Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871-1874


An excerpt from
Smoldering City
Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871-1874
Karen Sawislak

Intensely dry conditions, a 20-m.p.h. southwest wind, and an unfortunate spark at approximately 10 o'clock on the night of October 8 all combined to turn Chicago into what two historians of the Great Fire would describe as "a vast ocean of flame." The chronically undermanned fire department, already exhausted by the effort required to subdue the major blaze that had raged on the West Side only the previous evening, rushed at the first alarm to the soon-to-be infamous O'Leary barn. But the strong, steady wind fanned the flames, blowing showers of burning shingles and charcoal sparks northeast toward an industrial district of lumberyards, wooden warehouses and sheds, and coal heaps--"everything," as one commentator later noted, "that would make a good fire." When the flames reached the sixteen acres desolated the night before, the firemen hoped that the blaze might die for lack of fuel. This newly bare patch did act as a buffer zone, sparing the West Side from any further damage. But the driving force of the wind proved unstoppable; easily breaching the natural barrier posed by the south branch of the Chicago River, the Great Fire began to feed on the equally flammable structures of the Southwest Side.

Within four hours of its humble genesis, the Great Fire became so large, so hot, and moved so quickly that firefighters and fire engines could not stand fast before it. Proceeding north, the fire descended upon Conley's Patch, an Irish immigrant shantytown typical of this poor neighborhood, with little warning. Flames, heat, and smoke roared through the flimsy and densely packed structures, in minutes claiming many of the victims of the disaster. Fire next engulfed the municipal gasworks; the explosion of a massive holding tank added an enormous amount of especially volatile fuel to the already raging blaze. Street lights all across the city flickered and died, plunging the streets into a darkness broken only by the ever-brighter glow of flames.

By the time the Great Fire reached the central business district, it no longer needed the south wind or contact with fresh fuel to continue to move north. For the mile-wide holocaust at this point began to exhibit what firefighters call a convection effect, the physics and chemistry of a giant conflagration that produce a concentrated thermal updraft--a phenomenon that allows a massive blaze to generate its own forward motion. Chicago's fire, in more simple terms, had now become a firestorm. Thomas Mosher, Jr., the official weatherman of the city, described how the wind at ground level blew straight toward the center of the fire from all directions, resulting in "a decided whirling motion in the column of flame and smoke, which was contrary to the hands of a watch." Smoldering beams and rafters, blazing asphalt roofs, and clouds of smaller sparks and cinders were all propelled far into the sky. "The very air," one survivor recalled, "was full of flame." Carried north by the prevailing winds in the upper atmosphere, the flaming chunks of debris started new fires wherever they fell. The tremendous heat, moreover, often resulted in spontaneous combustions far in advance of any actual flames. In the face of such an intense blaze, mercantile buildings that had been touted as "fireproof"--the downtown built mostly of brick and stone that was the pride and joy of city boosters--offered little more resistance than the wooden rookeries of Conley's Patch. Bricks withstood the heat, but mortar dissolved, collapsing masonry walls. Throughout the center of the city, marble crumbled and iron melted.

Those who were awake on the North Side could hear the alarms and look south to see the red glare. But most residents remained in their beds, trusting that the barrier posed by the main branch of the Chicago River would protect their division--until they rudely awakened to the fact that this particular fire would not stop until there was no more to burn. Around 3:30 a.m., the Great Fire gained its first purchase on the North Side. Flaming debris borne aloft by convection currents ignited a blaze that disabled the machinery at the municipal waterworks, and the main body of fire leaped the river soon after. Since Chicago had just one pumping station and that facility was now incapacitated, firefighters could do nothing more: for almost twenty hours the fire marched north, as writer Frank Luzerne observed, "without enemy to oppose it." In the North Division, where tens of thousands of German and Scandinavian immigrants resided, fewer lives were lost than in the poorer districts of the South Division, but nearly every building was incinerated. Among the structures of any size, only the mansion of real estate millionaire Mahlon D. Ogden miraculously remained intact, the beneficiary of a lucky shift in the wind. At the northern limits of the city, four-and-one-half miles distant from its origins in Mrs. O'Leary's barn, the Great Fire was finally extinguished near midnight. With only prairie grass and dried sod left for fuel, the holocaust could consume nothing more.


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 28-27 of Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871-1874 by Karen Sawislak, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1995 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Karen Sawislak
Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871-1874
©1995, 408 pages, 15 halftones, 1 map
Paper $33.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-73548-1

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Smoldering City.

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