William H. Carter Tells His Brother the Sad News

William H. Carter was president and one of the three commissioners of the city's Board of Public Works, hence his special interest in the water supply after the fire. His short letter gives a sense of what it was like to "pass through" the fire, as well as the shifting moods of one who has lost house and home but is hopeful for his own and his city's future.

Office of the Board of Public Works 
City Hall
Sunday Oct. 15, 1871

My dear Brother,

I snatch the first moment I have had since one week ago tonight. Our beautiful city is in ruins. The greatest calamity that ever befell a city is upon us.

Boastful Chicago lies prostrate and with outstretched arms in begging of her sister cities for relief. It is impossible to relate the loss of life or suffering during the conflagration or to estimate the am't of property that has been consumed.

The fire broke out about eleven o'clock on Sunday night. The wind was blowing heavily from the south-west. The portion of the city where it broke out was thickly settled by the laboring people, on narrow streets and alleys--buildings all of wood--one and two stories high with barns and sheds in alleys. The wind soon increased to almost a gale and it soon became apparent to me that all efforts to stay it were fruitless. I was on the ground soon after the alarm was given and done everything possible assisting the firemen. The flames even crossed the river and all hopes of saving the city was gone. Between one and two in the morning I went home, took Kate and the children to a place of safety, ordered the bedding and other things to be packed--went for teams--a difficult thing to find at that time of the night and then drove with all speed to the water works. My anxiety for the water works was due not more to save the buildings than to save a supply to the people to drink. It was too late, after going around in order to reach a spot of safety nearly five miles, I had to abandon the attempt and turned back almost in despair. The flames were rushing most frantically, leaping from block to block--whole squares vanishing as though they were gossamer. Men, women and children rushing frantically in all directions to save their lives--some away--but others into traps and places where they were soon surrounded and no retreat left. Hundreds rushed upon the shore of the lake where they had to hug the beach and waters until the flames subsided, giving them a chance to escape. The most heart rending scenes that could be imagined were transpiring in all directions and the tales that are told are most appalling. I have not time to give you details as you can well imagine. My efforts during the past week have been directed to repairs upon the water works and hope to get the pumps started as soon as Tuesday. Think of a population of 300,000 people without water. We have been able to give a partial supply by using all the pumps and engines that could be spared. My own losses you will of course want to know, but it is impossible to state them with any degree of accuracy. The value of property, of insurance--of deposits is all uncertain. The Homestead built by my own hands out of my own hard earnings, is gone--a total wreck. The spot had become endeared to me by many fond associations. It was the first home I could call my own, where my children were born, where I had hoped to live to educate them, where I had welcomed kind brothers and sisters and friends in the past and where I had hoped to do it often in the future. It was the spot above all others where a half century of toil had centered and where at sometime I had hoped to live more at ease. No other spot will seem like it to me. As a home it will not be rebuilt. Business houses will be erected around it and as a home it is gone forever. Good Bye to 46 Van Buren St. It went up in a cloud of fire and desolation is all about it. Five other houses on the west side is all I have sustained. When I compare my situation to others and think of the kind brothers and sisters who are so willing and ready to provide a temporary home for my wife and children, I have cause for the most devout thankfulness. Will write you at the earliest opportunity. Read this to the other brothers and sisters as I cannot get to write to them all. Kate is with you by this time and will tell you much. Much love to her and the children. I have great responsibilities on me at the present and hope I am able for the task. Chicago is burned down but not despairing--she has the energy and push and will rise phoenix like from the ashes. In two weeks time our wholesale merchants will resume business in all sorts of shanties and plans for rebuilding are already made and under contract. I was at work last night and today upon plans for the temporary accommodations of the city government and hope to have them all ready for occupancy in thirty days, Good bye with love to you, wife and the children and all,

Your affectionate brother,