John J. Healy

John J. Healy's account is part of his longer essay, "A Bit of the Old North Side." His family was one of those that built a Relief and Aid Society shelter cottage after they were burned out. He was then about eight years old.

My earliest recollection of events on Chicago's north side came on the morning of October 9, 1871. I was awakened by my mother before dawn and from the vivid glare in the sky realized that the city was on fire. Pulling on my copper-toed boots, of which I was inordinately proud, I was informed that it might be necessary for us to move. We occupied a small cottage owned by my father on a leased lot on Oak Street at the northeast corner of Sedgwick Street. My father was downtown helping some of our relatives to save and move books and other things. Shortly after breakfast he returned to our home, so blackened from fire and smoke that I failed to recognize him. He had arranged to secure the aid of an uncle's two-wheeled coal cart, in which our rather meager household effects were loaded. Our objective was a new one-and-one-half story cottage which my father had built on Hurlbut Street just south of Center Street. The tenant had moved in about two weeks before the fire.

Just before we left our Oak Street cottage, I saw a great sheet of flame descend on a frame building one block east of our home which seemed to immediately lift, leaving a bare burned spot where the house stood just minutes before. Our way lay north along Sedgwick Street, which was crowded with people moving away from the rapidly approaching fire and littered with discarded articles of personal property, including toys, which naturally appealed to me. I remember loading up with toys of various kinds but soon tired of the load with which I had burdened myself and threw them away in a short time. I had to walk for the reason that our furniture, scanty as it was, took up all the space in the coal cart.

Arriving at our new cottage, our furniture was placed in the basement, but it soon became apparent that the fire would reach and destroy the cottage as it had already destroyed the Oak Street building. My father then carried the furniture to a vacant lot next door and covered it with carpets and then put sand on top of the carpet coverings. As a result of this rather clever idea, the fire swept over and across the sanded covering without doing any damage to the furniture.

I slept that night on a pool table in somebody's saloon on Clybourne Avenue. After the fire my father obtained lumber from the Relief Board with which he built a small two-room shack in the rear of the Hurlbut Street lot. I don't recall whether or not it had a wooden floor, but I do remember the stove was enclosed in a sanded wooden box.

For some weeks after the fire we got bread and meat from a Field Leiter & Co. wagon which came at stated times to the corner of Center and Hurlbut Streets. South of that point there was so much debris on the street as to make it impossible for a team and wagon to use it. The bread and meat was given without pay and came from the Relief Association. 

The fire burned itself out in the block north of ours due to the fact that there was nothing left to destroy.