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The Official Report
Some facts (mainly relating to how the department first relayed word of the fire) in the commissioners' report have been questioned. The report as a whole was criticized at the time, not for clearing Mrs. O'Leary but for covering up incompetence, and perhaps even some corruption, in the department. It is difficult not to agree with the commissioners that by the time the firefighters arrived at the scene, they had neither men nor equipment enough to stop the conflagration, and that the blame for the disaster belonged to the city and its leadership as a whole. The text is taken from A.T. Andreas's History of Chicago.
The Board find that the fire originated in a two-story barn in the rear of No. 137 DeKoven Street, the premises being owned by Patrick O'Leary. The fire was first discovered by a drayman by the name of Daniel [Dennis] Sullivan, who saw it while sitting on the sidewalk on the south side of DeKoven Street, and nearly opposite O'Leary's premises. He fixes the time at not more than twenty or twenty-five minutes past nine o'clock when he first noticed the flames coming out of the barn. There is no proof that any person had been in the barn after nightfall that evening. Whether it originated from a spark blown from a chimney on that windy night, or was set on fire by human agency, we are unable to determine. Mr. O'Leary and all his family prove to have been in bed and asleep at the time. There was a small party in the front part of O'Leary's house, which was occupied by Mr. McLaughlin and wife. But we fail to find any evidence that anybody from McLaughlin's part of the house went near the barn that night.
The first information received by the Fire Department came from the alarm struck in the fire-alarm office at 9:30. The alarm sounded Box No. 342, at the corner of Canalport Avenue and Halsted Street, a point in the direction of the fire, but a mile beyond it. There was no signal given by any box to the central office, but the box was given by Mathias Schaffer, from the Court house cupola, he being the night watchman on duty at the time, and having sighted the fire. There was no signal given from anybody until after the Fire Department had arrived and turned in the second and third alarms. If any person set the fire, either by accident or design, he was careful not to give the alarm. The nearest engine-house was six blocks from the fire; the next nearest one was nine blocks away. The nearest hose-house was located eleven blocks from the fire, and, at this hose-house, the watchman had seen the fire before the alarm was given from the Court House, and the company were on their way to the fire before the box was struck.
In consequence of this early sighting of the fire, the hose company--the "America"--went eleven blocks, and attached their hose to the fire plug and got water on the fire before any engine did, although two engines were located considerably nearer the fire. It would require five minutes for the nearest engine to go to the fire, a distance of six blocks. From three to five minutes more would be required in which to unreel and lay out the hose, make the connection with the plug, and go to work. Intelligent citizens, who lived near the place of the fire, testify that it was from ten to fifteen minutes from the time that they first saw the fire before any engine came upon the ground. It is proved that the engines repaired to the fire, after getting the alarm with the usual celerity. When they arrived there from three to five buildings were fiercely burning. The fire must have been burning from ten to fifteen minutes; and with the wind then blowing strongly from the southwest, and carrying the fire from building to building in a neighborhood composed wholly of dry wooden buildings, with wood shavings piled in every barn and under every house, the fire had got under too great headway for the engines called out by the first alarm to be able to subdue it.
Fire Marshal Williams and Third Assistant Marshal Benner arrived upon the ground soon after the engines, and Marshal Williams immediately ordered the second, and, soon afterward, the third, alarm to be turned in, but these only called the distant engines, and many valuable minutes elapsed before they could reach the fire and get to work; and, before this could be accomplished, the strong wind had scattered the fire into the many buildings, all as dry as tinder, and spread it over so large an area that the whole Department, although working with their utmost energy, were unable to cut it off or prevent the wind, which soon became a gale, from carrying burning shingles and brands over their heads, and setting on fire buildings far away from the main fire. After it got into the high church, at the corner of Clinton and Mather streets, and thence to the match factory and Bateham's planing mills and lumber, it was beyond the control of the Fire Department.
About this time it crossed the river between Van Buren and Adams streets, by means of flying brands, and set fire to Powell's roofing establishment, adjoining the gas works. But, by this time, the watchman in the Court-house cupola had twice extinguished fire, which had caught from brands carried by the wind into the Court house balcony from the West Side, a distance of a mile. At eleven o'clock, the keeper of the crib of the lake tunnel--two miles from the shore and three miles from the fire--found the sky full of sparks and burning brands, and from 11:30 till morning, he testified, he worked with all his might to prevent the wooden roof of the crib from burning up and destroying himself and wife.
From Powell's roofing establishment the progress of the fire was rapid and terrific, sweeping everything in its course. The engines had all been working on the West Side; and they could not reel-up six hundred feet of hose each, and cross the river, and get to work soon enough to prevent it spreading, literally, on the wings of the wind. Blowing up buildings in the face of the wind was tried, but without any benefit. The Court House and the Water Works, though a mile apart, were burning at the same time. Gunpowder was used in blowing up buildings, with good effect, the next day, in cutting off the fire at the extreme south end of it, and preventing it backing any further.
