Mrs. Alfred Hebard

Mrs. Alfred Hebard came from a pioneering family. She was a cousin of Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard, who had arrived in Chicago in 1818 as a fur buyer for John Jacob Astor. After her marriage in 1837, she and her husband settled even farther west than Hubbard, in Iowa. They were passing through Chicago the day the fire struck. Her recollection of the fire was written in 1880.

Journeying from New London, Connecticut, with my husband and daughter, to our home in Iowa, it was found necessary, as often before, to spend Sunday in Chicago; and all through the weary hours of October 8, 1871, we were enjoying pleasant anticipation of the rest and comfort so sure to be found at the Palmer House. Arriving late, and leaving most of our baggage at the Union Depot, we were soon established at the hotel, which seemed almost like a home to us. The wind was high on Sunday morning, and kept increasing; and as we walked to church, covering our faces from the dust, my husband remarked, "How fortunate that the fire was last night instead of today."

Returning from an evening service, we were told that another fire had broken out in the western part of the city and was progressing rapidly. We immediately took the elevator to the upper story of the Palmer, saw the fire, but, deciding that it would not cross the river, descended to our rooms in the second story to prepare for sleep. Husband and daughter soon retired; I remained up to prepare for the morrow's journey, and thus gain a little time for shopping before the departure of the train at 11 A.M. Feeling somewhat uneasy, I frequently opened the blinds, and each time found the light in the streets increased until every spire and dome seemed illuminated. I aroused my husband, asking him to go out and investigate once more, which he did, telling me, on his return, not to be alarmed, as there was no danger in our locality.

About 11 P.M. I retired, but could not sleep, and it seemed not more than half an hour before there was a rapping at every door, and finally at ours, to which my husband responded very coolly, "What's wanted?" "Fire, sir!" was the answer, and the same moment we were on our feet. Our daughter was awakened, toilets soon made, and no time wasted in gathering together bags and shawls ready for departure. By this time my husband, who had stepped out to reconnoiter, returned, saying that everyone was stirring, and that he saw gentlemen dragging their own trunks down the stairs. The clerks at the office assured him there was no immediate danger, but they thought it well enough to be prepared. Then we all went once more to the seventh story, looked in vain for any evidence that the fire was decreasing, returned to our room, picked up our parcels, including the trunk (for no porters were to be found), descended to the office, paid our bill, and sat down to watch and wait. Finally, leaving our daughter in charge of the baggage, I went with my husband into the street, and around to the rear of the building where the fire was distinctly visible and apparently only two blocks from us.

Within the house the perfect quiet had astonished us--every man taking care of his own, silently and rapidly, few words being spoken; only some ladies unaccompanied by gentlemen consulting together in whispers what they should do if compelled to leave the house. Outside we found confusion. Irish women with beds upon their shoulders crying noisily; children following as best they might; and all going--they knew not whither--only away from their burning homes.

Evidently the Palmer House was in great danger, and it was better to leave it now than to wait; but how to remove our baggage was the next question. Once we thought we had secured a cart or a wagon, but no sooner was the trunk thrown on than it was pulled off again by someone claiming a prior right, and we were glad to accept the services of two boys, who, for sufficient compensation, agreed to carry it between them; and thus we sallied forth, a little before 1 A.M., to reach, if possible, the house of my relative, Mr. G. S. Hubbard, on La Salle Street, a long mile and a half from the hotel. Our boys ran at full speed, and we followed, crossing State Street bridge amid a shower of coals driven by the furious wind from burning buildings and lumberyards, and which, seeming to be caught by an eddy, were whirled in our faces.

The crowd thickened every moment; women with babies and bundles, men with kegs of beer--all jostling, scolding, crying, or swearing; and we were thankful to turn from this great thoroughfare to a more quiet street, calling to the boys to slacken their speed and give us a chance to breathe. It must have been 1:30 A.M. when we reached Mr. Hubbard's, thankful that we had, as we supposed, found a place of safety. We dismissed our boys with $10 for their services, and, ringing for admittance, were met at the door by our friends, who were all astir--less on account of apprehension for their own safety than a desire to help others. Soon other friends of the family began to arrive, some already homeless, until the rooms were filled.

The fire, meanwhile, was coming nearer, and just as we began in earnest to pack necessary things for removal, the Gasworks were destroyed and candles had to be resorted to. Everyone thought the house might be saved, standing as it did on a corner and disconnected from every other building, but we worked on through the night, preparing for the worst, and running often to the garret to see if the worst was not over.

In the early morning men came, tore up carpets to cover the roof, draining both cisterns to keep the carpets wet, hoping if possible to stop the fire at that corner. Oh, how they worked! The thoughtful family provided refreshments as long as it was possible, and when all supplies were exhausted the men labored on, panting and parched with thirst, drinking the very dregs of the cistern water from tubs in the kitchen as they passed through. All said, "This house will not burn!" but they might as well have tried to quench Vesuvius. The heat increased. A wooden block nearby flashed into flame, and at 11 A.M. the cornice was blazing, and we were obliged to go out through the alley to escape the heat and cinders; but where to go we could not tell.

From this point it is impossible for me to describe the course of our wanderings. I only know that we crossed to the west side of the river and reached some depot--I think the Northwestern--in season to see the train departing, but hearing that a train on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad would leave about 3 P.M., we again set forth.

It was a weary march of many miles after leaving La Salle Street. Exhausted and footsore, we often sat on doorsteps and curbstones to rest; drank beer at the street corners; dropped to sleep while waiting to be served; and finally, at a little station in the outskirts of the city, in company with other refugees like ourselves, we patiently waited for the departure of the train for Aurora, where we passed the night. Strange to say, we lost nothing by the fire--the baggage at the Union Depot was all moved and protected; the few things at Mr. Hubbard's house were not stolen, like some of theirs, but were carefully restored to us. 

And now, looking back after the lapse of nine years the whole scene seems like a fearful dream; and yet, strange as it may seem, there are some pleasant things to be remembered; and since it was to be, I have never regretted that we were allowed to see that burning city. Having nothing of our own at stake, we could perhaps look on more coolly than some others. I remember being impressed at the time with the different phases of character so suddenly unveiled. The dear friends who so kindly sheltered us in our extremity, and who, for the last time, threw open those hospitable doors, not to friends merely, but to strangers as well--feeding the hungry, helping and sympathizing with those whose trials seemed greater than they could bear; those friends who looked on calmly as the devouring flames approached their beautiful dwelling, showing plainly that their treasure was laid up in a better country, where they looked for "a house not made with hands." Some came there, trembling and fearful, wholly broken-down, as it were, with their own grief; some came professedly to help--really to pilfer; but the majority were calm, earnest, resolute helpers; and if ready hands and willing feet could have availed anything, that house would have been saved. As it is, we are thankful that lives were spared, new comforts provided, and faith strengthened in Him who said, "Not as the world giveth, give I unto you."