Chicago by Moonlight

James T. Sheahan was an editor at the Tribune. George T. Upton also worked for the Tribune, and he wrote several books on music and composers. The full title of their book was The Great Conflagration. Chicago: Its Past, Present and Future. Embracing a Detailed Narrative of the Great Conflagration in the North, South, and West Divisions: Origin, Progress and Results of the Fire. Prominent Buildings Burned, Character of Buildings, Losses and Insurance, Graphic Description of the Flames, Scenes and Incidents, Loss of Life, the Flight of the People. Also, a Condensed History of Chicago, Its Population, Growth and Great Public Works. And a Statement of All the Great Fires of the World.

Only the moon, just rising in the east, casts an uncertain lustre over the scene. The busy men are gone. Nothing is heard but the steady footfall of the patrolman, or the quicker steps of some one hurrying to reach his home. The ruined wall and shattered masonry are softened and refined by the clear, mild light. Dark nooks and deeply-shaded recesses, which by daylight would lose their secrecy, and be nothing but waste blanks, are in the evening full of the charm of mystery and of darkness. Fancy peoples those secluded spots with the creatures of her imagination, and they seem fitting homes for ghoul and afrit--creatures who lurk among the ruined tombs and devour the belated wanderers there. The long, black lines of pavement stretch out into the infinite dim distance as if they led to the quiet homes of the dead. Here and there the vast bulk of undestroyed buildings tower up, silent and uninhabited, like the watchtowers which Vathek saw at Istakhar. Through their open windows streams the moonlight, and half hides and half reveals the fallen walls and shattered floors within. There are inscriptions on them, but it is too dark to spell out the names of supervisors who tried to secure immortality, and have passed successfully through this ordeal of fire.

In this indefinite light all things are old, and all things are strange. It is no longer Chicago, the sky above is clear and starry enough to look upon the Rhine and Arno, instead of the Chicago river. Telegraph posts are transfigured into burned and branchless trees, and in this blue land of supreme fancy, the prosaic and the commonplace have disappeared forever. There are slight, faint sounds, which may be the imagined voices of the night, or the pulsations of the lake, or the sighing of the wind; but there is no hum of myriads, no many-voiced utterances of men.

Yonder, burnt and bruised and blackened, stands the church, its pealing organ stilled forever. Through its gaping portals no more wedding parties shall pass. It has buried its last dead, and there it remains its own monument. Those who have been baptized there are scattered far and wide, and have forgotten the font over which they were once held. The young men who, in the intoxication of first love, followed their sweethearts there, and endured the sermon for the sake of being near the beloved, have outlived the passionate ardor of them, and will not regret the ruined sanctuary, which, to them, was the temple of Cupid, and not of Jehovah. The light glancing through the wide window, falls full, upon the untouched memorial of marble. All the artificial aid to devotion, the cushioned pews, the soft foot stools, the elegantly bound books, have disappeared, but it remains, unmoved, while all around is in ruins. The monuments of the dead outlast by far the homes of the living. Here there is no feeling of newness. It might be a page taken from middle age history. Cowled and girdled monks, or corpulent friars, might have dwelt there, and the odor that one perceives might be a reminiscence of frankincense and myrrh, consumed in swinging censers, rather than that peculiar smell which follows a fire. It is so dark that one cannot see the ivy on the walls, but one knows that it is there, and if it were not so hackneyed, one would be apt to quote certain lines concerning Melrose Abbey. But on such occasions people do not express their feelings in the words of another. They do not seek to express them at all, but float along idly, borne by the current of their thoughts, like a boat drifting on the bosom of the river.

At another point one can faintly distinguish twisted and distorted iron beams, half covering and half covered by massive blocks of stone. There they lie, in one chaotic mass, dumb witnesses of some terrible conflict. By the light of day we could tell how recent had been their overthrow; but now, by the uncertain beams of the moon, Eve cannot tell but what they are as venerable as the world itself, and sitting there, we can reconstruct them as we will. Story by story rises the airy pile. Bright lights gleam from its windows, and strains of music mingle with the tread of the feet that cross its marble floors. But the flickering flame, still fitfully burning in the centre of the ruins, suddenly dies out, and the lights disappear, and the building goes down as suddenly as it rose; and with it, the guests that thronged its halls. Beyond it is something that was once a pile of wheat. Now it is a hill which dwarfs those in Lincoln Park, and from its sides come intermittent jets of fire and smoke. Were it only higher, then imagination could easily convert it into a new Vesuvius. Its flames serve to light up the building beyond, and cast a dim, uncertain glare upon the river, a rival of the lighthouse, and an unsafe guide for sailors.

It is a great pity, for purely artistic reasons, that there are not more walls standing. These poor half-story remnants have not half the pathos of a building, which, destroyed within, still uprears itself and bids defiance to fate. It is a blind Samson, but a Samson still powerful for good or evil; and the architect will come along in the morning, and will scan the vast, though scarred proportions, and will dose him with bricks and mortar, and whitewash him, and restore his flowing locks--to wit, put a Mansard roof on him, and he will look about as good as new, though the traces of the wounds are still visible, if you only know where to look for them; or else the Fire Marshal will order the walls to come down, and, in the act of doing it, two or three Philistines will be slain, and the coroner will be called upon to hold an inquest, and will find a difficulty in doing so, since the county is too poor to pay twenty-five cents per head to jurymen, and there are no more inducements to accept the position. For office seeking is at an end for the moment, and when the court house was burned, more than half the candidates promptly withdrew. To these buildings, thus left partly standing, there is a wonderful expression, varying with their condition. There are those which seem to implore, and those which seem to threaten. Some are weary of the contest with fortune, while others are still obdurate, and unwilling to give way; but about these odds and ends of brick and mortar there is no expression whatever. No life remains in them, and nothing can lend them the power to charm. But the eye lingers fondly over hanging cornices and projecting pinnacles, one moment bright with the moon, and then shading away into darkness.

Over to the left there is nothing. There no walls remain, and the eye can distinguish nothing but a succession of slight hollows and slight elevations. It might have been anything--a water-washed field, or a space of ground, on which had been deposited dust heaps or the refuse of a furnace. Beyond that lies a black chasm where the river flows, and as one gets nearer, the gleam of the moonlight upon the waves at once changes the character of the scene. Then there was a dark abyss, beyond which grimly rose a long vista of half-destroyed and threatening walls. Now, the glancing and sparkling waters have dispelled the loneliness and wildness of the spot. For who can feel solitary when he is near a stream that is pure enough to mirror the firmament in its bosom, and whose slight, inarticulate noises furnish him company, and invite him, like the song of the sirens, to come nigher and nigher? While the brook is a child, with which one laughs and babbles, the river is a full-grown man, wherewith we can hold reasonable converse, and wherefrom we can gain rare information, to be found nowhere else. For a moment the moon is eclipsed, and the powers of night have fully resumed their control. By the dim starlight, one can see only the vaguely outlined forms of objects near at hand. The river has gone from sight, and the buildings beyond are swallowed up in the darkness. Far away are the blazing coal heaps, burning up like mimic volcanoes, and farther yet, the gas lamps of the west side; but they seem infinitely remote, and on the verge of the horizon of the night. All other sights, all sounds, have died away, and there remains only a sense of desolation and ruin, so great and terrible that one can linger no longer, but gropes his way as best he can back to the light, and the homes of men.