Friday, November 11, 2016

The Chicago Fire of 1874.

The Chicago Fire of 1874 took place on July 14. Reports of the extent of the damage vary somewhat, but sources generally agree that the fire burned forty-seven acres just south of the Loop, destroyed 812 structures and killed 20 people.
The Chicago Fire of 1874, dubbed the "Little Big Fire."
The affected neighborhood had been home to Chicago's community of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland, and a significant population of Negro families; both ethnic groups were displaced in the aftermath of the fire to other neighborhoods on the city's West and South Sides.
The map of The City of Chicago shows the burnt district Map highlighting the area affected by the 1874 Chicago Fire or the "Little Chicago Fire." Bird's-eye view map not drawn to scale.
The fire insurance industry's National Board of Underwriters responded to the fire by demanding widespread changes in Chicago's fire prevention and firefighting efforts. It ultimately encouraged fire insurers to cancel all coverage of buildings in the city in October. Many insurers did halt their activities in Chicago and only returned to issuing policies in the city after the municipal government adopted many of the suggested reforms.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, there were some attempts to give the event a nickname to correspond with the much larger "Great Chicago Fire of 1871." On July 17, three days after the fire, the Chicago Tribune suggested calling "the recent event 'The Little Chicago Fire,' to distinguish it from 'The Big Chicago Fire' that took place three years ago." In a later memoir, a fire insurance executive from Chicago claimed that the event was "known as the 'little big fire'." However, these nicknames never took permanent hold, and more recent publications refer to the event simply as "the fire of 1874" or "the second Chicago fire." The 1871 fire spurred new fireproof regulations that prohibited wooden buildings to be constructed in the area bordered by 22nd Street to the south, the Chicago River to the north, Halsted Street to the west, and Lake Michigan to the east. Wooden buildings already existing within those boundaries were grandfathered in, and temporary wooden structures could be erected until replaced by permanent structures. City regulations mandated that those "temporary" buildings must come down within a year, but many remained.

July 14 was a hot day in the city, with a temperature above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The weather had been dry for weeks, with only one-day recording more than a trace of rain since early June. These circumstances, along with a "strong prairie wind" blowing from the southwest, made the 1874 fire similar to the 1871 fire.

However, the section that burned in the 1874 fire was south of the downtown Chicago core, and rebuilt after the 1871 fire. This area south of the Loop was considered undesirable by many, according to the Chicago Tribune: "This part of the city consists of the worst rookeries imaginable, most of which are occupied as houses of ill-fame." The neighborhood was described as a "broad belt of wooden buildings which menaced the new structures which have sprung up in the business quarter of the South Division." Some of these buildings had been relocated to that part of the city from the South Division—the Tribune calls this relocation the act of "a weak Common Council and a weak Mayor," who endangered the city by packing these flammable wooden frame buildings too closely together upon relocation. Water mains in that part of the city were insufficient for firefighting purposes, being "mostly four inches in diameter and largely choked up with rust and corrosion so that one steam fire engine could not get a sufficient supply from a fireplug." On the eve of the fire, the neighborhood was a densely packed tinderbox that, especially under the dry and windy conditions, was highly susceptible to becoming the site of a major conflagration.

Although all accounts were clear in identifying the fire's origin a little before 4:30 p.m. in the neighborhood, generally known as the "Cheyenne District," reports differ as to the exact location of the start of the fire. According to the report of the Fire Marshal, the fire began on Fourth Avenue (now Wabash Ave), and quickly spread to an oil works building near Clark Street and Fourth. The fire was further fueled by the ten to twelve barrels of oil in the alley near the oil works building.
Fire Engine No. 21 was the first Chicago fire department organized with black men. The engine's first foreman (captain) was David Kenyon, seated in the middle of the front row. (1874)
The San Francisco Elevator published an article on August 8, 1874, identifying a Polish Jewish rag shop filled with flammable materials at 527 S. Clark as the source of the blaze. The shopkeeper was allegedly absent at the time of the fire's discovery, but a prostitute who was occupying the room west of the building discovered the fire and sounded the alarm at box 37 at 4:29 p.m.

In his three-volume history of Chicago published in 1884, Alfred T. Andreas wrote that "on July 14, 1874, at 4:29 p.m., a fire of supposed incendiary origin was started in the two-story frame building at 449 South Clark Streets, owned by Le Grand Odell, and occupied as a saloon by E.T. Cregier."

In 2009, a Chicago-area librarian and online columnist, Alice Maggio, claimed in an article about the fire that it originated in a small barn "near the corner of Clark and 12th Street", similar to the debunked theory as to the start of the Chicago Fire of 1871. Maggio claimed the barn was next to the oil factory mentioned in the Fire Marshal's report. The exact cause of the fire was unclear, but area residents alleged that its owner, Nathan Isaacson, had intentionally set the fire. In the aftermath of the fire, Isaacson was arrested and charged with arson. Although he was charged with arson, and some of his neighbors testified in court alleging to have witnessed him setting the fire, he was never convicted. Maggio suggests that these witnesses' statements were motivated more by racial prejudice than by any hard evidence.

