Judy Carmack Bross
“All’s well. In one wild night the City fell.”–John Greenleaf Whittier
Soon media will be ablaze with announcements of how many of Chicago’s major institutions will observe the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire which began October 8, 1871. Walking tour virtuoso and historian Sally Kalmbach’s burning desire to be one of first to tell the story to a new generation inspired her public tours and tailored private visits to a Chicago neighborhood most affected by the conflagration, the mansions of some of Chicago’s best-known families just off Michigan Avenue in the Cathedral District.
The 90-minute walking tours of what was then known as Chicago’s North Division neighborhood begin August 14 and 21 and will be held monthly, with a special tour planned for October 8. Private tours are currently being booked as well.
St. James Episcopal Cathedral in the old North Division whose bell tower was relatively unharmed. It is the meeting place for Kalmbach’s walking tours.
“At the time of the fire Chicago was a city of 334,000 people and fire was the most important danger to cities because everything was made of wood. There were 700 fires that broke out in 1871 prior to the great fire, and on October 7, just 10 blocks from Mrs. O’Leary’s house there was a major fire and major equipment was destroyed. City officials had been warned that they needed more firefighters and equipment but officials didn’t want to raise taxes.”
A fire engine from 1871
Kalmbach explained that there were many mishaps on October 8.
“There were just 172 alarm boxes in the City and someone had to open each one. Calls to the third floor of the Courthouse where fires were to be reported went unanswered and the first fire trucks were sent to the wrong location, accounting for a delay of at least 45 minutes.”
Industrialist Julian Rumsey
Kalmbach weaves her research on Chicago’s fascinating families of the Gilded Age into the story as the groups will walk by the sites of many major mansions including that of Julian Rumsey, the grain and shipping magnate and a mayor of Chicago during the Civil War, who lived at the corner of Rush and Erie.
“Rumsey’s watch was recovered after the fire. It was stopped at 1:15. The fire started at 9 p.m. and it reached his house at that time. Rumsey had what would be the prized commodity during the fire, a wagon or carriage that wasn’t destroyed. He was able to get some of his things out. Many people buried their silver in their back yards before fleeing.
“The early houses of North Division before the fire were described as gracious country homes with major yards with fountains–and sometimes chickens. The houses were set on large lots in a park-like setting with shaded trees of every variety.
“Victorian styles were popular before the fire, especially Italianate with tall arched windows. Wood was primarily used before the fire, even the brick homes also contained a great deal of wood.
The stone and brick buildings that were advertised as fireproof burned in the fire.
“Most of the residents had arrived from New York and New England with some exceptions, including Cyrus McCormick who was born in Virginia.”
Congressman Isaac Arnold
Other individuals who Kalmbach profiles include Isaac Arnold, a member of the United States House of Representatives, a close friend of Abraham Lincoln who was an abolitionist as early as the 1830s and introduced the first anti-slavery bill in 1862. His house was at Rush and Pine, now North Michigan Avenue. His library of over 8000 books was among his possessions lost in the fire.
William Kerfoot, one of the first businessmen to build a temporary office in the Burnt District to help with recovery efforts, who returned to his house at Rush and Erie while the rubble was still hot, was known for his generosity in helping his neighbors. He posted a large sign saying “all gone but wife, children and energy”, the latter of which he used to help all around him.
Chicago Mayor Roswell Mason
There was much profiteering and looting post-fire. Chicago Mayor Roswell Mason, whose term would expire just two months after the fire, bypassed the Illinois Governor to put the city under martial law and invited Civil War hero General Philip Sheridan to be in charge for a brief time.
Civil War General Philip Sheridan
Relief and Aid Society Barracks in Washington Park
“The Relief and Aid Society was put in charge of caring for those who lost everything in the fire. Their criteria were hard to meet and there was obvious discrimination against some of the minority groups in the city. At that time about half the population was made up of immigrants from Ireland and Germany. Each person seeking aid needed a character reference from a church but so many churches had burned down. You also had to be vaccinated against smallpox to get aid.”
The Farwell & Company Department Store in ruins
Just four days after the fire William Bross, Lieutenant Governor of Illinois and a publisher of the Chicago Tribune, caught a train for New York to raise money for rebuilding the city.
“By 1873 many buildings had been built back and sign painters were very much in demand to announce openings and locations. People around the world wanted to help. Over 8000 books were collected in Scotland to establish a public library–something that Chicago didn’t have pre-fire. The library, erected over the water tank at the Rookery, would soon be open 13 hours a day, seven days a week.”
As with all of her walking tours, Kalmbach prepares with extensive research.
“Some of the most popular people in town were the safecrackers and a call went out for their assistance. Safes and vaults were so hot that the money inside would disintegrate. People began by pouring cold water on the safes and then the safecrackers would do their jobs.
“It is clear that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow wasn’t to blame. There was much prejudice against the people living in the shantytown where she lived which was on DeKoven street, about one and a half miles from downtown. The fire started at 9 p.m. Who milks a cow at that time? Researchers believe that it actually was started by nearby neighbors.”