An eyewitness account of the Great Chicago Fire, 1871

A primary source by John R. Chapin

“Chicago in Flames,” Harper’s Weekly, October 28, 1871 (Gilder Lehrman CollectioThe Great Chicago Fire of 1871 killed nearly 300 people, left 100,000 homeless, destroyed over $190 million worth of property, and leveled the entire central business district of the city. The fire broke out just after 9 p.m. on October 8 in the barn of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary on DeKoven Street. By the time firefighters arrived, the fire was already raging out of control.

John R. Chapin, an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, wrote this first-hand account and drafted two sketches for his employer shortly after the fire. Chapin reported that he was asleep in his room at the Sheridan House when he was woken by a commotion in the hotel’s hallway:

Listening for a few moments, and thinking it must be near morning, I composed myself to sleep again, but was restless, and my mind became gradually filled with a dread for which I could not account. At length, to assure myself, I rose and went to the window, threw open the blinds, and gazed upon a sheet of flame towering one hundred feet above the top of the hotel, and upon a shower of sparks as copious as drops in a thunder-storm.

In his account account, printed in Harper’s Weekly on October 28, 1871, Chapin described his harrowing escape from the fire. From his vantage point across the river, he watched desperate citizens attempt to save their belongings as the flames claimed Chicago’s distinguished buildings. After raging for two days, the fire was extinguished by rain on October 10.

A pdf of the article and images is available here.

Excerpts

I confess that I felt myself a second Nero as I sat down to make the sketch which I send herewith of the burning of Chicago. In the presence of such a fearful calamity, surrounded by such scenes of misery and woe, having within a brief hour barely escaped with my life from the burning hotel, knowing that under my eye human life was being destroyed, wealth swept away, and misery entailed upon untold thousands of my fellow-men, nothing but the importance of preserving a record of the scene induced me to force my nervous system into a state sufficiently calm to jot down the scenes passing before me. . . . Niagara sinks into insignificance before that towering wall of whirling, seething, roaring flame, which swept on, on—devouring the most stately and massive stone buildings as though they had been the cardboard playthings of a child. . . . Vehicles of every kind and character were crossing and recrossing the bridge, bringing away goods of all kinds, and sometimes of the most ludicrous description. Fabulous prices were asked and paid for any thing on wheels. . . . One party had a platform store truck with thee wheels, on which they had piled desks, chairs, cushions, and office furniture to a height of six or eight feet. In trying to get off the track the whole load slid off, and an immense express wagon, dashing along, went over the pile and crushed it into splinters. Here comes a steamer! Back rushes the crowd, and four splendid horses, followed by an engine, whose driver was either wild with excitement or crazy drunk, dashed across the bridge, and, wheeling to the right, took up a position on the edge of the dock. . . . And who shall attempt to depict the scenes of misery, the agony of suffering, among that mass of people which was surging back and forth, to and fro, in every direction, on the west side? In every door-way were groups and families, on the curbs, in the gutters, every where . . . they could be seen huddled around their little all that the flames had spared, with misery depicted on their countenances and with despair in their hearts.

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