Jennie E. Otis

The narrative of Jennie E. Otis, later Mrs. Charles C. Counselman, is taken from "Reminiscences of the Chicago Fire and Some of My Girlhood Days," which she presented to the Woman's Club.

Our home was a marble front house, 191 Wabash Avenue, three doors North of Adams Street. Judge Mather lived next door to us, Mayor Rice on the corner, and Orson Smith a few doors below.

My father had gone to Baltimore to attend an Episcopal convention, and mother was sleeping with my two small sisters on the entrance floor, the house being what was called an English Basement.

The room I occupied faced the west, being the back of the house. My two older brothers having the front room on the same floor. I had only been asleep a short while when I was awakened by the fire bells, which we had in those days, and the clanging of engines.

My room windows had no shades, but inside blinds. As they were open, I saw the first of this west side fire.

The wind was very strong from the south-west, blowing the flames toward the lake and the north side.

It grew larger and larger, and after an hour I decided to go and call my brothers.

As they had been to the fire the night before and were tired, they did not seem interested, and I returned to my room again, watched the fire leaping and spreading at a terrific rate.

In a short while I decided to go again to my brothers' room; this time I was told to go back to bed and forget it.

Before long the extent of the fire was over so large a territory that I was alarmed, and with chattering teeth I once more went into the boys' room. This time I boldly approached the bed, grasped my older brother's shoulder, and said, "George, did you ever hear of a fire burning a whole city?" With a vehement "No" he bounded out of bed, put his feet in his slippers and dashed to my room, followed by my younger brother.

"Great Heavens," they exclaimed, "we must go." They were soon dressed and out of the front door, awakening my mother on the way.

They were only gone a short while when they returned, telling us the fire was only three blocks away--to hurry and dress--for we must leave the house.

My older brother was a book-keeper in the Commercial National Bank.

We did not see him for three days, as he and other young men employed in the bank were given revolvers and told to watch the vaults, as the buildings were down, and thieves were already plying their trade.

The Court House, Post Office, all the Banks, Theatres, elevators, stores, all gone, and the fire had leaped across the river, and was spreading madly over the North Side.

My brother George did not come up-town for three days, and then was so black he looked like a colored man, and said he had had only pie and coffee to eat.

My younger brother got a large carriage from the livery man whom we employed, who said my brother must drive himself, and to please feed the horses.

We left our house at two o'clock and it burned at four.

As I left my room I looked at a new pair of shoes I had just paid $6.00 for--high buttoned ones--but decided, as I might have to walk miles, I had better wear the old ones, and left them. However, as Orson and Paul Smith were in the house after we left, tearing down lace curtains and putting a few things--a clock, some table linen, and what would go in an express wagon--I received my shoes.

My sister, Mrs. Meacham, was getting ready to be married, and the waists of her trousseau dresses were saved, but no skirts.

We drove south, and I was left at my father's brother's house--Uncle James Otis, at Michigan Avenue and 12th Street, and the family drove on to my uncle, Frederick Otis, 2033 Prairie Avenue, where two of his children still reside.

The door-bell did not awaken them, so pebbles were thrown to the second story window, and my aunt came and looked out. They did not even know there was a fire. Soon my aunt was heard saying "Fred, Fred, wake up! Lydia and her children are down at the door, and the whole city is on fire."

One of our family was left there, and mother and the two younger sisters were taken to Kenwood, where my mother's aunt lived, in the oldest house in Chicago. That was on Lake Avenue at 45th Street.

Mother's aunt would have been 100 years old had she lived three months longer than she did.

The fire spread rapidly, burning a large part of the west side, as far as Harrison Street on the south side, and the entire north side with the exception of one house - the home of Mahlon D. Ogden.

This was not burned, as it occupied a whole block, and two tongues of flame went around it. The cow was saved, having a wet blanket over her, and being tied up by the front steps.

The fire burned from 10 o'clock Sunday night until 7 o'clock Monday night, when it became exhausted.

Great credit was given General Philip Sheridan for stopping the fire, as he obtained quantities of gunpowder, and blew up many down-town buildings after the flames jumped the river.

It was a pathetic sight, and the suffering was great.

Soon all hearts were touched, and trains loaded with provisions, clothing, candles and money came pouring in from other cities.

In those days cows were driven by boys up Wabash Avenue and parked at 25th Street, to graze until the boys came after them at 6 o'clock, each animal being left at her owner's alley door.

My father returned from Baltimore and rented a small furnished house in 21st Street, near Michigan Avenue; collected his family and we lived there comfortably for six months.

It was a winter of great depression; few entertainments were given, one being a Calico Party.

Many maids left for other cities, fearing their wages might be reduced or unpaid. In the 21st Street house, my mother had an amusing Swedish second maid. One evening, having a headache, I retired early, and she left my room, which was directly over the front door, to answer the bell. A cousin and a young man friend evidently asked for me, and to my horror, I heard her say, "Miss Yenny she yust yumped in bed." I heard them go down the steps laughing.

My father, after a while, purchased a home for us on Michigan Avenue, near 20th Street, this being much south of the burned district, where we lived for many years.

The next house on the north was occupied by General Sheridan, who came over occasionally to call. His horse, Winchester, the one he rode on his famous ride, was in the stable.

One winter the General and his staff issued invitations for a ball, to be given in Standard Hall at Michigan Ave. and 13th Street. As I had then reached young-ladyhood, I was much excited over receiving one, and doubly so, as my sister Carrie, Mrs. Meacham, had been married and I was addressed as Miss Otis. Arriving at the ball, I was greatly thrilled when the General asked me to dance, but as he stepped on my toes and did not reverse until I was dizzy, I concluded many who were not heroes danced better.