It happened one hundred and forty years ago in the city of Chicago....
The fire started at about 9 p.m. on Sunday, October 8, 1871 in or around a small barn that bordered the alley behind 137 DeKoven Street on the South Side of Chicago. The traditional account of the origin of the fire is that it was started by a cow kicking over a lantern in the barn owned by Patrick and Catherine O'Leary. That was considered to be the cause for over 20 years. However, Michael Ahern, the Chicago Republican reporter who created the cow story, admitted in 1893 that he had made it up because he thought it would make colorful copy. Nevertheless the legend persists because Ahern was right, the idea of a cow kicking over a lantern presents an image and concept hard to forget. The truth is that no one knows what was the exact cause of the fire.
For those of you unfamiliar with City of the Big Shoulders, Chicago (rather like Austin TX) is a city that is longer (N to S) than it is wide (E to W.) Also like Austin, a fairly large river runs generally E to W right around the middle of town, effectively cutting the city into two parts North of the river and South of the river. The corner of State and Madison in the middle of downtown Chicago is the official dividing line between the North Side and the South Side. The Chicago River runs a few blocks further north, but it is a more physical division that just street numbers.
The Chicago River has played an on-going role in the history and customs of Chicago. For instance, at some point in the late 1800s, civil engineers actually reversed the flow of the River, changing it from going toward Lake Michigan to flowing from Lake Michigan. The reversal was for the purpose of keeping waste and icky stuff (that's a technical term, truly!) from getting into the Lake. It was accomplished through a series of locks that are still in use.
The River also magically turns green every year on St. Patrick's Day. No one knows how this is accomplished but it makes the large Irish population of Chicago extremely happy! (LOL!)
In reality tho, the Chicago River was actually instrumental in saving the city from total destruction in the days that the Chicago Fire raged in 1871.
The fire's spread was aided by the city's overuse of wood for building, a drought prior to the fire, and strong winds from the southwest that carried flying embers toward the heart of the city. The city also made fatal errors by not reacting soon enough and citizens were apparently unconcerned when it began. The firefighters were also exhausted from fighting a fire that happened the day before. The firefighters fought the fire through the entire day and became extremely exhausted. Eventually the fire jumped to a nearby neighborhood and began to devastate mansions, houses and apartments. Almost everything that crossed the fire's path was made of wood, that had been dried out for quite a while. The fire eventually got to the River where it mostly stopped, as the River served as a natural firebreak and protected the North Side from burning as well. After two days of the city burning down it began to rain and doused the remaining fire. It is said that over 300 people died in the fire and over 100,000 were left homeless. It was devastating to the city and it's people, but it lead to development of the best trained firefighters and a stringent fire code which is maintained even now.
Interestingly, the Chicago Fire Academy is located at 137 DeKoven Street, the site where the fire actually began.
|Chicago Fire Academy (Site of the Origin of the Chicago Fire of 1871)|
Now there is one other little-known fact about the Chicago Fire, probably unimportant in the overall scheme of things but it is extremely important to my mother's family. My maternal Grandmother's mother (my great-grandmother) was about 3 or 4 years old at the time of the fire and she remembered the fire! At that time, the family lived somewhere south of the river. The family fled their home and went to the North Side of the river to escape the fire.
She remembered crossing the river with their belongings. After crossing she recalled being set down on a trunk or valises right on the dock and being told by her mother (or father), "Do NOT move until I come back!" Sitting next to her on the suitcases was a rather large parrot in a cage! She could still see the fires burning around her and it was a bit hard to breathe, though the parrot seemed fine!
Not too far away was St. Michael's Catholic Church and Elementary School. Because it was brick and on the North side of the river it survived the fire. The family never moved back to the South Side but remained on the North Side from then on. My great-grandmother subsequently attended St. Michael's school.
My great-grandmother told the story to her children and my grandmother told it to her children and her grandchildren, including me. I can't recall now if there was more to the story. I'm sure there was but it was a long time ago and I don't remember. I'm even kind of fuzzy on some of what I do remember! All I know for sure is that she and her family survived that horrible fire and lived on to raise their children and their children's children and on and on and I am grateful!
Oddly enough, in another of those funny little coincidences that are scattered through my life, my mom, dad, and I had moved to Florida when I was six, but when I was seven, Mom and Dad thought they missed Chicago so we moved back for just one year (before they came to their senses and took us back to Florida!) Nevertheless that year in Chicago was just in time for me to go to second grade. There used to be a gazillion Catholic elementary schools in Chicago. In fact there still are a lot of them! You go to the one that you live closest to. With no particular plan in mind, my parents rented an apartment somewhere that determined I would attend second grade at....St. Michael's Elementary School! Sometimes life just feels like an endless loop going round and round!