After the Water Works burned, the firemen could do little good with their engines, except on the banks of the river. They had lost seven thousand five hundred feet of hose and one steam fire engine. Two more engines had been in the repair shops, and were partially destroyed, so that after eleven o'clock on Sunday night, there were but fourteen engines in service, and, after daybreak, only one-half of our hose remained. This would not admit of an engine conveying water very far from the river.
The firemen and their officers were sober, and did all that men could do. They worked heroically to save the property of others, when their own houses were burning and their families fleeing from the flames. A large part of the Department had worked on Saturday night, and Sunday until 3 p.m.--eighteen hours' steady work,--and they were nearly exhausted when this fire commenced; but they responded to the call with alacrity and worked with all their remaining energy.
We believe that had the buildings on the West Side, where the fire commenced, been built of brick or stone, with safe roofings (the buildings need not have been fire-proof) the fire could have been stopped without great danger, and certainly would not have crossed the river. After it did cross, the wooden cornices, wooden signs of large size, the cupolas, and the tar and felt roofs, which were on most of the best buildings, caused their speedy destruction, and aided greatly in spreading the conflagration.
The single set of pumping works, upon which the salvation of the city depended, were roofed with wood, had no appliance by which water could be raised to the roof in case of fire, and was one of the earliest buildings to burn in the North Division.
The Board of Police have, year by year, in annual reports to the Mayor and Common Council, endeavored to point out the great defects of the manner in which our city was being built up. We advised and entreated before such an immense amount of combustibles was piled around the heart of the city. We reported mansard and tar roofs to be unsafe; that the water supply was insufficient; that our fire hydrants were twice too far apart; that we ought to have Fire Department cisterns at the intersections of the streets, so that we should always have water at fires; that we ought to have floating fire engines, with powerful pumps, in the river, to enable the firemen to wet down fifteen hundred feet on either side of the river or its branches; that wooden cornices were an abomination; that the Holly system of pumping the water and sending it through the pipes, with a pressure of forty pounds on ordinary occasions, with power to increase it to one hundred pounds in case of fire, would give us four sets of pumping works in different parts of the city, and not leave us to the mercy of chance, or, accident, with a single set. We showed that the four sets of Holly works could be built for less than one year's interest on the cost of the present Water Works, and, when built, would admit of the dispensing with every engine in the Fire Department where the water was in the street, allowing us to get rid of most of the horses and all the engines of the Department, and to reduce the number of men one-half--saving two-thirds of the expense of the Fire Department, and making it as efficient as it would be with one hundred steam fire engines. None of these things was noticed by the mayor, the Common Council, or the newspapers. No heed being paid to our suggestions, so far as any improvement of our plan of extinguishing fires was concerned, the only thing we could do was to ask for an increase of the engine companies, in order that we might be prepared as well as possible to contend with the great fires to which we were and are still liable. Our engines have always been too few in number and too far apart. The Fire Department should be very much enlarged, or the system of putting out fires by steam engines be abandoned. If the citizens do not believe this now, they will after the next great fire sweeps out of existence the greater portion of the wooden city which now remains.
If we had had floating steam pumps of large capacity in the South Branch, the fire would not, probably, have crossed to the South Side. If we had had cisterns in the street there could have been saved all of the North Division, north of Chicago Avenue and west of Clark Street, and all of the southeast part now included in the burnt district of the South Division.
Evidence was given of money having been paid by citizens to some of our firemen, but we can find no evidence that any of them worked during the fire with any idea of receiving any pay or consideration for their labor upon any property. The money paid was merely a testimonial of respect for the firemen, and an acknowledgment, in a substantial form, of services rendered by the firemen, many of whom had imperiled their lives to save the property of citizens, and lost their own homes while doing so. No money was paid them until weeks after the fire, and its receipt was a surprise to the firemen who got it.
The Fire Department received all the aid from firemen of nearly every city, far and near, that could be rendered. They came with their apparatus, and worked with a will, and placed us all under a load of obligations which we can never repay.
The area burned over by the fire is about two thousand one hundred and fifty acres, distributed through the three divisions as follows: About one hundred and sixty acres in the West Division, nearly five hundred acres in the South Division, and upwards of fourteen hundred acres in the North Division. The total loss of property burned is estimated at about $200,000,000. The number of buildings burned is between seventeen thousand and eighteen thousand. The number of lives lost at the fire is supposed to have been about two hundred, although the coroner has as yet found but one hundred and seventeen bodies in the ruins.