Monday, October 6, 2014

The Superheated Wind from the Southwest

I am writing this on Monday, October 6, 2014.  In 1871, this would have been a Friday.  Chicago was a growing city with a population of 300,000 but was a city made of wood.  As people closed their stores and workmen made their way home, no one could have predicted the events that would soon overwhelm them.  It had been a hot and dry summer.  From July 4 to October 8 only an inch of rain had fallen. A strong wind was blowing from the southwest.  It would soon become superheated. 

The fire started around 9:00 p.m. on October 8, 1871, behind the house at 137 DeKoven Street.  It spread rapidly, forced along by the great wind from the south.  Late in the evening on Monday, it started to rain but the city was already destroyed.

Frederick Law Olmstead wrote: “Chicago had a weakness for big things and liked to think that it was outbuilding New York.  It did a great deal of commercial advertising in its house-tops.  The faults of construction as well as of art in its great showy buildings must have been numerous.  Their walls were thin, and were overweighted with gross and coarse misornamentation.”

The Reverend David Sweet was the pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian church in 1871. He wrote a dramatic account of the Great Fire and its impact on his family. Here is a part of what he wrote.  (David Sweet is buried at Rosehill in Chicago.  He is on my list of Scottish Americans.)

“It must have been ten o’clock Monday morning when the flames had come so near as to make it necessary for us to move on, and for the LaSalle avenue people to join the exodus. It was not necessary to run, or even to walk rapidly. It was necessary only to work toward the open fields outside the limits of the city. At no point was there a crowd or a panic, for the fire being in the center of the city the victims could at many points pass into the long circumference. In our line of retreat there were not more than ten thousand persons; and these were spread out through many squares (blocks), reaching out toward the west. Each wagon, each wheelbarrow, each family had plenty of room. My little family impressed an abandoned handcart into service, and with our living and inanimate plunder placed in this little two-wheeled affair we moved along in a manner more comfortable even if not more elegant. A man driving a fine team and having a great truck-load of valuable goods, looked down upon us with not a little air of better consciousness, but when we informed him that his load was ablaze in the rear of the big mountain his vanity passed away, and he hastily unhitched his horses, and left all else to become a bonfire in the street. The dresses of many women and children took fire, but there were many eyes watching, and many hands ready, so that personal injuries were rare. Late in the afternoon our group reached an open field. It had been recently plowed. It contained nothing which could be burned. It offered us the one thing most needed - rest and security. Here we encamped and sat down with faces toward a mass of smoke and fire now four or five miles in breadth.”

We still remember after 143 years, and there is much more to the story.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society

November 1 - Next meeting of the Scottish American History Club.  We will honor veterans, sing patriotic songs, listen to John LeNoble and see pictures from the landing at D-Day.  Our special guests will be Charles Gonzalez, a member of our Board of Governors, and his father who visited France this past summer.  Come see how the beaches have changed in 70 years.

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