The Losses by the Fire

Elias Colbert came to Chicago from his native England in 1857 and worked on the Chicago News and the Chicago Times before joining the Tribune in 1863. He was a prolific writer on many topics concerning local trade and history, but his great passion was astronomy. He followed the early progress of the fire through a telescope he kept on the roof of the Tribune building. Everett Chamberlin's paper was the Chicago Times.

Amid such a general wreck, the attempt to gather correct statistics of the losses entailed by the great conflagration, may well seem a hopeless one. So many records were destroyed; so many people driven from the city, who could alone give accurate information on some essential point; such a universal scattering and destruction among those who remained, that it is practically impossible to cover every item in the immense aggregate of loss.

We essay the task with diffidence, notwithstanding the fact that we have taken all possible pains in the investigation of loss. The following statements are probably very near the truth in the aggregate--made up of details obtained by personal inquiry from many hundreds of the parties most interested in the sad exhibit....

In the West Division about 194 acres were burned over, including 16 acres swept by the fire of the previous evening. This district contained several lumber-yards and planing-mills, the Union Depot of the St. Louis and Pittsburg & Fort Wayne Railroads, with a few minor hotels and factories, several boarding-houses, and a host of saloons. The buildings burned--about 500 in number--were nearly all frame structures, and not of much value, but were closely packed together. About 2250 persons were rendered homeless in this division.

In the South Division the burned area comprised about 460 acres. The southern boundary line was a diagonal, running from the corner of Michigan Avenue and Congress Street, west-south-west to the intersection of Fifth Avenue (Wells) and Polk Street. On the other three sides the bounding lines were the lake and the river--only one block (the Lind) being left in all that area. This district contained the great majority of the most expensive structures in the city, all the wholesale stores, all the newspaper offices, all the principal banks, and insurance and law offices, many coal-yards, nearly all the hotels, and many factories, the Court-house, Custom-house, Chamber of Commerce, etc.--as stated more at length in our chapter descriptive of Chicago in 1871. The number of buildings destroyed in this division was about 3650, which included 1600 stores, 28 hotels, and 60 manufacturing establishments. About 21,800 persons were rendered homeless, very many of whom were residents in the upper stories of the palatial structures devoted, below, to commerce. There were, however, many poor families, and a great many human rats, resident in the western part of this territory. 

In the North Division the devastation was the most wide-spread, fully 1470 acres being burned over, out of the 2533 acres in that division. And even this statement fails to convey an idea of the wholesale destruction wrought there, because the territory unburned was unoccupied. Had there been any except widely-scattered structures in the unburned portion, they, too, would have been destroyed as the fire licked up all in its path, and paused only when there was no more food whereon to whet its insatiable appetite. Of the 13,800 buildings in that division, not more than 500 were left standing, leaving 13,300 in ruins, and rendering 74,450 persons homeless. The buildings burned included more than 600 stores and 100 manufacturing establishments, the latter being principally grouped in the south-western part of this division. That part next to the lake, as far north as Chicago Avenue, was occupied by first-class residences, of which only one was left standing--that of Mahlon D. Ogden. Next north of these was the Water-works, and this was the initial point of a line of breweries that stretched out almost to the cemetery. The river banks were piled high with lumber and coal, which was all destroyed, except a portion near the bend of the river, at Kinzie Street. The space between the burned district and the river, to the westward, contained but little improved property. Lincoln Park lay to the northward, on the lake-shore. The fire burned up the southern part of this park--the old City Cemetery--but left the improved part untouched, except a portion of the fencing. One of the saddest among the many sad scenes that met the eye after the conflagration had done its work, was that in the old cemetery--the flames had even made havoc among the dead, burning down the wooden monuments, and shattering stone vaults to fragments, leaving exposed many scores of the remnants of mortality that had smoldered for years in oblivion.

The total area burned over in the city, including streets, was 2124 acres, or very nearly 3 1/3 square miles. The number of buildings destroyed was 17,450; of persons rendered homeless, 98,500. Of the latter, more than 250 paid the last debt of nature amid the carnage--fell victims to the Moloch of our modern civilization.