A Night of Terror & Sympathy and Relief

These excerpts are, respectively, from Chapters II and XXIV of Part Second of Colbert and Chamberlin's fire history, which was published within weeks of the fire itself.  It is, if anything, is more restrained than most of the instant histories. The section taken from "A Night of Terror" focuses on the ordeal in the North Division, including the harrowing conditions among refugees on the Sands, the stretch of the lakefront north of the Main Branch of the Chicago River. In praising the world's charity, "Sympathy and Relief" also specifically discusses the importance of the new communications network in making this charity possible.

A Night of Terror

The lowest price at which a hack or cart could be obtained for this service was ten dollars; and from that figure it ranged upward, according to the ability of the owner or the degree of the hackman's devilishness. Mr. E. I. Tinkham, the cashier of one of the banks, actually paid an expressman one thousand dollars for taking a box to the railroad depot on the west side, a distance of a mile; but this was an unusual case, the box carried being full of treasure, amounting to $600,000, taken from the bank-vaults, and to be carried through walls of fire at the peril of the brave carter's life. This case is not to be reckoned among those of inhuman wretches of drivers who extorted all a poor man's means, or perhaps a helpless woman's, for taking on board a trunk containing a meager remnant of clothing, perhaps to be thrown off at the next corner, where the extorting process could be repeated upon another customer. It was in the North Division that the vulture-like qualities of the expressmen and other drivers culminated; for it was there that the distress was greatest, and the demand for vehicles most urgent. By the time the flames had reached the north side, all thought of checking its progress had long been abandoned, and the only hope of the most hopeful was to escape with their lives and a few such valuables and clothing as they could lay hands upon in the haste of their flight. There were many carters about, but they wanted now fifty dollars for moving a load. Having found a victim, they would stop midway and assess him again, or if he refused to submit to their levies, or was unable to pay them, off went his goods into the street, to be ravaged by roughs, trampled upon by the crowd, or consumed by the flames. In more than one case, however, these unconscionable drivers were brought to a sense of their duty by a sudden declaration of martial law on the part of an owner, and the exhibition of a loaded revolver--a sort of mandamus fully excusable in such a straight.

The fugitives from the fire on the south side had fortunately had many avenues of egress, so that it was only those who too bravely or too rashly staid [sic] to save friends or treasures, or those who, by reason of the night's debauches, or other cause, slept too soundly in their isolated quarters, who fell prey to the raging element. Others fled in the direction which their impulse or reason suggested. They had reason to thank the flat topography and square, open plan of the city for their delivery from being roasted by thousands in the flames. Without straight broad streets, plenty of bridges across the river and its branches, and an open country on three sides of the city, the slaughter must have been terrible; for the streets would have been irremediably choked with colliding vehicles and the people cornered up and consumed by the flames. As it was, those who, instead of flying straight to a point to the south or west beyond reach of the monster, shrank to the nearest refuge--the lake-shore--or fled northward before the whelming wave, fared the worst of all. The narrow space of unoccupied lake-shore lying between Randolph and Congress Streets, and adjoining "the basin"--a section of the lake protected by a breakwater--was crowded during the night and early morning with forlorn creatures of all classes, and strewn with every description of goods snatched from burning homes. Each fugitive had brought along some article or other--whatever was most dearly prized or could be most hastily reached; but, by and by, as the rigors of the situation increased, they had abandoned these impedimenta, and strove only to save what was dearest of all, their lives. As the choking heat increased and the smoke blinded their eyes, and the sparks and brands fell in thicker showers, those poor creatures shrank further and further into the chilling water of the basin. The most of them were women, and their shrieks and moans enhanced the terrors of the scene. One of these--apparently quite delicate--came bringing an immensely heavy sewing machine; and when her place of refuge became too hot to live in, she seized her ponderous burden and bore it on southward. Poor thing! she must sustain it, for it is now all that is left to sustain her! Another young woman clutches a small bundle--probably her clothing--so tenaciously as to excite the cupidity of a ruffian, who knocks her down, seizes her precious package and makes off with it. Here is another group--two daughters supporting an invalid mother, who faints repeatedly, each time as if dead. With such scenes as these the night wears away.

