Mary Kehoe

Mary Kehoe's memoir, written to her granddaughter in 1942, is one of the few fire narratives in the Chicago History Museum from a working-class Chicagoan, male or female.  She was sixteen in 1871.

My dear Gladys,

As you requested me to write my recollection of the Chicago fire of Oct. 9th 1871 and tho my memory is rather poor I will try and look back 70 years and test it.

To begin with my girl friend by the name of Mary Nolin went to Vesper service at Holy Name Church on Sunday Eve Oct. 8 1871 and we were returning home when the fire bells rang out. We were somewhat alarmed as there had been a very large fire the Sat. Eve before on the other side of the river which had burned several large blocks. There was great commotion--lots of smoke--and fire engines around.

We girls went home. Every one around knew there was a terrific fire for the smoke was coming over way and the wind was blowing very much.

At that time we lived on Pearson St. between Cass & Wolcott which later changed to State St. After some time we went to bed. We were all very much on the alert & none of us slept very much. My father said I may as well stay up as pretty soon I will have to go to work and I said you may not have any work as everything seems to be burning up.

Our family consisted of my father and stepmother & myself aged 16 and my sister Kate not quite fourteen and my brother Bernard about 12 years old and twin half sisters about three years old. In the morning the fire was still raging at some distance but I am pretty sure it had jumped the river to the North side. This was Monday morning.

Katie & I went out & took the twins with us. We went over to Washington Park. It was crowded with people excited & rushing everywhere--trying to save their bundles--birds--dogs--and all kind of things.

I heard one woman say to another one how foolish she was to try and save anything--don't you know this is the end of the world and all this time the fire was raging.

Looking up about 200 feet you could see huge black planks burning and going with the wind. We were afraid some of them might drop on us but they were going towards the lake and I guess they found a water grave. By that time all the loop was burned and all the bridges--and the Water Works. It was one of the first to go our house. Holy Name Church & St. James' Episcopal, Turner Hall and all past Chicago Ave. It made me feel bad to think--I would never attend service in Holy Name again as I had gone to school in that parish. At Walton Pl.--Dearborn St. we saw a cow head first part way down in a sewer where it had gone to escape the flames (dead of course).

As we started for Division St bridge and while on the bridge some of them hollered out--Look at the Gas House & pretty soon that will blow up and we will all be in the river but thank God that never happened and we finally landed in Goose Island and safety. It was a strip of land between the north branch of the river on the east and also used for a lumber yard & had a few shanties. We stayed on under the high abutment of the bridge most of the night. Towards morning it began to rain and someone invited us into one of the shanties (standing room only) so we got up from under the bridge & went for a walk over the burnt area. The streets looked very clean. No debris of any kind--low fires burning where the houses had been and fresh water trickling from burned water pipes and we had a good drink of fresh water so we went down to the park.

The streets were deserted & bundles were strewn along the fence of the big wooden building that was not burned, a strange thing for two or three white stone churches on the other side on Dearborn Ave. were all burnt and no one in the park. So we started back a different way. When we got to the stretch nearest the river we saw several dark or black objects laid out on the road and did not know what they were. A man who was around these said they were the charred bodies of people who had been burned on the bridge and later taken from the water. I think it was the Indiana St. bridge and so we walked on to Division Street bridge we wanted to get over. I never was in such a jam in my life. We did not know where our [folks?] were. Seemed like hours to cross the bridge some of the people wanted to cross east and some to the west. We were just pushed along.

So this was Tuesday morning and we had not a bite to eat since Monday morn. And we never thought of food or ever complained. Even our three year old twins they were young bricks & stood it well. I think the fire had burned itself out by that time but we did not know it as lots of coal piles along the river banks were still burning and they burned for months and I saw it in a paper long afterward a man lit his pipe a year & a day afterward from the burning coal piles. When we had crossed the bridge at the corner people who seemed excited pointed down to the next dock & such a grand surprise. We went over where two men with good food & hot coffee were in charge and we all ate plenty and for weeks after there was always plenty for any one who came by and helped them lots afterward.

On that morning all out of town paper headlines was "Chicago in Ashes" & they sent in plenty food for all. We did not know where our folks were and we were just pushed long. Some time later we met a neighbor who knew us and she took us over to the Sacred Heart Convent on West-Taylor Street--as her daughter went to school there. We stayed there a couple of days and nights. Later on we went by Saint Patrick's school where we saw people we knew and some sisters from the burnt area. St. Patrick's had opened up their large school house for the people so we stayed there for a while. We had a blanket and slept on the floor. A hard bed but we stood it well. We also slept some nights in a Protestant Church with red cushion seats. This was on the West side which was not burned. We even fed well at all times.

We were offered work outside the city at Desmoines Iowa and were given tickets to go there but we changed our mind. We were too scared to go there.

The relief & aid society built barracks of rough lumber in Washington Park for the people to live in. Two rooms for families. A new kitchen stove and the usual kitchen things and anyone could get a new Singer sewing machine just for the asking. Food was brought every day so we got on pretty well. There was lots of activity lots of building going on and plenty of work. 'Good times' so we were [not?] the worse for our awful experience. Except any eyes were swollen & red for a long time from the smoke & I hope Dear Gladys you can read this as I am nervous so I will close with much love and best wishes to yourself & family. I remain sincerely

Your loving Grandmother Mary Kehoe