According to the Tribune's article published the day following the fire, the fire began in "the center of the block bounded by Twelfth, Taylor, and Clark streets, and Fourth avenue," a portion of the city the Tribune calls the "Cheyenne District." Due to a strong wind blowing from the southwest, the fire did not travel far south from its origin, halting before it reached Twelfth Street in that direction. Instead, the flames blew north and east, reaching the corner of Taylor and State Street by about 5:30 or  6:00 p.m. The German Methodist Church's steeple on the corner of Third and Polk caught fire. The fire crossed State Street at about 6:30 p.m. and was nearing Wabash Avenue at 7:00 p.m. when an alderman appealed to Police Superintendent Rehm to use gunpowder to blow up some buildings in the fire's path to act as a firebreak. Rehm refused, saying he was not authorized to take such an action, and the alderman subsequently appealed to Chicago's mayor, Harvey Doolittle Colvin, also without success. Ultimately some attempts were made under the direction of Mark Sheridan, an alderman and one of the city's police commissioners, but sufficient quantities of gunpowder were too hard to acquire on such short notice, and the few wooden frame buildings that were demolished by these efforts did very little to slow the fire's progress.

The city's firefighters tried to hem the fire in north and south, driving the flames east towards Lake Michigan in order to contain the damage they could do—in doing so, it seemed at the time that this strategy would ensure that the residences along the lake on Michigan Avenue would be lost, but ultimately the fire department was able to almost completely halt the blaze just short of that street. As the fire moved north along State Street, observers feared that the heart of the city's business district would be gutted again (as it was by the 1871 fire), but just north of the St. James Hotel and just south of Van Buren Street, a fire-proof wall was maintained that stopped the fire's progress just short of the Loop. The moment at which it was clear that the wall, called "the citadel of the conflagration" in one account, would mark the northernmost limit of the fire's destruction was characterized by one contemporary journalist as the turning point in the fire department's attempts to control the flames. The fire burned itself out around midnight, claiming the Michigan Avenue Hotel as the last major building destroyed by the flames.

The fire occupied approximately 47 acres, spanning south and westward from Van Buren Street and Michigan Avenue. The Associated Press report described the extent of the fire two days after the event: "The fire burned a small portion of Clark street, near 12th Street... then took 3rd and 4th avenues between Peck Court and 12th street, and burned them as far as Harrison street. State Street was burned from Harmon Court to Van Buren Street, Wabash Avenue from 452, near Peck Court, to 267, near Van Buren Street. Michigan Avenue was burned a short distance from Harrison Street to Van Buren." Prominent buildings destroyed in the fire include the First Baptist Church, the Great Adelphi Theatre, the Jones School Building, Aiken's Theatre, the Michigan Avenue Hotel, Congress Hall, the Inter-Ocean Building, the St. James Hotel, and a post office that had formerly served as the Wabash Avenue Methodist Church. Among the religious communities that lost their places of worship were First Baptist Church, Olivet Baptist Church, Bethel Methodist Church, German Methodist Church, Kehelath B'nai Sholom Synagogue, and Kehilath Anshe Ma'arav Synagogue.

The report of the Board of Police in the Fire Department to the Common Council lists 812 structures that were affected by the fire, their owners and occupants, and their uses. The fire affected addresses between 449-533 Clark Street, 109-284 Fourth Avenue, 83-266 Third Avenue, 283-516 State Street, 267-475 Wabash Avenue, 49-53 Eldridge Court, 41-50 Hubbard Court, 6-52 Taylor Street, 6-26 Polk Street, 46-52 Van Buren Street, 198-230 Michigan Avenue, 12-20 Congress, and 17-98 Harrison. In the Report of the Board of Police issued immediately following the fire, there was no information included about the individual losses or insurance claims, but the total loss from the fire was estimated by them at the time to be $1,067,260, with insurance claims for $1,860,000. 

The report broke down the list of the 812 damaged buildings into categories, including:
  • 619 frame buildings (one four-story frame, 21 three-story framed, 471 two-story framed, and 126 one-story frame structures)
  • 190 brick buildings
  • 3 stone buildings
  • And of those buildings affected, they comprised:
  • 708 stores and dwellings
  • 89 barns
  • 8 churches
  • 4 hotels
  • 1 post office
  • 1 school house
  • 1 theater
The Chicago Times noted that the fire had burned out a notorious Red Light District, describing the gathering of prostitutes fleeing the advance of the flames as "Hogarth's 'Gin Lane' with a touch of the 'Harlot's Progress.'"

