Frederick Law Olmsted, "Chicago in Distress," Nation 13 (Nov. 9, 1871): 302-5.


Chicago, November 2, 1871.

I have had an opportunity of looking at Chicago at the beginning of the fourth week after the fire, and, as you requested, will give you a few notes of my observation.

Chicago had a central quarter, compactly built, mostly of brick, stone, and iron, and distinguished by numerous very large and tall structures, comparable to, but often more ostentatious than, Stewart's store in New York. They were mostly lined, to the fourth, fifth, or sixth floor, with pine-wood shelves, on which, or in pine-wood cases, a fresh stock of---larger at the moment than ever before---dry goods, or other inflammable materials, was set up, with plentiful air-space for rapid combustion. This central quarter occupied a mile and a half square of land. On one side of it was the lake; on the other three sides, for the distance of a mile, the building, though irregular, was largely of detached houses, some of the villa class, with small planted grounds about them, and luxuriously furnished, but generally comfortable dwellings, of moderate size, set closely together. There were also numerous churches and tall school buildings, and some large factories. At a distance of two miles from the centre, and beyond, houses were much scattered, and within a mile of the political boundary there was much open prairie, sparsely dotted with cabins and a few larger buildings. It will be seen that a much larger part of the town proper was burned than a stranger would be led to suppose by the published maps.

The fire started half a mile southwest, which was directly to windward, of the central quarter, rapidly carried its heights, and swept down from them upon the comparatively suburban northern quarter, clearing it to the outskirts, where the few scattered houses remaining were protected by a dense grove of trees. The field of ruin is a mile in width, bounded by the lake on one side and mainly by a branch of the river on the other, and four miles in length, thus being as large as the half of New York City from the Battery to the Central Park, or as the whole of the peninsula of Boston. The houses burned set ten feet apart would form a row over a hundred miles in length. I judge that more than a third of the roof-space and fully half the floor-space of the city, the population of which was 330,000 was destroyed.

Familiar with these facts and comparisons before I came here, and having already seen many who had left the city since the fire, I now feel myself to have been able but slightly to appreciate the magnitude of its calamity. Besides the extent of the ruins, what is most remarkable is the completeness with which the fire did its work, as shown by the prostration of the ruins and the extraordinary absence of smoke-stains, brands, and all dŽbris, except stone, brick, and iron, bleached to an ashy pallor. The distinguishing smell of the ruins is that of charred earth. In not more than a dozen cases have the four walls of any of the great blocks, or of any buildings, been left standing together. It is the exception to find even a single corner or chimney holding together to a height of more than twenty feet. It has been possible, from the top of an omnibus, to see men standing on the ground three miles away across what was the densest, loftiest, and most substantial part of the city.

Generally, the walls seem to have crumbled in from top to bottom, nothing remaining but a broad low heap of rubbish in the cellar---so low as to be overlooked from the pavement. Granite, all sandstones and all limestones, whenever fully exposed to the southwest, are generally flaked and scaled, and blocks, sometimes two and three feet thick, are cracked through and through. Marble and other limestones, where especially exposed, as in doors and window-dressings, especially if in thin slabs, have of ten fallen to powder. Walls of the bituminous limestone, of which there were but few, instead of melting away, as was reported, seem to have stood rather better than others; I cannot tell why. Iron railings and lamp-posts, detached from buildings, are often drooping, and, in thinner parts, seem sometimes to have been fused. Iron columns and floor-beams are often bent to a half-circle. The wooden (Nicholson) asphalt-and-tar-concrete pavements remain essentially unharmed, except where red-hot material or burning liquids have lain upon them. Street rails on wood are generally in good order; on McAdam, as far as I have seen, more often badly warped.

