Joel Bigelow

Letter of Joel Bigelow to his Brothers, October 10, 1871 (ichi-63785)

Joel Bigelow's letter to his family is dated October 10, 1871. It includes his a hand-drawn map of the burnt district.

My dear Brothers,

It is my painful duty to write to you and inform you of the sad misfortune that has befallen Chicago. The proud city of Sunday last was in 15 short hours reduced almost to ruins. The loss is perhaps the largest that has ever occurred to any city on the Globe not even excepting--the Great fire of London in 1660--or the burning of Moscow by Russia as a military necessity against Napoleon--the extent of which may be Judged--when it is known--that 200 churches fell a prey to the fire. 

To begin with I may be thankful that last night I had a house to sleep in, which was not the case with fully 75,000 people. I have prepared a rough diagram of the "burnt" district on which is shown my residence on 4th Avenue 175 ft south of Harrison Street which is practically the Southern boundary of the burnt district, there being on the North side of this street--not destroyed--a farm building in rear of Jones School corner of Clark and Van Buren Sts, a row of Brick houses 100 ft fronts--corner of 4th Ave & Harrison Sts, the Methodist Church N.W. Corner of Wabash Ave & Harrison Sts--and then between Wabash & Michigan Ave & North of Harrison Street one Block to Congress St except about 3 houses on N.W. Corner of Block. With these exceptions, Harrison Street from Lake West to Railway then South to Taylor is the Southern boundary of the fire. All North off it shown in the diagram for a distance of--four miles by 3/4 to l mile wide is in ruins--[what] saved me and this part of the city was the lines of freight depots [on] both sides of the track of the Michigan Southern & Chicago & Rock Island Railways. The freight depots on the West side of track were--low--built of brick and were destroyed the depots on the East side of track were also low Brick Slate roofs and no opening in the sides--this was a formidable barrier when it is known that these depots extend several blocks along the line of the Railway--thereby keeping the line of the burnt district on South side to the West of this Line between Harrison & Taylor Sts. 

The loss includes every wholesale house in the City (except Fuller & Fullers Drug House). The Court House and contents including the Registry office for all the titles in the county of Cook including the city of Chicago. The Custom House, Post Office, Chamber of Commerce Armory all the principal Hotels--the Theatres, Museums, Opera House,--all the Bank & Insurance Offices--all the Newspaper Offices several Railway depots all the Bridges from South to North side-- two or three Bridges from South to West side five Elevators, Gas & water works, are all in ruins. My store among the rest. On this point I may say I am fully [covered] by insurance--in the Liverpool London & Globe Insurance Co for $6,000. The Company is reputed to be good having a paid up Capital of 17 Millions of dollars in gold and thought to be able to meet its liabilities. I have on deposit in the 4th Nat. Bank $11,500--The Bank is said to be prudently managed-- lending mostly on colaterals and having this morning took a look at its vaults it appears to me that the contents will be safe--I opened my acct. with the Bank at the request of Dr. C.V. Dyer one of its directors--when he made the request I told him that I was not aware of the standing of the Bank--but that if he would give me his personal hand for $20,000 guaranteeing the solvency of the Bank and that if they did not pay me my money upon demand he (Dyer) would do so to this he agreed and I hold his bond accordingly the Doctor is reputed to be good and supposed to be worth half a million or more--owns largely in outside real estate and some in the city, so that on the whole come what may I think I have prudently managed my affairs--my liabilities are about $5000--my cash is all on deposit--except $130. There must be many lives lost. I have seen two today--at the Police Headquarters I am informed 30 are missing on North Side--there are so many reports one dont know what to believe--there are some who assert that it is a preconcerted plan by a lot of villains to meet here and burn the city--for plunder--I saw one party who says that two parties were caught in the act of setting fire to side walks in the West Division--and that they were both hung to lamp posts--the party asserted that he saw the bodies hanging--an acquaintance of mine says that he is reliably informed--that in the South Division two men has been hung and one shot. I have Just returned from the Police Headquarters and was informed that such reports are confirmed from reports brought in by Police officers. Though I am inclined to accept these statements with some degree of allowance. The precariousness of the situation and hence the sensitive character of the citizens will be apparent when it is known that the supply of water is cut off by the loss of the water works, this applies especially to a large part of the West Division--where they cant get water on the south side we have the Lake on one side and the River on the other and our engines are not arranged forgetting our supplies to extinguish fires from this source yet it is better than none--and in a large City like this where fires are of daily occurrence, there being seven on Saturday last, and the Fire Alarm Telegraph being disorganized tenders our situation very precarious. It is said we have fire engines here brought during the progress of the fire by special trains from St. Louis, Milwaukee and several interior towns. This I believe is correct. Railways are furnishing free passes to every person who wants to leave the city--5000 left on one train this evening. We hope to reduce the houseless and idle population. But we must protect ourselves from vagabonds who stay here for mischief. I am told that General Sheridan who is here has ordered from Omaha 1000 troop to patrol the City. Provisions are arriving from the country and are dispensed free at churches and Headquarters of Common Council which is at [the] Skating Rink near Union Park. An ordinance has been passed limiting the price of 12 oz loaves of bread to 8¢ under penalty of $10. for each offence. The post office is opened in the Burlington Hall building corner of 16th Street and State Sts., the middle of this building was burnt out only 10 days ago leaving the East and West ends standing. Show this letter to Palmer who knowing the Geography of the place, will be especially interested in it. I am writing Timothy and Mr. Drydens and have not time to write to Nelson hence you will oblige by apologising--to him for me and enclose to him this letter and he will return it to you. We are all as well as could be expected after the excitement, we have gone through. My address is 119--4th Avenue.


P.S. Don't you think it would be well to take advantage of the present to invest a little money out here?