Some articles cast the fire in a religious context, describing the flames as a necessary consequence of the sinful activities associated with the near South Side and even as a desirable outcome that would purge the city's worst elements: "Jews and Gentiles, whites and blacks, the virtuous and the depraved, lived in the neighborhood, and their haunts and homes have been swept out of existence.

One writer for the Chicago Tribune commented that the fire was less likely to deal lasting harm to Negroes living in the area, as, in his opinion, the Negro community in that neighborhood was more financially stable with money saved in local bank accounts, at least as compared with other residents who had either wasted money on frivolous household possessions or were widely known to be itinerant wastrels (good-for-nothing person).

Two days after the fire occurred, The Chicago Tribune published an article arguing that the lessons of the 1871 fire had not been learned and calling for immediate reform regarding improved fire protection for the city.

The St. James Hotel decided to relocate from its previous address on Van Buren and State to the nearby corner of State and Washington. The First Baptist Church, though only recently constructed, decided not to rebuild in the neighborhood and instead to relocate further south. The Chicago Historical Society's library, which had been destroyed by the Great Fire of 1871, had been replenished by large donations of books from other historical societies around the nation and internationally, but this replacement collection was destroyed by the 1874 fire, necessitating a second effort to begin building the library's collections up. Overall, across the whole of the damaged area, "the losses sustained in the fire amounted to $3,845,000, with an insurance of $2,200,000."

The fire insurance industry responded aggressively to the 1874 fire; the National Board of Underwriters (based in New York City) insisted that the city immediately responds to a list of demands, including increasing the size of the water mains, reorganizing the fire department under the direction of a single powerful chief (as opposed to an elected board), and banning the erection of wooden buildings inside city limits. Until those demands were met, the Underwriters recommended that all fire insurers refuse to do business with any clients in Chicago. Most companies complied with the suggestion to pressure the city into action. In response, permanent fire limits were extended to the corporate limits of Chicago in an ordinance officially recommended to the council on July 20, 1874. New buildings could no longer be erected within the newly extended fire limits unless a permit for the construction was obtained from the Board of Public Works. Wooden buildings that existed within the corporate limits of the city of Chicago could not be enlarged, raised, or repaired except with the written permission of the Board of Public Works. Additionally, no wooden buildings could be removed from one lot to another within the corporate city limits, but wooden buildings could be transferred to areas that existed outside of the corporate city limits, provided that the building was worth more than 50% of what it would cost to erect a new building of "like character." The "character" of the building was to be determined by the Mayor and the Board of Public Works. The city was also forced to purchase additional equipment for the purposes of firefighting.
Chief Fire Marshall Matthias Benner and a scene of the 1874 fire.
Despite the speed of this response, Chicago's businesses and homes were still largely unable to secure fire insurance until a council was formed to make recommendations for reorganizing the fire department and revising the city's approach to fire prevention and response. The Citizens' Association of Chicago council was formed in 1874 and soon implemented building inspection and surveying measures. They hired General Alexander Shaler, New York City's fire chief, to come and reorganize the city's fire department along military lines: the whole department was structured as a brigade composed of six battalions, each one headed by an assistant fire marshal, and each battalion was divided into companies led by captains and lieutenants. The newly restructured department was led by the city's newly-appointed fire chief, Matthias Benner. Most of the reforms demanded by the Underwriters were achieved by the fall of 1874, and the insurers resumed business in the city.

The Citizens' Association of Chicago continued to work on fire prevention and response in the city following its urgent work responding to the Underwriters in 1874. In 1876, the Association enforced other safety measures, such as requiring metal fire escapes in more than three stories high residential buildings. Smaller fires in the months that followed the 1874 blaze led to "the employment of three hundred special night watchmen, who went about the streets with red lanterns on the lookout for incendiaries and fires." Local businessmen organized themselves at this time to work for the election of aldermen who would prioritize fire safety and continue the work initiated by the ordinances passed in 1874: at least one fire insurer, Charles H. Case of the Royal Insurance Company, was elected as an alderman, and an institution known as the "Fire Insurance Patrol" was established to pursue continuing reforms.
Map showing the start of the 1874 fire on the block surrounded by Clark, Taylor and 12th streets. The pink area represents the 1871 Great Fire. Most of the white area between Clark, Michigan, 12th and Van Buren streets was the burnt district of the 1874 fire.
In the aftermath of the fire, the minority groups who had lived in the "burnt district" generally relocated elsewhere in the city. The Jewish community affected by the fire, which was largely composed of immigrants from Russia and Poland, moved into neighborhoods west of the Chicago River, replacing second-generation immigrant Irish and German families who were moving farther away from the city center. The area they moved into became a "cradle of Jewish culture for the city" in the decades that followed. The fire is believed to have destroyed 85 percent of all Negro owned property in the city. Although roughly half of the displaced families relocated to mixed neighborhoods, most of the other families relocated to an area known as the Black Belt, which would become "the center of Chicago's black life for the twentieth century." This area contained most of the city's Negro population and was also where Negro institutions were concentrated. The fire also displaced about 500 prostitutes from brothels and bordellos in the neighborhood. The "houses of ill-fame" quickly sprang up south of 18th Street, eventually becoming the infamous Levee District. Wabash Avenue had been an upper-class area with its remaining churches and larger homes, but many of those residents and congregations moved south to Prairie Avenue.