By and by all chance of escape to the southward, of which the braver ones have been availing themselves hitherto, is cut off, and the shrieking fugitives are now pent up between a fiery and a watery death -- the terrors of which are increased by the suffering and ruffianism around them, and the wide-spread ruin beyond, the loss of home, property, and perhaps kindred, already accomplished, and the state of poverty into which they must now emerge, if emerge they should at all.

This was the situation through nearly twelve hours, from Sunday midnight to Monday noon, at which time the flames had been subdued at the south, and the immediate terrors of the situation removed. Those terrors were eclipsed by those suffered by the denizens of the ill-fated North Division. These were, for the most part, surprised at three o'clock in the morning, and woke to find themselves surrounded by fire. The manner in which the conflagration spread in this part of the city has been already described. Called from their beds to witness the fire upon the south side of the river, the people of the quiet and elegant residence-quarter east of Clark and south of Superior Streets were gazing at the magnificent spectacle and uttering their exclamations of pity for the unfortunate inhabitants across the river, when they discovered, to their horror, that the flames had already been communicated to their own quarter, and that the Water-works and other buildings to the rear of them of them were all ablaze! The appalling significance of this discovery was soon apparent to all. It meant that their own homes were doomed, and that, before they could save any of their goods--perhaps before they could escape with their lives--they would be walled in on either side by fire.

A terrible panic ensued. There was sudden screaming and dashing about of half-clad women, gathering up such valuables as could be suddenly snatched. There was frantic rushing into the streets and shouting for vehicles. There was anxious inquiry and anon distressed cries for absent protectors--a large portion of men being on the far side of the river, and in many cases unable to reach their homes. Then there was a pell-mell rush through the streets, some of the wild faces pushing eagerly in this direction and others quite as eagerly in the opposite; and children screaming; and shouts resounding; and brands falling in showers; and truckmen running each other down; and half-drunken, wholly desperate ruffians peering into doors and seizing valuables, and insulting women; and oaths from lips unused to them, as hot as the flames which leaped and crackled near by; and prayers from manly breasts where they had slumbered since childhood; and every other sign of turmoil and terror.

Those who had sufficient warning endeavored to escape to the northward with their best effects. Mr. Eastman, the Postmaster of the city, whose house was on Erie Street, hauled out some trunks of clothing, and found a hackman whom he desired to take them on board, but the fee demanded exceeded his means, and he was obliged to drag his trunks along, with the help of a maid-servant, his wife carrying her infant in her arms. Four times they halted, exhausted, in what seemed a place of safety, and four times they were driven on by the insatiate flames.

The most natural resort of the people of the quarter mentioned, however, was the sandy beach of the lake, where there were but few houses, and those were shanties. This strip of shore, known as "the Sands," was famous, or, rather, infamous, in years agone, as the locale of numerous low brothels, to which "Long John" Wentworth, when Mayor of the city, gave the coup de grace by allowing them to burn up. Their place had never been fully occupied, and to the bleak, narrow area thus afforded, the terrified population shrank for refuge from the pursuing monster. Such an assemblage as there congregated, Chicago never witnessed before and probably never will witness again. It was the scene at the "basin" repeated, with more diversity. The extremes of wealth and squalor had been dwelling within a stone's throw of each other in this section of the city which had emptied itself upon this scant skirt of sand. These inequalities of societies were now leveled off as smooth as the beach itself. No, not leveled; for the landlord and aristocrat, whose many stores are burning on the other side, and his precious library and cabinet--the accumulation of a doting lifetime -- has still a preferment over the boor who now jostles him; he is allowed to lose more and to suffer more, and is required to lament less. But that is all; the two must for to-night share each other's bed--the damp sand--and to-morrow each other's fare--nothing but sights of horror.

Scarce a person among the thousands collected on the sands, and there pent up for thirty hours, but had lost some dear one in the confusion attending the escape from their burning houses. Whether these were alive or dead, none could know.

As the morning advanced, some of the sufferers, crawling along the shore and down upon a pier, were taken up by tugs and propellers and carried up the river or out to sea for safety. They embarked at the peril of their lives, for the docks were on fire, and more than one staunch steamer burned alongside.

