1871 Chicago had to be a fascinating place. A cross between the wild west and high society New York.
Railroads brought new people, livestock, and goods in constantly. The stockyards were full of cattle, pigs, chickens. The smell had to be ferocious, especially in the summer, when high temperatures were in the 90s, cooking manure and waste, trash and people. New arrivals were warned – handbooks in various languages passed around – to avoid scams and con artists. Undoubtedly many still fell prey.
The river had just been turned to flow south into the canal. An engineering marvel. The hope was that it would carry the sewage away from Lake Michigan – the main source of the city’s drinking water. Cholera and other water-borne disease had been a real problem, as you can probably imagine. Hospitals couldn’t handle the sick, the youngest bearing the brunt of fatalities.
The gap between the wealthy and poor ever expanding. The upper crust lived on Prairie Avenue and the Gold Coast (which was just gaining a foothold). Their street was lit with well-maintained gas lamps. Their houses were surrounded by gardens and fences. They had carriage houses and staff. Parties and nights at the opera. They worried about fashion – gray and violet were the colors of the season along with the ever fashionable black. Their homes and businesses heavily insured against disaster.
The poor lived to the north. They lived in little wooden houses packed tightly against each other. Multiple buildings on each lot. Piles of wood and trash in the yard, animals in a barn if you could afford them. Wash hanging out in the open. Nobody cared about the color of their clothes, they were worried about their next meal. Insurance a foreign concept.
The whole city was slowly rising from the mud. Seriously. The city decided that the flooding in winter and spring was unacceptable, so they raised street level about three feet. This required large buildings to be raised on jacks and new basement areas to be built. The Chicago Underground? It’s a real thing that exists because of this raising of the city. St. Patrick’s Church basement was being constructed when the fire broke out, the church on jacks and stone being stacked beneath the building.
All the hustle and bustle. Kids going to school, men off to the stockyards or to the downtown area to work in groceries, dry goods stores, and other shops. Heading to the roundhouse, to the factories. Women heading to work, too. Cleaning, teaching, volunteering, nursing.
Saloons didn’t quite outnumber the churches, but they were plentiful. They dotted the streets in vice districts – Hell’s Half-Acre, Gambler’s Row, Hairtrigger Block. And the brothels? Abundant. Lou Harper’s Mansion, Carrie Watson’s, the infamous Under the Willow (just shut down upon the proprietor’s retirement to the country where he lived as an upstanding citizen aided certainly by his fortune).
The wooden streets where wagons and horses rumbled by. The sidewalks, also wooden, host to crowds of pedestrians. The river, dirty and undrinkable. Ships forcing the bridges to stay open longer than they should, making it near impossible to get across the river. The crowds and traffic, bucking against the delay. They built a tunnel to alleviate congestion, but who knows how effective it really was. The wooden buildings, packed together – houses and warehouses, factories and tenements, all together. Zoning wasn’t a thing.
Children roamed the streets in packs like dogs. They learned to pickpocket and survive. Some were organized by the less caring adults who saw an opportunity. Others were put in orphanages where their lot may not have been much better.
All of this. All the people and animals and houses and buildings and streets and sidewalks baking and baking under an unforgiving sun with no rain in sight.
The fire department was understaffed and underequipped. Some of the wagons had been in service since the dawn of the department – 10 years. Worn hoses, old wagons, not enough men and horses and a record number of fires in the last year. $3.5 million in damages. They asked for more money, better equipment, more fire watchers. The city was low on funds. Not enough in the budget, the city replied. So they patched their hoses. Kept the wagons working. Bought a few more horses. But the city expanded. And the fire department spread even thinner.
Still, the sun baked the city.
October rolls around and it should get cooler, but it doesn’t. The sweat and the stink and the heat and still no sign of rain. Every bit of moisture has been wrung from the city. Fires are a constant threat. Carelessness is the leading cause, but arson is a problem, too. A warehouse here, a house there. The fire watch is expanded. The first shift used to start at 9:30. Now it starts at sundown. They search the horizon for any sign and send crews to fight the blazes that erupt.
A regular Saturday night, until fire dots the sky on the west side of the river. The fire department races into action, wagons, horses, and men working together to bring the destruction under control. Hours roll by. Crowds gather in the streets to watch the spectacle. Saturday night entertainment. Daniel Quirk owns the saloon across the street. He passes out free liquor in exchange for onlookers wetting down his building. The home across the street burns, its occupant perishing, refusing to leave their lives fortune. The city holds its breath, wondering if the brave firefighters can beat the raging beast back this time. It is noon on Sunday before the fire is out. Exhausted firefighters drag wasted hoses and beaten wagons back to stations for repair and rest. Quirk’s saloon is saved.
The fire is all anyone can talk about. They feel as though they dodged a bullet. If the firefighters hadn’t gotten it under control, why, the entire western side of the city might have been destroyed. People meet to worship and take their Sabbath day of rest. They pray for their city. They pray for rain.
It’s nine hours later. The city winds down (most of it anyway, some of it was surely just getting started). Tomorrow is a work day. A school day. Gas lanterns are lit on Prairie Avenue. Children are tucked into bed. Women finish their chores. Men smoke a pipe, a cigar, a hand-rolled cigarette. On a little-cared-about street in a little-cared-about neighborhood, history remembers a cow kicking over a lantern. Or so the story goes.