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"...the adamantine bulwarks of hell..."
Perhaps the most vivid of the local newspaper accounts of the fire appeared in the Chicago Evening Post of October 17 (for another front-page story, see the excerpt from the Chicago Tribune of October 11 in the library of the "Great Conflagration" section). The next day's paper reprinted the story with the explanation, "The universal demand for extra copies of yesterday's paper containing the Post's graphic description of the great fire, and the knowledge that nothing will be regarded by our regular subscribers as so valuable to send their friends as this account, have induced us to reprint it in to-day's issue."
The brute creation was crazed. The horses, maddened by heat and noise, and irritated by falling sparks, neighed and screamed with affright and anger, and reared and kicked, and bit each other, or stood with drooping tails and rigid legs, ears laid back and eyes wild with amazement, shivering as if with cold. The dogs ran wildly hither and thither, snuffing eagerly at every one, and occasionally sitting down on their haunches to howl dismally. When there was a lull in the fire, far-away dogs could be heard baying and cocks crowing at the unwonted light. Cats ran along ridge-poles in the bright glare, and came pattering into the street with dropsical tails. Great brown rats with beadlike eyes were ferreted out from under the sidewalks by the flames, and scurried along the streets, kicked at, trampled upon, hunted down. Flocks of beautiful pigeons, so plentiful in the city, wheeled up aimlessly, circled blindly once or twice, and were drawn into the maw of the fiery hell raging underneath. At one bird-fancier's store on Madison Street, near LaSalle, the wails of the scorched birds as the fire caught them were piteous as those of children.
The firemen labored like heroes. Grimy, dusty, hoarse, soaked with water, time after time they charged up to the blazing foe only to be driven back to another position by its increasing fierceness, or to abandon as hopeless their task. Or, while hard at work, suddenly the wind would shift, a puff of smoke would come from a building behind them, followed by belching flames, and then they would see that they were far outflanked. There was nothing to be done but to gather up their hose, pull helmets down on their heads, and with voice and lash to urge the snorting horses through the flames to a place of safety beyond.
The people were mad. Despite the police--indeed, the police were powerless--they crowded upon frail coigns of vantage, as fences and high sidewalks propped on rotten piles, which fell beneath their weight, and hurled them, bruised and bleeding, into the dust. They stumbled over broken furniture and fell, and were trampled under foot. Seized with wild and causeless panics, they surged together, backwards and forwards, in the narrow streets, cursing, threatening, imploring, fighting to get free. Liquor flowed like water--for the saloons were broken open and despoiled, and men on all sides were seen to be frenzied with drink. Fourth Avenue and Griswold Street had emptied their denizens into the throng. Ill-omened and obscene birds of night were they--villainous, debauched, pinched with misery, flitted through the crowd, ragged, dirty, unkempt, those negroes with stolid faces and white men who fatten on the wages of shame, glided through the masses like vultures in search of prey. They smashed windows reckless of the severe wounds inflicted on their naked hands, and with bloody fingers impartially rifled till, shelf and cellar, fighting viciously for the spoils of their forays. Women, hollow-eyed and brazen-faced, with foul drapery tied over their heads, their dresses half torn from their skinny bosoms, and their feet thrust into trodden down slippers, moved here and there, --scolding, stealing, scolding shrilly, and laughing with one another at some particularly "splendid" gush of flame or "beautiful" falling-in of a roof. One woman on Adams Street was drawn out of a burning house three times, and rushed back wildly into the blazing ruin each time, insane for the moment. Everywhere, dust, smoke, flame, heat, thunder of falling walls, crackle of fire, hissing of water, panting of engines, shouts, braying of trumpets, roar of wind, tumult, and uproar.
From the roof of a tall stable and warehouse to which the writer clambered the sight was one of unparalleled sublimity and terror. He was above almost the whole fire, for the buildings in the locality were all small wooden structures. The crowds directly under him could not be distinguished, because of the curling volumes of crimsoned smoke through which an occasional scarlet rift could be seen. He could feel the heat and smoke and hear the maddened Babel of sounds, and it required little imagination to believe one's self looking over the adamantine bulwarks of hell into the bottomless pit. On the left, where two tall buildings were in a blaze, the flame piled up high over our heads, making a lurid background, against which were limned in strong relief the people on the roofs between. Fire was a strong painter and dealt in weird effects, using only black and red, and laying them boldly on. We could note the very smallest actions of these figures--a branch-man wiping the sweat from his brow and resettling his helmet; a spectator shading his eyes with his hand to peer into the fiery sea. Another gesticulating wildly with clenched fist brought down on the palm of his hand, as he pointed toward some unseen thing. To the right the faces in the crowd could be seen, but not their bodies. All were white and upturned, and every feature was strongly marked as if it had been part of an alabaster mask. Far away, indeed for miles around, could be seen, ringed by a circle of red light, the sea of housetops, broken by spires and tall chimneys, and the black and angry lake on which were a few pale, white sails....
Wells and State street bridges were caught by the flames, and were soon enveloped by them from one end to the other. LaSalle street tunnel drew in the mighty volume of flame from the south, and became a sub-marine hell. With electric velocity the flames seized upon the frame blocks fronting the river on the North, and leaped from square to square faster than an Arab steed could gallop. The brands formed a kind of infernal skirmish line, felling the way for the grand attack. The storm howled with the fury of a maniac, the flames raged and roared with the unchained malice of a million fiends. Nothing human could stand before or check these combined elements of annihilation. They defied man's greatest efforts, and appeared to be kindled and fed by the arch-demon himself.