This time of year, I usually think about the great Chicago fire which occurred October 8-10, 1871. In the Scottish American library there is a large book (10 x 14) with gold edges. The title, “Chicago 20 Years After” traces the progress and growth of Chicago for the next two decades. The book printed in Chicago by The Chicago Times Company was published in 1892 and is filled with pictures and advertising. It is now in the Public Domain and the quotations in this article are taken from this book and the records of the St. Andrew's Society.
Chicago was a city mostly composed of wooden buildings and streets that were paved with wooden blocks. It had been a dry summer and a strong wind was blowing from the Southwest. The fire started in the vicinity of a small shanty on DeKoven Street. Within three hours the fire had crossed the Chicago River at two points nearly a quarter mile separate and three quarters of a mile from the starting point.
One of the more interesting characteristics of the fire was the almost total absence of smoke. The combustion was complete. “Heat like that of the most intense furnace was generated, which swept across the city, leaving nothing in its wake but here and there a blackened and tottering wall, or chimney.” Before morning the waterworks were burned cutting off water for the whole city. The flames were so fast that many were overtaken as they fled and some 42 were burned to death at the Chicago Avenue bridge.
“The immediate results of the fire were 17,450 houses destroyed; 104,500 persons rendered homeless; 2,104 acres of the city burned over, comprising a tract 3-3/4 miles long, by 1-3/4miles wide; 2400 stores and factories were burned; 121 miles of sidewalk; eight bridges; the waterworks; 1,642,000 bushels of grain; vast quantities of lumber, and stocks of merchandise.”
At 8:00 p.m. on the second day, less than 24 hours after the fire began, a train carrying provisions arrived from Milwaukee. By nine o’clock the next morning 50 trains had arrived from every possible direction and this continued until officials requested that communities stop sending supplies. “Money came in like water from all over the civilized world. The public subscriptions amounted to $4,200,000 within three months, while the private contributions were considerable, although the amounts will never be known.” Within five weeks more than 4,000 small homes had been built and furnished with cook stove, mattresses, bedding, and a half a ton of coal, all at the cost of $110 for each house.” The work of rebuilding began immediately and by October 17, the pumping machinery had been repaired and by the next day an abundant supply of water was again furnished to the city.
It was estimated that about 8,000 Scottish residents lived in Chicago at the time of the Great Fire. They suffered the loss of homes, possessions, businesses and jobs. Robert Fergus lost his printing house. John Alston lost his glass and paints business valued at $200,000. William Henry, a watchmaker lost his entire stock. Thomas Hastie, who sold boots and shoes on Randolph Street, lost his building and stock and $60,000 in US bonds. William M Dale, druggist, lost his store. James Sims and Charles Glenn both operated saloons and lost their building, stock and equipment. Peter McFarlane, who at the time of the fire was in Montreal, lost furniture “and a valuable collection of knickknacks.” The Caledonian club lost its building, library, pictures and property valued at $4,000. When the court house fell, the St. Andrew’s Society lost all of its membership records, pictures, flags, etc.
Aid for the Scottish sufferers began to arrive almost immediately from all parts of the United States and Scotland. Donations came from the New York Caledonia club, from the St. Andrew’s Society of Albany, and from the Boston Caledonia club, just to mention a few. We often mentioned the donations sent by the city of Glasgow but others contributed as well such as: Greenoch, Cumnock, and Dunfermline. From the Scotch Presbyterian Church on 14th St. in New York City came a gift of $250.00. The Fourth Presbyterian Church also in New York City contributed $290.00. Even the Scotia Lodge (#634) sent two hundred dollars to the Scottish sufferers.
What did they do with the money? They bought railroad passes for 61 people to various parts of the country and Canada. They “sent 10 persons, mostly women and children, to their friends in Scotland.” Some of the money was used for “the necessaries of life, such as groceries and provisions and some under-clothing, and in a few cases of old, infirm, and bedridden applicants, we have paid rent of their rooms for a month or two to prevent their being turned into the street, and also procured admittance for 10 into the County Hospital, where two of them died and were buried by the Society.” (Taken from the Society minutes of the managers report - 1871.)
This statement appeared in the Chicago Tribune on February 20, 1872, and was sent as part of a resolution to Sen. John A. Logan of Illinois. “Resolved, that the citizens of Chicago do not ask any donations from the General Government to enable them to rebuild their burned homes and places of business, but they respectfully represent that the government should obtain its revenues from the profits and prosperity’s of the Country, and not from its losses and calamities; and inasmuch as the property destroyed in the unparalleled conflagration of the seventh, eighth, and ninth of October last had not once paid all the taxes lawfully imposed there on, we hold that it is unjust to require the payment of those taxes a second time for the restoration of that property.”(I wonder how that turned out?)
The Great Chicago Fire had a major impact on the Illinois St. Andrew’s Society, but they continued their work of charity and never lost track of their original vision to help those in need. On November 16, 2012, you can join others in a celebration of our history and accomplishments over the past 167 years. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.
Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois St. Andrew’s Society
The next meeting of the History Club will be November 6. All are welcome and there is no charge. Reservations are helpful so please call 708.447.5092 to make yours. The main speaker will be Molly McNeil. Molly is a second grade teacher and a visit to Africa this past summer had a major impact on her life.
We are also pleased to announce that Annika Strolle will be present along with Rosie Johnson.