Such of the north side people as did not resort to the lake betook themselves toward Lincoln Park, where a day and night of imprisonment and exposure awaited them, or (which proved the wisest course) escaped to the west side, where they found shelter with friends, or, at least, safety upon the open prairie. Chicago Avenue was the main avenue of escape, and this becoming choked with vehicles and goods, many perished in the attempt to reach the next thoroughfare to the north. Bremer and Wesson Streets, in this vicinity, were found strewn with charred corpses when the smoke cleared away. 

All Monday the fire raged through the ill-fated North Division; but its progress was noted with little interest, except by the luckless people whose abodes it seized upon as it advanced; for every body had given up the whole of that quarter as lost, and there was no longer any struggle, even of hope and fear. It seemed as if those emotions had run down, as a clock, neglected by its keeper, stops for lack of winding. The index had stopped at the figure of despair!

Sympathy and Relief

We can not tell the story of the Relief of Chicago. We can not adequately describe the acts in which all Christendom leant over Chicago and poured the precious balm of sympathy into her wounds, and bathed with the wine of relief her parched and blistered lips. In the first place, to give a full account of the measures in aid of the sufferers by the Chicago fire, would be to write the history of the civilized world for a very eventful week; for the whole civilized world was manly absorbed, during that week, in getting news from and sending succor to Chicago. Besides, if we had all the facts gathered in some series of volumes more bulky than any library now left in Chicago, they could not be justly epitomized here. Those facts which are at hand are so numerous that we can hardly do aught more than to let out a few at random, though each presses itself upon us as richly worthy of mention.

If the spread of the flames through the streets of Chicago was swift as the wind, the spread of the news of it, and of the sympathy which it wakened, was infinitely more so. A speaker, addressing one of the ten thousand relief-meetings which sprung up in every city and hamlet in America, described this phenomenon well when he said there was no acre of the United States but that some cinder from Chicago had lighted on it and kindled the fire of sympathy. And yet that figure does not express the suddenness and directness of the passage of the feeling. Chicago was connected with the world more intimately than perhaps any other city. In the first place, nearly every county, district, and department in the Northern United States, in Great Britain, Ireland, and continental Europe, is represented in Chicago by persons who have immigrated hither, and left kindred and acquaintances at home. In the next place, the rapid growth of the city, and the remarkably active, enterprising, ambitious, audacious class of citizens which has accumulated with that growth, have attracted to Chicago the attention of the world, and brought hither travelers from all climes. Indeed, the press and the telegraph, which make all men travelers, in a sense, had been for the past few years so full of Chicago, as a theme, that every body in Christendom knew Chicago, or thought he did. The average emotion toward Chicago was that of admiration; which, at least, was not sufficiently offset by any other feeling to prevent the most hearty and unalloyed sentiment of regret and practical sympathy when the news of her misfortune came flashing along the wires. To say nothing about the veins and arteries of commerce, which permeated the whole civilized world, and makes the blood ebb away at New York or London whenever Chicago bleeds, there is a nervous system, of wires and printer's types, which connects all together, and which places Chicago in close rapport with all parts of the world, especially Anglo-Saxondom and the greater Germany. The world never knew how complete and perfect this system is, until the shock at Chicago thrilled through all lands, and made the farthest extremities smart with pain or tingle with anxiety. The community of language, the community of interests, but revealed the community of human nature and human sympathy, one touch of which can "make the whole world kin." The proud cities of the earth then wept on each other's breast, and found that they were rivals no more, but loving sisters. Blessed is that affliction which reveals such precious things!

The desolation of Chicago was fully known to all her citizens at daylight on the morning of the 9th October. Within three or four hours it was known in fully ten thousand cities and villages of the United States, and ten millions of people were bestirring themselves, and asking each other anxiously for tidings from the stricken city. Almost the first thought which suggested itself was of the destitution which must prevail, where a hundred thousand people had been so suddenly made homeless, and (as was supposed) their whole stock of provisions, clothing--in fact, all the accumulated wealth of the city -- destroyed, as it were, in a breath. The heart of every man told him what to do at once.

The West had, fortunately, great stores of provision and comfortable clothing; and these were sped on their way so promptly that, by the morning of the 10th, within thirty-two hours of the first kindling of the flames in Chicago, fifty car-loads of provisions had arrived, to the relief of the destitute, some of them coming from towns three hundred miles away; and hundreds of thousands of dollars had been contributed, by means of the same beneficent telegraph whose agency had both communicated the news of distress and quickened to sensitiveness the hearts of its recipients.