|The Chicago "Saturday Night Fire" of October 7, 1871.|
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 this four city-block area.
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.
|The Chicago Steamer.|
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 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 were 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.
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 extraneous influence that checked the fire here, but calm deliberate, intelligent heroism; and to those heroes Chicago owes eternal gratitude.”
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.