Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Great Conflagration of 1857, Chicago.

News Story: Chicago, October 20, 1857 — We learned by indirect information from Chicago that they were visited by one of the most disastrous conflagrations ever known in the city of Chicago on the evening of October 19th.

The fire commenced on South Water Street, between Clark Street and Illinois Central Railroad Depot, and had consumed, by 10 o'clock the next morning, both the American and the United States Express Company's offices on Dearborn Parkway.
NOTE: The remaining Fort Dearborn blockhouse and few surviving outbuildings were being used by the Harbor Master of Chicago as the Marine Hospital.
From time to time, riverfront property in Chicago became the home to houses of ill-repute, including one located on the second floor of a brick warehouse situated at 109 South Water Street (now 35 West Wacker Dr.). As a harbinger of Chicago fires to come, one of the women working at this location accidentally kicked over a lantern leading to a massive conflagration. All of the brothel employees escaped unharmed.

Several large stores on Lake Street were lost causing the deaths of twenty-three people, some of whom were firemen, all except one have been recognized. Losses were estimated at about $800,000 dollars ($22,554,00 today). We also learned that several lives were lost by the falling walls of D.B. Cooke & Co.'s book store.

A lady reported that she and her husband were on their way back to their home in New York. They were staying at the Tremont House in Chicago the night of the fire, and he, from curiosity, went to it, and when there, was crushed under a falling wall. He was so mutilated that it was only some remnants of his clothing that the agonized wife could recognize him, who but a moment before was in the full vigor of manhood. Their money was with him, and was, we understand destroyed.

The widow, heartbroken, meets with the active kindness from Chicagoans. The Railroad men pass her for free, and others are also attentive. A Mrs. Whitaker, wife of a merchant of Toledo, Ohio, interesting herself on this lady's behalf, went through the train cars with the kind Conductor Ames and obtained over $20 ($555 today) for her. The corpse was forwarded by the Express company.
The Fire Insurance Patrol № 6, 332 South Hoyne, Chicago, Illinois.
As a result of this fire, the Citizens Fire Brigade of Chicago was formed on November 19, 1857. Consisting of businessmen and insurance companies. The duties of the brigade were to take valuable goods from burning buildings and prevent damage by water and thievery.

A paid Chicago Fire Department was formed on August 2, 1858.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. I was wondering what the source of the Chicago Volunteer Firefighters monument was at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago I recently visited. Now I know that it was this 1857 fire. Thank you for the post.

  2. Great story of both sadness and kindness.

  3. I noticed the fire wagon said “insurance” When did Chicago have a municipal fire Dept, that was paid by tax payers? I believe in cities out East fire protection was private and one had a medallion posted on your building. I’m not sure how this service actually work.


The Digital Research Library of Illinois History Journal™ is RATED PG-13. Please comment accordingly. Advertisements, spammers and scammers will be removed.