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William Gallagher was a student at the Chicago Theological Seminary. His letter to his sister in Boston, which is dated October 17, runs a full forty pages in manuscript.
My Dear Sister,
I thought on Sunday, the 8th, that, as I was very busy, I would postpone my letter till Monday. I had enough then to write a long letter and one that would perhaps have proved not uninteresting. I was intending to write you of my visit on the preceding Saturday to the rolling-mills in company with two of the Seniors, of my forenoon and dinner at the Presbyterian Seminary, of my afternoon at Lincoln Park, of the great fire of Saturday night (it seemed great then, but now a mere lighting of a match), of my long ride down to Oakland and taking dinner with Mr. Brown, and of my visit to the Reform School in the afternoon to attend their Sunday School exercises. All of these would have made a long letter, but they seem absolutely as nothing compared with the scenes that have followed.
This season has been the dryest in the West for years. We hadn't had a drop of rain for months, and there had been but one cloudy day during the month of September. The result was that the dust was almost intolerable, the ground became parched, and the houses were as dry as tinder. Besides a furious wind from the southwest had been blowing steadily all day Sunday, one of the most violent winds I ever saw in a clear day. Sunday evening three of us went over to the south side to Plymouth Congregational Church to hear Wm. A. Bartlett, who gave us an excellent discourse on the text "God is a spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." The church is about three miles from the seminary, and as we were returning in the car we heard an alarm of fire sounded, and saw the light in the direction of the fire of the night before. We thought that some of the ruins had been kindled into a flame by the high wind, and that an engine or two would soon put it out. But when we arrived at the seminary we found that the light was still brighter, and so went up on the roof to see how extensive the conflagration was.... At half-past two I was awakened by a tremendous knocking at my door, and on opening it I found one of my companions of the night before, who told me that Chicago was all on fire, that the Court House was gone, that all the business part of the city was in flames, and that he and his "chum" were going down town. I dressed hastily, climbed to the roof, and saw a sight such as I never expect to see again, and which few men have had the privilege of witnessing. You may read the most vivid accounts of fire that have been written by the most talented men, you may read Schiller's "Song of the Bell" in German, which expresses with great force the power of fire, when it becomes master, you may talk about Moscow and London and New York and Portland fires, but you can never comprehend that single sight, and the constant repetitions we had of it. There was a strip of fire between two and three miles long, and a mile wide, hurried along by a wind that I have never seen excelled except by our September gale, sweeping through the business part of this city. We were situated where we could take in the whole at a sight, and such a view such a magnificent sight!.... We walked down town across Lake St. Bridge, and went as far as we could towards the fire. The streets were crowded with men looking for their wives and children, children looking for mothers, husbands for wives, and wives for husbands, teams of every description were busy in hauling away goods to places of security, sometimes a large wagon rolled by filled with the household goods of a dozen families, and all the men pulling and the women pushing it ahead. Horses and cows were running loose up and down the streets, and everybody was at work for himself or neighbor. There were some of the most distressing sights connected with that night.
A policeman brought along a little boy, and asked who would take care of him. A gentleman in the crowd volunteered to take him, and the policeman said, "All I can tell you about him is that his father and mother have been burned in the Girard Hotel." A mother had brought out her three children and placed them on a trunk, and had gone back to get more of her effects, telling the children to remain there till she returned. The fire hurried on, and no mother came. The bystanders tried to get the little ones to go. No! They must wait for mother, and at last when the flames began creeping nearer, the children had to be taken up bodily and carried away still crying for their mother. I could fill a volume with an account of the many scenes of misery and suffering of that night, but you have read plenty of them already, and can picture to yourselves many more, when you consider how extensive the fire was, how suddenly it came, and that several hundred lives were lost.....
Oh! You can't begin to imagine the crushing blow this has been to many. Wait till you have seen a man, who on Saturday was a millionaire, on Tuesday standing in line to draw blankets for himself and family that night. Wait till you see wealthy ladies, who have lived in affluence all their lives, coming into the church (as they did where I was afterwards at work) to get their meals and procure a little coffee and bread, after having been caught by the fire and obliged to lie in the lake ducking their heads for hours till the flames went by, and then you can begin faintly to comprehend how the blow has fallen.... We went up North about a block, the fire still advancing, and then commenced work vigorously. The houses in that part of the city were beautifully furnished, and the people were trying to save what they could. They were the most philosophical set of people I ever saw. Among those rich people I didn't see one woman rushing about screaming and [w]ringing her hands. There was no crying or bewailing. The very magnitude of the calamity seemed to overcome all those feelings, and everybody set to work to save what they could. We went into one house where there was a lady getting her goods parked ready to be sent away. Her husband was away from home, and she looked like a delicate lady, but she was cool and collected. We offered our services, and she said she would like to save her Brussel's carpet on the parlor floor. We loosed the corner and I guess you never saw tacks fly faster and carpet come up quicker in your life. It was hardly a minute before we were together at the back corner of the parlor where was a large bookcase full of books. The carpet was under the book-case, and we couldn't move the case. Out with the books. And in a moment the glass doors were open, our arms were filled with gilt-edged books, and we slung them across the room in a heap just as you would throw so much kindling wood down cellar. Then we moved the case, rolled up the carpet, pushed it out of the window, and put it on the team. Half a dozen men grabbed the piano, and that went on top of the carpet. Some of the minor articles of the house were tucked away in crevices, and among them some of the books. I don't know what she paid the express man, but I heard her offer fifty dollars. Let me say a word right here about expressmen: they were for the most part of the most inhuman set of men we had here that day. They made that fore-noon a day of profit and charged most exhorbitant rates. Of course they had everything in their own hands, and people had to pay or lose all. Some men paid $100 a load for moving their furniture or rather what little could be got on one load. And then when the teamster came to the house he always had a set of his cronies with him, and they immediately went to the cellar to hunt up liquor, and as they worked they drank. Almost every rowdy you met had a bottle or two with him. Everybody drank, and the result was a fearful state of beastliness. Then when an expressman had got his load and his pay, after driving a few squares he would tip off the man who went with him to show him where to leave the goods, dump them in the street, and go somewhere else for more money and more liquor. There are some instances mentioned where, when a teamster undertook something of that sort, the man pointed a "shooting-iron" at him, and "persuaded" him to move on....
