Roswell B. Mason was the mayor of Chicago when the Great Fire of 1871 befell the city. He was sixty-six years old and was completing a two-year term as mayor. As a teenager in his native state of New York, he had worked on the Erie Canal. In the late 1830s he moved to the railroad industry. Eventually, he became the chief engineer and superintendent of the New York and New Haven Railroad. In 1851, he moved to Illinois to supervise the construction of the Illinois Central Railroad and this became his most impressive achievement.
He ran for mayor of Chicago on the reform ticket as a counter to the corruption of the Common Council. Unafraid to act, he called on General Sheridan to keep the peace and guard the city. He then called on the Relief and Aid Society to administer the enormous contributions sent to help the city recover. (Perhaps his actions indicate some value in term limits. The mayor had one two-year term and only 2 months left to serve.)
The night of the fire, he reached his office in the courthouse at midnight. There he followed the progress of the fire, issued orders and sent telegrams asking for help. He was soon forced to flee and unable to return home by a direct route of going south, he was forced to go north and then head back south through the West Division. It took him three hours to reach his home in the South Division.
On Monday morning, with the city still burning, he called elected officials and prominent citizens to a meeting at the First Congregational Church in the West Division. The church became the temporary city hall. Here the mayor signed a series of executive orders that “established the price of bread, banned smoking, limited the hours of saloons and forbade wagon drivers from charging more than their normal rates.”
General Philip Sheridan, the Civil War hero now living in Chicago, was asked to ensure “preservation of the good order and peace of the city.” The Governor of Illinois was extremely unhappy with this decision but the citizens were very pleased to have the military presence. In addition to the military, some 500 citizens were delegated to stand armed watch in the various neighborhoods.
The Chicago Relief and Aid Society was composed of young professionals that included Marshall Field, George Pullman and Wirt Dexter. Their first act was to divide the city into districts and then to separate their work into different areas. The five areas were: contributions, shelter, employment, transportation and health. Each of these areas were then overseen by a different committee.
The Relief and Aid Society deserve a great deal of credit for resolving many of the problems faced by the citizens of Chicago. R. B. Mason was a very effective mayor during this critical period of recovery for the city. He is on my list of people with a Scottish heritage, but I am not sure of the source. Perhaps, someone can help me.