“The National Hand of Fellowship"

November 4, 1871

Frank Bellew

“The National Hand of Fellowship"

Charity, Disaster Relief; Charity, Fundraising; Natural Disasters, Fire;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.


No caption.

This cartoon extols the generosity of Americans who contributed money to aid the victims of Chicago’s Great Fire of 1871.  In early October, the conflagration burned for 29 hours, cutting a destructive swath through 17,450 buildings on 73 miles of streets, leaving an estimated 300 people dead, 100,000 homeless, and $192 million worth of property destroyed.  News of the tragic event made headlines around the world, and donations to the Chicago relief fund, some of which came from foreign sources, totaled $5 million.

The rapid expansion of the railroad system in the North during the 1840s and 1850s made Chicago a boomtown.  It became the main transportation hub for the West; the center of the region’s agricultural trade, with stockyards, meatpacking plants, and granaries; and the world’s lumber capital.  Like many cities in nineteenth-century America, Chicago’s sidewalks and most of its buildings were made of wood (even brick buildings had wooden roofs covered with shingles, felt, or tar); there were barns with combustible material (hay or straw) within city boundaries; and since heating and lighting sources consisted of candles, oil lamps, fireplaces, and stoves, homes were stocked with kerosene and wood piles.  Not surprisingly, fire was a constant danger and reality:  in 1870, Chicago experienced 600 fires.

As the Chicago Fire Department warned, the situation in the fall of 1871 was dire.  The city had received less than two inches of rain between July and early October, which drastically reduced water levels in wells and cisterns, and hot winds further dried the ubiquitous wood into kindling.  Barns were filled with hay to fuel the main mode of transportation—horses—during the approaching winter months, while the fallen, dried leaves were raked into piles or swirled through the city’s gutters.  During that dry season, fires erupted in various parts of the “Windy City,” and the Chicago Tribune openly worried about a large one, “which would sweep from end to end of the city.”  Concerns were not calmed by the fact that only 185 firemen and 17 horse-drawn fire engines served the entire 18-square-mile city of almost 350,000 people.

Nearly half of the city’s firemen battled a fire on Saturday night, October 7, which consumed a four-block area on the West Side.  At 9 p.m. on the next evening, a night watchman working atop a courthouse tower reported a fire on the West Side, and the telegraph operator at the central fire office dispatched the nearest fire company.  The watchman then realized he had miscalculated by about a mile, but the dispatcher refused to correct the call for fear of confusing the fire companies.  One company, though, did respond to the right location at 137 De Koven Street.  Over the next 45 minutes, six other fire companies joined it, but they were unable to stop the spreading flames.  The site was Mrs. Catherine O’Leary’s cow barn, from which she ran a small milk business.  The rumor spread that her cow kicked over a kerosene lamp while being milked.  However, a fire official had to awaken Mrs. O’Leary and her family to warn them of the fire, the exact cause of which was never determined.

In less than an hour, the entire block of houses in the poor immigrant neighborhood had been consumed by the fire, which then continued on to nearby sawmills and furniture factories.  At about 11:30 p.m., winds carried the fire across the Chicago River to a horse stable and a gas works, and soon the oil-slicked river itself burst aflame.  The massive conflagration swiftly engulfed the courthouse, the Chamber of Commerce Building, the post office, banks, churches, theaters, hotels, trains stations, ships, and other structures, some of which burned to embers within five minutes.  The heat of the inferno rose high enough to disintegrate stone into powder and granite into lime, melt iron (2000º F) and steel (2500º F), and explode trees from their own heated resin.  “Fire devils”—swirling columns of super-hot air—made the fire impossible to contain.

Panicked people on foot and in carriages jammed the streets, fleeing for their lives.  Artist John R. Chapin of Harper’s Weekly narrowly escaped his burning hotel to sketch the fire from the Randolph Street Bridge.  Even more unforgettable to him than the chaotic sight was the “discord of sounds which will live in memory while life shall last”:  “Loud detonations …[of]… buildings … being blown up, added to the falling of the walls and the roaring of the flames—the moaning of the wind, the shouting of the crowd, the shrill whistling of tugs as they endeavored to remove the shipping out of … danger…” From the sea of humanity rose cries of “North!  North!” as they raced before the fire that was moving into the more prosperous North Side, where thousands took refuge in Lincoln Park.  On the South Side, buildings were dynamited to create a successful firebreak, while the fire continued on the North Side until it petered out at the edge of the city.  On Monday night, the heavens opened to douse the remaining embers.

In the fire’s wake, the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, a private charity, raised $5 million from all over the United States and 25 foreign countries.  The homeless were first housed in churches and schools, where they were given food, clothing, medical care (including the inoculation of 60,000 against smallpox), and other necessities.  By mid-November 1871, 5000 “shelter houses” (single-family cottages) had been built for the homeless.  In fact, Chicago’s reconstruction began by the end of that fateful October week, and most of the downtown was rebuilt within a year.  Thousands of tons of debris were pushed into Lake Michigan forming a new lakefront area on which the Crystal Palace and other buildings were constructed.  In the 1880s, Chicago was the fastest growing city in America, as immigrants and rural migrants sought opportunity in the revived metropolis, where the downtown buildings—now made of steel and masonry—towered skyward.  By 1890, Chicago’s population had almost tripled from the time of the fire to one million, making it the second most populous city in the United States.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The National Hand of Fellowship"
August 13, 2022

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