The Tribune Reports to Chicago on Its Own Destruction

Burned out of its 1869 "fireproof" building at the southeast corner of Dearborn and Madison, the Tribune was forced to suspend publication for two days. The excerpt below is from the lead story of the first post-fire issue, which appeared on Wednesday, October 11.

During Sunday night, Monday, and Tuesday, this city has been swept by a conflagration which has no parallel in the annals of history, for the quantity of property destroyed, and the utter and almost irremediable ruin which it wrought. A fire in a barn on the West Side was the insignificant cause of a conflagration which has swept out of existence hundreds of millions of property, has reduced to poverty thousands who, the day before, were in a state of opulence, has covered the prairies, now swept by the cold southwest wind, with thousands of homeless unfortunates, which has stripped 2,600 acres of buildings, which has destroyed public improvements that it has taken years of patient labor to build up, and which has set back for years the progress of the city, diminished her population, and crushed her resources. But to a blow, no matter how terrible, Chicago will not succumb. Late as it is in the season, general as the ruin is, the spirit of her citizens has not given way, and before the smoke has cleared away, and the ruins are cold, they are beginning to plan for the future. Though so many have been deprived of homes and sustenance, aid in money and provisions is flowing in from all quarters, and much of the present distress will be alleviated before another day has gone by.

It is at this moment impossible to give a full account of the losses by the fire, or to state the number of fatal accidents which have occurred. So much confusion prevails, and people are so widely scattered, that we are unable for a day to give absolutely accurate information concerning them. We have, however, given a full account of the fire, from the time of its beginning, reserving for a future day a detailed statement of losses. We would be exceedingly obliged if all persons having any knowledge of accidents, or the names of persons who died during the fire, would report them at this office. We also hope that all will leave with, or at No. 15 South Canal street, a memorandum of their losses and their insurance, giving the names of the companies.


At 9:30 a small cow barn attached to a house on the corner of DeKoven and Jefferson streets, one block north of Twelfth street, emitted a bright light, followed by a blaze, and in a moment the building was hopelessly on fire. Before any aid could be extended the fire had communicated to a number of adjoining sheds, barns and dwellings, and was rapidly carried north and east, despite the efforts of the firemen. The fire seemed to leap over the engines, and commence far beyond them, and, working to the east and west, either surrounded the apparatus or compelled it to move away. In less than ten minutes the fire embraced the area between Jefferson and Clinton for two blocks north, and rapidly pushed eastward to Canal street.

When the fire first engulphed [sic] the two blocks, and the efforts of the undaunted engineers became palpably abortive to quench a single building, an effort was made to head it off from the north, but so great was the area that it already covered at 10:30 o'clock, and so rapidly did it march forward, that by the time the engines were at work the flames were ahead of them, and again they moved on north. From the west side of Jefferson street, as far as the eye could reach, in an easterly direction--and that space was bounded by the river--a perfect sea of leaping flames covered the ground. The wind increased in fierceness as the flames rose, and the flames wailed more hungrily for their prey as the angry gusts impelled them onward. Successively the wooden buildings on Taylor, Forquer, Ewing, and Polk streets became the northern boundary, and then fell back to the second place. Meanwhile, the people in the more southern localities bent all their energies to the recovery of such property as they could. With ample time to move all that was movable, and with a foreboding of what was coming, in their neighborhood at least, they were out and in safety long before the flames reached their dwellings. They were nearly all poor people, the savings of whose lifetime were represented in the little mass of furniture which blocked the streets, and impeded the firemen. They were principally laborers, most of them Germans or Scandinavians. Though the gaunt phantom of starvation and homelessness, for the night, at least, passed over them, it was singular to observe the cheerfulness, not to say merriment, that prevailed. Though mothers hugged their little ones to their breasts and shivered with alarm, yet, strange to say, they talked freely and laughed as if realizing the utter uselessness of expressing more dolefully their consciousness of ruin. There were many owners of the building who gave themselves up to the consolation of insurance. But even that appeared to weaken as the flames spread, and they gave themselves up to their fate. Many of the victims were stowed away in the houses on the west side of Jefferson street, while there on Clinton, caught between two fires, had rushed away, losing all but their lives and little ones. How many of these latter ones were abandoned, either from terror or in the confusion, it is impossible to guess, but every now and then a woman wild with grief would run in and out among the alleys and cry aloud her loss. 

The firemen were working with extraordinary perseverance. When it seemed impossible for a man to stand without suffocation they carried their hose, sprinkling the houses opposite and endeavoring to stop its spread in a westerly direction. But it was evident by midnight that human ingenuity could not stem that fiery tide. At the same time, so burdened were the minds of the citizens with the conflagration that the question of where it would end never entered their minds. Engine No. 14, which had retreated gradually north on Canal Street to Foes' lumber yard, or rather where that yard had been two days before, was suddenly surrounded in a belt of flame, and abandoned to its fate....

But, while it seemed as if the demon of flame had reached a desert and needs must die, a new danger appeared to threaten the city. From the South Side, in the neighborhood of Adams street, whereabouts no one on the West Side could guess with any degree of certainty, rose a column of fire, not large, but horribly suggestive. Such engines as could be moved were called from the West to protect the South Side property, and the flames left to die of inanition....

The route of the fire was distinctly visible. In five minutes after the first flame had reached Van Buren street from the southeast, we could see the incipient fire in the South Division as a point three blocks to the north. The blazing brands borne before it had fallen into the sheds and shanties near the Armory, and at once the blaze mounted high.... From the river to Market street, thence to Franklin and Wells, in a northeast direction, it made its way as if directed by an engineer, in an air line, striking Madison street east of Wells, and near LaSalle. But, preceeding the actual blaze was the shower of brands, falling upon roofs, breaking through windows, falling into yards, and each brand starting a new fire. The fire was in full blast in the rear of the Union Bank and Oriental Buildings, before the actual fire had reached Wells street, three blocks to the southwest. In like manner the Chamber of Commerce building was in flames, the roof of the Court House was ablaze, the old TRIBUNE office was half destroyed, as distinct conflagrations. For a long time the Sherman House resisted destruction, and before it was abandoned the fire had commenced in a dozen places on the North Division. Any one who will take a map will see that the line from the point where the fire began, to the Water Works, was the exact line of the southwest wind. The fire was not continuous. Standing to the windward we could see the fire raging at various points along this line at the same time. The intervening gaps were rapidly overwhelmed by the flames, and shortly after Lill's brewery and the Water Works were ablaze.... No obstacle seemed to interrupt the progress of the fire. Stone walls crumbled before it. It reached the highest roofs, and swept the earth of everything combustible. The gale was intense in its severity. Having reached the lake, we on the west had high hopes that the destructive work would be confined to the distinct path thus mown through the very heart of the city....

The hope that, as the fire had extended to the lake at Chicago avenue, and the wind was blowing fiercely from the west and south, that part of the North Division westward of the line of the fire would escape, was an idle one. Gradually all Clark Street was included, and thence to the west until the coal beds at the river were reached. The scene about daylight was terrific. The entire North Division, from the river to the lake, and as far north as North avenue, was one seething mass of blaze. The roar of this fire was appalling.... Just before daylight there was one continuous sheet of flame...making a semicircle the inner line of which was about seven miles long. All east of this was a perfect ocean of blaze.