Everybody was going in the same direction. Men, women and children loaded with everything you can conceive were blocking up the sidewalks. Two strings of teams loaded up several stories high were hurrying westward towards the open prairie, and we stopped to see what they were carrying. Here comes a woman with all her bed and bedding on her back. Here was a little girl with her arms full of cooking utensils, Here comes a team with a little of everything on it, and curled up on a mattress in a secure position two or three young children. One of the shafts has a tea kettle hanging to it, another a coal-hod. If any pictures were being carried away, they were always the Virgin or Christ crucified. One man was hurrying along with nothing but a flatiron in his hand, another had two or three pieces of old board, and so they went, hurrying, pushing, scrambling, crowding, jostling, shouting, and laughing even. They were good-natured in spite of their calamities. Many families were busy digging holes in their gardens and covering up their goods, and I hear many poor families in that way saved their goods. I saw many a cook-stove in the process of burial, stuffed with all sorts of cooking utensils and useful articles, most of which were saved. We crossed the river above the island and took a stroll over the prairies where the families were gathering and making places of shelter. The furniture was piled up to make a hollow square, a carpet was drawn over the top, the chinks were filled up with bed clothes and a little of everything else, and there they were hundreds, perhaps thousands of families collected together. Near one of these non-descript huts could be found a huge pile of hams that the owner had been fortunate enough to save from his business. Here was a pile of hides which some leather dealer had saved and conveyed to this place of safety. We saw plenty of misery, and plenty of suffering and at the same time many ludicrous sights. We crossed the open prairie, and started for the seminary....
You see we were much more exposed to danger than ever before, for the fire had "cleaned out" some of the foulest dens in the city, and all the roughs naturally resorted to our side of the city, as the only one left entire. They had become infuriated with drink, and swore that the west side should be burned too, and as the high wind continued, as there was no water, and no rain had appeared, we felt some alarm. The older and stronger students organized a patrol relieving each other in squads at intervals of two hours. I went off to bed, and had a good night's rest, waking but once, and that once only to shout "Praise God from whom all blessings flow," for the rain had come, and was pattering down on the roof of the church, and I felt that our side was safe for the night. But it was an awful night for the people on the prairies. No one would ever know of the suffering or of the number that died that night from hunger, exhaustion and the cold. One case will suffice. A gentleman, whose heart was very large and whose compassion is almost unbounded, started with his horse to bring some of the children to his house. He found in one group three little children (the youngest was three years of age) standing by a pile of furniture. He asked them to come with him. The oldest said "No," that their mother had told them to stay till she came. It was growing dark and cold, and again he tried to persuade them, but it was to no avail. They were going to wait for their mother. He went elsewhere for a load, and early in the morning anxious about the three little ones, he returned and found the youngest pulling at the other two who were both dead and no mother had returned. Multiply such cases many times and still you fall short of the reality. Tuesday morning after our prayer-meeting (for we didn't forget God in our excitement) and after we had carried our supply of water for the day, we organized ourselves, chose a captain, and marched to the 1st Cong. Church, where the City Government and Police Commissioners had their offices. We were ranged in two rows, took off our hats, raised our right hands and swore to do our duty "as special police in this emergency, and to obey the orders of the Police Commissioners, so help you God." Our names were registered, badges were furnished us, and we were told to wait for orders. They gave those who had special business to attend to permission to go and come back to report.... We had to go through the burnt district and had a good opportunity of viewing the ruins. It was then that I sent my telegram, for I supposed you might be alarmed, and I knew I couldn't write immediately. On our return to headquarters we went out to the corner of the next street, and stopped every team, omnibus, or cart that was considered serviceable, and pressed them and their drivers into the service. If any drivers refused to go, they were arrested, and locked up, and a special assigned to their teams. When we had procured a team, we were directed to go to the prairies and get one or two families with their bedding and bring them in to the churches or school-houses, where clothing, food and shelter were furnished....
Theodore Thomas was at the Sherman House with his orchestra, and was to have commenced his concerts on the Monday night after the fire. He was compelled to run for his life, and leave some of the instruments, and some one wants to know why he is different from Nero. Ans. One fiddled away while his Rome was burning, and the other roamed away while his fiddles were burning. Tell Elmer I shall answer him soon. Goodnight my dear,
Your affec. brother