Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The "Saturday Night Fire" Struck Chicago on Saturday, October 7, 1871.

The so-called "Saturday Night Fire" of October 7, 1871, was an omen of the Great Chicago Fire, which would erupt about twenty-four hours later and ten blocks to the south. 

This fire ignited around 10 p.m. in the boiler room of Lull and Holmes Planing Mill, located at what is now 209 South Canal Street, and burned for 17 hoursIt was suggested that the fire that began in the basement of the Lull and Holmes was most likely arson, but there was no time for any formal investigation.
The Chicago "Saturday Night Fire" of October 7, 1871, Burned District.
The neighborhood was popularly known to insurance brokers as the "Red Flash" so named because a large percentage of its occupiers were lumber yards and coal yards.

The Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne, and Chicago railroad tracks ran along the Chicago River, bordering the eastern edge of the west side. The National Elevator, presumably stocked with grain, was sandwiched between lumberyards, with the tracks on its west flank and the river on the east. Saloons, wooden tenements, and factories such as a paper box factory and a sash factory filled the rest of the space of these four city-block areas.

The 'Chicago' Steamer was wrapping up a small fire across the river when the call came for this new fire. Before the fire gained ground, they set up on the north end of the fire. As they were connecting the hose to the hydrant, the hose burst.

While they were fitting a new hose, the building in front of them collapsed, shooting flames into the street aiming at the steamer. The firemen had to make a run for it. With the horses unhitched and tethered safely away, the firemen had to return to pull their steamer by hand or lose the engine to the fire.

The fire soon crossed Jackson Street and spread through the next block as well. The firemen then relocated the Chicago steamer to protect the National Elevator. A fire started up a few times, but they quickly extinguished it. The elevator was one of the only standing structures when the blaze was over.

The great number of spectators who came to watch the free entertainment also had their share of calamity. A roof of a shed collapsed at Clinton and Jackson under the weight of nearly 150 spectators. A raised sidewalk gave way, as well. Each incident doled out its share of injuries. And several volunteers who were fighting the fire at the lumberyards found themselves in the river when they got caught between flames. They threw planks into the river and jumped in after them, paddling them across to the other side of the river.

Some other volunteers came in quite handy as the fire was trying to spread north across Adams Street. Quirks saloon, on the northwest corner of Adams and Canal, started smoking. A number of men from the insurance patrol were in the area (perhaps enjoying Quirk’s generosity as he was giving away his stock of liquor and cigars). They were ready with portable extinguishers and kept the walls wet when they started to smoke. This action helped keep the fire at bay. Another set of volunteers was tearing down sheds and fences along the train track when a small hut on the corner across from Quirks caught. They ran in and brought out a terrified old woman who was caught inside. She lost her home, but her life was safe.

The fire raged for many hours. It was under control by 3:30 in the morning. And the last of the fire engines left the scene around 4 pm, Sunday afternoon. The Chicago steamer was one of them.
The 'Chicago' Steamer.
After seventeen hours of fighting Chicago’s worst fire to date, the fire department was hurting. Hoses took a beating, coal was running low, the William James steamer was badly damaged and deemed unusable. The Clybourne hose cart was lost and the 190, or so, firemen who worked it were exhausted, suffering from smoke poisoning, swollen eyes, dehydration, and burns.

Yet, the fire department was seen as the heroes of the event as historian A. T. Andreas captures, “It was not an accident, nor the extraneous influence that checked the fire here, but calm deliberate, intelligent heroism; and to those heroes, Chicago owes eternal gratitude.”

The pathetic side of this fire has never been given the vital touch of personal narrative. From among the hundreds of experiences, one is selected that tells, in a simple form, the grief of a broken life; it is the humble story of J. Develin, and is given in his own words:
“Previous to the fire of 1871, I lived on West Jackson Street, near Clinton. I occupied a two-story house, which I had lived in from the time it was built, in the spring of 1857; and, although I did not own the property, I had paid more for it, in rent, than the whole thing was worth. At the time of the fire, we happened not to have a servant, and my wife was not only quite alone but was suffering from a swollen ankle. We had no family, and I was employed in business down in the city. This was on Saturday evening, the night before the great conflagration. My house was fully furnished and contained many pieces of costly, if not elegant, furniture. I had also about three hundred volumes of well-selected books, mostly English publications. My wife was a careful, saving woman, and much attached to reading and home comforts. She had saved a little money and was her own banker. She had been for some years gathering and holding on to gold and silver, specie being then scarce. I myself had, on that day, in the inside pocket of a vest, the same being in a bureau drawer, $825 in currency (all bills of large denomination), with the intention of depositing the sum in the bank immediately. In all, we had between us, in cash, on that fatal day, not less than $2,300, and our furniture and clothing cost about $2,700. This to us would have been quite a heavy loss, but—oh, the horror of horrors!—when I reached what I supposed to be my home, about ten o'clock that evening, I could not get within half a block of where my home had stood, and my wife was nowhere to be found. As soon as it was daylight on the following morning, I and a few friends gathered up the charred remains of my poor wife—a mere handful of burned bones. The coroner was summoned, and all there was left me in this world was the contents of a small wooden box, which I had the melancholy satisfaction of taking to the place of Mr. Wright, the undertaker, on Madison Street, near LaSalle, for internment on the following day. It is needless to say that on that day, not only Wright's place, but the entire city was swept out of existence so that I was even deprived of the poor bones of my beloved wife. This was my share of the blaze of 1871. At that time I was sixty-three years of age and was left on the sidewalk, with a thin rag of a summer coat and a pair of rather old buckskin boots. My nervous system was completely unstrung with the fright consequent upon my then state of mind, and bad health followed so that my ambition was entirely destroyed. I have been comparatively a pauper ever since.”
In less than five hours from the time the last engine left the burned district, a new fire started mere blocks away in a little wooden barn that would indeed spread across the city.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. a very little known fact, this earlier fire. thanks for sharing, Neil.

  2. Man, Chicago sure its share of bad luck back in the day.

  3. This makes four major fires on Chicago History: these two, the Iroquois Theater and Our Lady of Angels

  4. Steve, Don't forget the Cold Storage fire 1893, Union Stockyards 1910 and 1934, Green Hornet Streetcar Disaster 1950, Paxton Hotel Fire, Hubbard Street Fire 1961, Mickelberry Plant Explosion, Green Mill, and on and on and on

  5. This is a great article; this is a fire had had not heard of before. Poor Mr. Develin, though.

  6. FIRES: https://drloihjournal.blogspot.com/p/significant-chicago-fires-articles.html


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