Chicago Tribune Article, July 15, 1874.
It came this time not "like a thief in the night," but during those hours when all are supposed to be on the alert; when it is expected that a fire will be discovered in a moment, an alarm instantaneously flashed to an engine-house, and the firemen on the spot. It came at a time—just after the fire at the store of M.D. Wells & Co.—when it was expected that the firemen, stung by the charges since made against them, would have worked with double speed and fury.

And yet, in spite of all these things, the fire has come and conquered and repeated the sad lesson of 1871 that in wooden buildings, there is no safety for us. It has again proven the firemen's inability to cope with the forces of nature—to limit the destructive fury of a flame once under fair headway or to contend against the un-bridles tempest of that fatal southwest wind.

It is needless to go into comparisons or to relate the story of other conflagrations that have formed a bright blank page in the history of this city. The one of yesterday can stand on its own merits. It began in an oil factory, while the one in 1871 started in a shanty. With a more aristocratic beginning, it has been less destructive.

It has come to complete in part the work left undone in 1871 and to scoop out of existence another broad belt of wooden buildings that menaced the new structures which have sprung up in the business quarter of the South Division. It has shaken hands with the fire of 1871 and, reaching the ground its predecessor conquered, has stopped, not satiate, and yet satisfied. Well, it may be for the palaces that line Madison Street that yet another strip of stone and brick is to be piled up between them and the menacing frame structures that lie beyond, and yet we cannot help reflecting that this security of the future has been brought by too great a sacrifice in the present.

Happily, for us all, the fire of 1874 was born on this side of the South Branch, the Far East of the spot its predecessor came to be. Had it started there where it did of old, it would, in all probability, have again swept across the narrow Branch and out a broader and more destructive swathe than it did yesterday. Happily for all, while Nature repeats herself from year to year, man does not. We have had for days the dry weather; the constant winds  now from the north; now cool and safe from the lake; and, last of all, laden with "curses dark," the southwest wind.

Nature told us," Beware of the repetition of 1871," but man, so cautioned just after a fire, is brutally heedless when its memory has faded. Even the insurance men, of all others most sensitive to the approach of such a calamity, seemed to have no forebodings that there was no particular care against possible disaster.

And the blow came. Thanks to the negligence of man, it started, not among the cottages that crowd the flat prairies of the West Division, but in the center of the South Side, in that compactly built and densely settled district where fire comes laden with all its terrors since it strikes those who, though lose a little, lose everything.

Here, as before, the fire sprang at a bound beyond the control of the firemen. It mocked their puny efforts and overstepped the limits they sought to put to its course. They fought it faithfully and without many blunders. Doubtless times, there were not enough engines. This fire points out the truth of recent declarations that, perhaps, it would be better economy to have less sewerage and more fire engines, that adopting measures for the salvation of property really saves more lives than those intended for the preservation of health. The hundreds of women and children who spent last night in vacant lots, cowering on the heaps of rubbish which, yet remain to tell the tale of the fire of 1871, would have been happier, have slept sounder and lived longer had there been more engines and less sewerage last year.

There have been no great since the one on Halsted Street last year, and yet how quickly the people took the alarm once the danger was upon them. They looked at the rolling smoke clouds and the flashing flames and then at the ominous pointing of the steady vanes on the buildings above them and read the danger in a moment. The tide turned southward earlier than she went. The rush, which normally begins at 6, began a little after 4, and away the people went, merchants and employees, rushing on till they were checked by the conflagration's reflux tide of the sufferers. Their progress was stopped on State, and those hastening homes were compelled to flank the fire on Michigan Avenue or on Clark or Wells streets.

Then began the doleful scenes of other days again. The cupidity of draymen and expressmen, asleep so long, sprang once more to arms. From all quarters of the city, they hurried to the spot to offer their services to those who were ready to give anything to save their all. It was the golden opportunity they had waited for so long; unhappily, it had come. But the flames passed beyond the confines of poverty and shame and swept eastward to the dwelling houses on Wabash and Michigan Avenues until it lapped its burning tongues in the lake's cool waters.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.  


  1. What an amazing story. I didn't know of this fire.

  2. So, when did Mathias Benner get promoted to Chief Fire Marshal? Was it after the re-organization under direction of the NY consultant?


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