her ruins looming up like Sodom and Gomorrah. Chicago boasted of her grandeur, would not be surpassed to the world--ruins, relics of an unequaled fire, far surpassing any of either continent in pecuniary losses. She is in dust, her citizens are sprinkled with ashes. Whether it was for crimes they had committed or allowed to exist in their midst, I am not to be the judge, but believe me they feel humbled, and many a man that never prayed has felt contrition and called upon the name of Him that ruleth all things and gave thanks, sincere heartfelt gratitude that their lives were saved. I was struck with the marked reverence that all men seemed to have for the name of the supreme Being. In their greetings of each other, and extended hand, a sincere "Are you safe?" The response comes, "Saved my family and am thankful." We are all alike here now, or as it is expressed, we are all on a level.

Chicago is humbled, her houses are burned, but her credit is good; soon we will have all things in shape again. Field & Leiter have said they will be ready to sell goods as usual in less than two weeks. Foundations of stone and brick are already being laid, though the ashes are still hot. Such is the spirit of our people. I am convinced that money will not be the main thought of the people, nor will the poor man have to take a low seat as usual. One will help the other. Many men, especially clerks and Yankee notion huxters have left the city, and I am told that there is another class that has gone. These are the low females that occupied the dens on Wells Street and upper stories of many of the large business blocks that now lay in ruins. Of all cities in the Union Chicago was cursed with this class and I have often wondered who was to blame for this. We will not question this now. We have been punished. But be it as it may, I can safely say Chicago will be a better city in the future if she never be to boast of high walls and palatial residences. Do not understand we have no good people here. We have as an evidence of this view our churches. Very few of them are destroyed, nevertheless we had some fine churches burned....