Where houses stood detached, and especially where they were surrounded by tall trees, there is less evidence of intense heat, charred wood and smoke-stains being seen in the ruins. I had heard it surmised that, by furnishing numerous small brands, the planted trees of the North Division would have helped to scatter the fire, but I find them generally standing to the smallest twigs, so inclined and stiffened, however, as to show perfectly the action upon them of the wind at the moment of death. It is evident that they would have been an efficient protection to the houses they surrounded had the buildings to windward been a little less tall, or the gale a degree less furious. For the wind appears not only to have been strong, but gusty and whirling. There is evidence of concentrated slants, eddies, and back-sets. This partly explains the small salvage. Many, a moment after they had been out to observe the flames in the distance, and had judged that they had still a chance to save their houses, were suddenly driven by a fierce heat, borne down upon them apparently from above, to flee, leaving even their choicest property, though previously packed and ready to be carried by hand. The radiated heat from the larger buildings was so strong that it scorched men ten rods away across the wind. Families were driven from one place of refuge to another---in several cases, to my knowledge, four times, and, finally, a few into the lake; many thousands into the open country. Some were floated or swam across the river.

Burning fragments of wooden parapets, sheets of roofing metal, signs, and scuttle-doors were carried great distances, and, with blazing felt, tarred paper, and canvas, and myriads of smaller sparks, sometimes swept down upon the fugitives with a terrific roar. Very sensible men have declared that they were fully impressed at such a time with the conviction that it was the burning of the world. Loose horses and cows, as well as people of all conditions on foot and in wagons, were hurrying half-blinded through the streets together, and it often happened that husbands and wives, parents and children, even mothers and infants, were forced apart and lost to each other. Sudden desolation thus added to the previous horrors, made some frantic who would otherwise have maintained composure. In general, however, the people, especially the households of the north side, appear to have manifested a greater degree of self-possession and considerate thoughtfulness one for another, under these circumstances, than can be easily believed. Almost every one holds the remembrance of some instance of quiet heroism, often flavored with humor. The remains of only about one hundred human bodies have thus far been recognized in the ruins, and the coroner and others are of the opinion that not more than two hundred lives were lost. That the number should be so small can only be accounted for by the fact that there was an active volunteer rear-guard of cool-headed Christians, who often entered and searched houses to which they were strangers, dragging out their inmates sometimes by main force, and often when some, caught unawares, were bewildered, fainting, or suffocating. One still sees burned garments and singed beards.

Of course, a state of mind approaching insanity followed with many. After the lost had been found, as in most cases they soon were---children especially having been almost invariably taken up, tenderly cared for, and advertised by strangers---and after food and rest had been had, there was a reaction from desperation. For a time men were unreasonably cheerful and hopeful; now, this stage appears to have passed. In its place there is sternness; but so narrow is the division between this and another mood, that in the midst of a sentence a change of quality in the voice occurs, and you see that eyes have moistened. I had partly expected to find a feverish, reckless spirit, and among the less disciplined classes an unusual current setting towards turbulence, lawlessness, and artificial jollity, such as held in San Francisco for a long time after the great fire there---such as often seizes seamen after a wreck. On the contrary, Chicago is the soberest and the most clear-headed city I ever saw. I have observed but two men the worst for liquor; I have not once been asked for an alms, nor have I heard a hand-organ. The clearing of the wreck goes ahead in a driving but steady, well-ordered way. I have seen two hundred brick walls rising, ten thousand temporary houses of boards, and fifty thousand piles of materials lifting from the ruins; but, on Sunday, although there were other reports, in a walk of several miles among the ashes, I saw no hand-work going on, except that in two half-made cabins German women were holding boards while their husbands nailed them to the framing. It is obvious that the New England man is taking the helm.

There are respectable citizens who hold to the opinion that the fire was started and spread systematically by incendiaries, and I have seen one, lately from Paris, who is sure that it was part of a general war upon property. Numerous alleged facts are cited to sustain this view, but I believe them generally to be delusions growing out of the common excitement, or accidental coincidences. It is certain that the origin, progress, and all the unusual phenomena of the fire can be reasonably accounted for in other ways.

You will have heard bad symptoms reported among the workingmen since the fire, but, on the whole, their conduct seems to have been as satisfactory as could have been reasonably expected. An unusual proportion of them are Germans, Swedes, and Norwegians, and, what is of great consequence, they were the owners of a lot and cottage. There has been an advance of about twenty per cent. in wages, and this has occurred without strikes or any general ill-feeling. Laborers now command $2 a day, carpenters and masons $4 to $5. Good mechanics are wanted, and many hundred more than are now here will be required in the spring.

