Book: A Letter from the Fire Being an account of the Great Chicago Fire by Thomas D. Foster

 Book: A Letter from the Fire  Being an account of the Great Chicago Fire  by Thomas D. Foster







Since the days of Sodom and Gomorrah, now slumbering eternally beneath the waters of the Dead Sea, the pages of history have been illumined at intervals by the glare of mighty conflagrations, and the Fire Fiend has never ceased to exact his toll from the world’s most famous cities.

In the year 504 B.C. the Ionians and Athenians burned Sardis, once one of the most splendid and opulent cities of the East; one hundred and seventy-six years later Alexander the Great startled the world when he applied the torch to the wonderful marble palaces of Persepolis, which, with the greater portion of the city, were reduced to a heap of blackened ruins.

On the night of July 18, 64 A.D., an[Pg 6] insignificant blaze caught in some wooden booths at the south end of the Circus Maximus, in the city of Rome. This fire, spreading rapidly and unchecked, burned itself out when it reached the Tiber and the solid barrier of the Servian Wall; then it started afresh in another section, and when finally quenched, after eight days, had destroyed over two-thirds of the Eternal City, but then little past the zenith of its power and glory. From a political viewpoint, this was the most important fire in all history, for it marked the beginning of the downfall of Nero, whose suicide a few years later ended the line of the Caesars. Gossip had it that Nero—monster of ungovernable passion—started the fire himself, but historians are uncorroborative; nor is it likely that he “fiddled while the city burned.”

In the year 70, Titus burned Jerusalem and the temple of Solomon. Josephus tells us that over one million[Pg 7] people perished in the holocaust by fire and sword.

In more modern times the great fire of London holds the center of the stage. In extent and results it was not unlike the Chicago fire of two centuries later. How little does man profit by the lessons and the losses of the past! London burned for four days and five-sixths of the City within the walls was consumed.

Other notable fires that might be mentioned are those which devastated Constantinople in 1778-82; Moscow in 1812, and Hamburg in 1842. The first great fire in the United States occurred in New York in 1835. Boston in 1872 suffered a loss of $75,000,000, and in 1906 San Francisco was visited by earthquake and fire that took five hundred lives and wiped out property variously estimated at from three hundred and fifty to five hundred millions of dollars.

Possibly no fire of modern times has[Pg 8] received as much publicity as the one which swept over Chicago on Sunday night, October the 8th, 1871, and the following day. Exactly who was responsible for starting the fire is a matter of conjecture, but until about a dozen years ago it was generally believed that an obstreperous cow, belonging to a certain Mrs. O’Leary, was the culprit. Now cows in history, from the time of the Golden Calf, have oftener been infamous than otherwise, and Mrs. O’Leary’s had been no exception until Michael Ahern, reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who had “covered” the fire at the time and had known Mrs. O’Leary well, by publishing the real facts in 1921, removed the stigma of fifty years memory and restored her bovine ladyship to her rightful place in the annals of cowdom.

To be sure, Mrs. O’Leary had a cow; in fact she had five of them. She was a truthful woman, and a few days after[Pg 9] the fire, while her movements on that memorable Sunday night were still fresh in her memory, she branded the cow story as a fabrication, and positively disproved it by the testimony of a neighbor who discovered the fire in Mrs. O’Leary’s cowshed, after she and her family had retired. Ahern’s story runs: “There was a social gathering in the neighborhood that night in honor of the arrival of a young man from Ireland. One of those present told me in after years that two women of the party went to the O’Leary shed to get some milk for punch. One woman held a lighted lamp while the other milked the cow. They thought they heard someone coming, and in their haste to escape, the lamp was dropped, setting fire to the place. This, I believe, was the true cause of the fire.”

Thomas D. Foster, whose story of the Great Fire is here published for the first time, was a young man of twenty-four [Pg 10]when he arrived in Chicago, from London, Canada, in September, 1871, for the purpose of establishing a packing plant for John Morrell & Co. Ltd., of Liverpool, by whom he was employed. The down town offices of the firm had just been opened in the building situated on the southwest corner of Clark and Washington streets; this fell a prey to the flames and was entirely consumed. A small packing house, located at Archer Avenue and Quarry Street, had been leased from the owner, and this was not harmed; and although the fire delayed the beginning, packing operations were actively carried on during the winter of 1871-2.

Foster writes that he was staying at the Briggs House. This was situated on Randolph Street at Wells, and was one of the prominent hotels of the city. Wm. S. Walker in his Description of the Great Fire, published in 1872, gives us this picture: “Spinning along [Pg 11]Randolph Street the conflagration fed heartily on the glories of the Briggs, Sherman, Metropolitan, and Matson hotels; upon stately business houses, Woods Museum, and a miscellanny of trade edifices that of themselves would have formed the heart of a small city.” It was in this “heart of a small city”—in the very center of the “furnace in which stone buildings melted like so much lead”—that Foster’s adventures began.

It was Hallowe’en, three weeks after the fire, before he was able to settle down to write a full account of his experiences for the folks overseas. Even then, writing must have been difficult, for he had “no desk, and no fire.” What became of the original letter or manuscript is not known; after being read by the members of the family it was passed around among relatives and afterwards loaned, over and over again, to friends in the neighborhood. Requests for it became so numerous that a copy had to[Pg 12] be made, and it is this copy that has been preserved to the present day. This account has been carefully compared with authentic records published immediately after the fire, and in no case have any important discrepancies been discovered.

Order followed chaos; the citizens formed themselves into Home Guards under General F. T. Sherman, and Foster patrolled a beat on State Street, with a rifle over his shoulder, from midnight until four A.M. Later, the city was put under military control with Lieutenant-General Philip H. Sheridan commanding.

In 1830 Chicago had a population of 70; at the time of the fire it had grown to 300,000, then

“Men clasped each other’s hands and said,
‘The City of the West is dead’,”
and little did they think as they viewed the desolation of three thousand acres[Pg 13] sown with ashes, that from those ashes was to rise, within a generation, a new “City of the West” with a population ten fold, and which was destined to take its place as one of the three greatest cities of the world.

T. Henry Foster

Ottumwa, Iowa
   October 9, 1923

Book: A Letter from the Fire  Being an account of the Great Chicago Fire  by Thomas D. Foster

About | Terms of Use | Cookies Polices | Privacy Polices

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Jonh 3:16