Friday, May 31, 2019

Field, Leiter & Company Department Store Fire of November 14, 1877.

Field, Leiter & Company (Marshall Field and Levi Leiter) moved their store from 112, 114 and 116 Lake Street to the just built "Palmer's Place," on State and Washington Streets holding the grand opening on Monday, October 12, 1868. The Great Chicago Fire leveled the new store on October 8, 1871.

For the second time in its history, the great department store of Field, Leiter & Company burned to the ground on November 14, 1877.
Field, Leiter & Company's new store opened on October 12, 1868 on State & Washington Streets. This store burned in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Note the "Vault Lights" on the sidewalks around the building.
Chicago Daily Tribune, November 15, 1877 - Morning Edition
In a pouring rain with every fire engine in the city at work, “It seemed as if the entire city had come downtown to witness the terrible scene.” The first alarm is turned in at 8:04 p.m. after someone sees a fire in the fifth story of the building at the corner of State and Washington Streets. Flames are found in a four-foot space at the top of the building that surrounds the central skylight between the north and south elevator shafts. It does not take long for the fire to spread to the grease on the elevator wheels and pulleys and from there into the elevator shafts themselves, moving downward, floor by floor. Sixteen minutes after the alarm is turned in, a 2-11 alarm is sounded, but the streams of water from the fire hoses cannot reach the top floor of the building.  Firefighters are forced to run hoses directly into the interior of the great store, which at its center has an atrium, 40 feet by 90 feet, that extends all the way to the roof.  Hoses are dragged up to the third and fourth floors and from those points of attack “the brave firemen played upon the heat and fury of the fire until either stricken down by falling plaster and rafters, suffocated by the smoke, or driven from their positions by the heat.”  It isn’t until 3:00 a.m. on the 15th that the fire is finally brought under control. Two firefighters die in the effort to extinguish the blaze.
Chicago Daily Tribune, November 15, 1877 - Evening Edition
“The destruction of such an amount of property could not but be regarded as a dire calamity at such a time as this, and so, as the news flew around, people left their firesides, their theatres, their billiard-tables, and everything, to get to the scene of action.”
Men are put to work by November 18th, bracing the fourth floor, which looked “as though it might come down at any time in a huge avalanche, and bury anybody who might be so unfortunate as to be within reach of even its shadow.” 
Field, Leiter & Company store that burned in 1877.
The insurance companies enlist over 200 men in salvage work, and on the sidewalks of State and Washington Streets there began a massive “fortification, made of cords upon cords of cotton, flannel, silk, white goods, mattresses, dress goods, parasols, kid gloves, and umbrellas.” In places, the pile reaches six feet high and over 15 feet wide. 
Interstate Industrial Exposition Building on Michigan Avenue at Adams Street looking east.
The huge mass of goods is carted two blocks to the northern part of the Interstate Industrial Exposition Building on Michigan Avenue at Adams Street, located at what is now the site of the present Art Institute of Chicago. The insurance adjusters estimate that from $175,000 to $200,000 ($4,765,000 today) worth of goods were saved.
Field, Leiter & Company store that opened in 1879.
In 1879 Field and Leiter opened their fourth store in the same location, and in 1881 Marshall Field bought out Levi Leiter and renamed the firm Marshall Field and Company.

Read the brief business background of Marshall Field with an 1839 Illustration of the future site of the Marshall Field & Company Store.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. Great article. Thank you.

  2. It was surprising to me that back in 1877 they already had difficulty in reaching the upper floors of downtown buildings.

  3. What a great store and a part of Chicago's history. There won't be another Marshall Field. I understand that Field & Leiter bought the business from Potter Palmer, another Chicago pioneer.


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