The responsibility of leading affairs is felt to be too great to be trifled with. Even in politics this is true; perhaps, on the principle of locking the stable-door after the horse is stolen. City officers are to be elected next week, and citizens who have heretofore been unable to spare time for public from their private business, are exhibiting some concern about the character of the candidates. The old knots of dirty, overdressed men waiting for something to turn up seem to have had enough, and have disappeared. I have seen no soldiers, nor the slightest occasion for them. The police, as usual, except those regulating the passage of the crossings, seem to have nothing on their minds but a lazy looking forward to the arrival of their reliefs.

Although few of those who were men of substance yet know where they stand, and the work of general permanent reconstruction must, from loss of land titles and other reasons, be postponed till next summer, there has been no delay in deciding upon and starting efficient temporary arrangements for nearly all the old business of the city, except that of the courts. The shipping, railways, telegraphs, are all doing more work than before the fire, and will probably continue to. The city is again supplied with water, most of it with gas; it is as well sewered and paved as before. Omnibuses and street-cars are running on the old lines; newspapers are published, schools are open and full, and half the numerous churches of the past are working more than double tides---the sensible, economical Roman Catholic custom of successive congregations and relays of clergymen having been adopted; while every day in the week the most effective preaching of the Gospel, in the form of bread, beef, and blankets, is uttered from each. Theatres, concerts, and lectures are advertised, and a new public library is started in the basement of a Baptist meeting-house. Three hundred of the burnt-out business concerns advertise themselves in new quarters, and new stocks of goods are constantly seen coming from the Eastern railway stations. In but few respects will the market a week hence be much worse, either to buy or sell in, than before. There is no difficulty in handling the crops, and, fortunately, they are large and excellent. Chicago, in short, is under jury-masts, and yet carries her ensign union down, but she answers her helm, lays her course, is making fair headway, and her crew, though on short allowance and sore tried, is thoroughly sober and knows its stations.

You ask whether it is in the power of man adequately to guard against such calamities---whether other great cities are as much exposed as was Chicago? All the circumstances are not established with sufficient accuracy for a final answer, and one cannot, in the present condition of affairs, make full enquiries of men who must be best informed, but to such preliminary discussion as is in order, I can offer a certain contribution.

The prevailing drought was, I think, a less important element of the fire in Chicago---whatever may have been the case as to those other almost more terrific fires which occurred simultaneously in Wisconsin and Michigan---than is generally assumed; yet doubtless it was of some consequence. As to the degree of it, I learn that there had been no heavy rain since the 3d of July, and, during this period of three months, it is stated by Dr. Rauch, the Sanitary Superintendent, the total rain-fall had been but two and a half inches. The mean annual rain-fall at Chicago is thirty-one inches. With regard to the cause of the drought, it is to be considered that millions of acres of land hereabouts, on which trees were scarce, have been settled within thirty years by people whose habits had been formed in regions where woods abound. They have used much timber for building, for fencing, railroads, and fuel. They have grown none. They are planting none to speak of. The same is true of nearly all parts of our country in which a great destruction of forests has occurred or is occurring. If the reduction of foliage in and considerable geographical division of the world tends to make its seasons capricious, as there is much evidence, the evil both of destructive droughts and devastating floods is very likely to extend and increase until we have a government service which we dare trust with extensive remedial measures. It is not a matter which commerce can be expected to regulate.

I can obtain no scientifically definite statement of the force of the wind. Several whom I have questioned recollect that they found it difficult, sometimes for a moment impossible, to make head against it; but I think that no year passes that some of our cities do not experience as strong a gale, and that every city in the country must expect to find equal dryness coinciding with equal force of wind as often, at least, as once in twenty years.

The origin of the fire was probably a commonplace accident. The fire started in a wooden building, and moved rapidly from one to another, close at hand, until the extended surface of quickly-burning material heated a very large volume of the atmosphere, giving rise to local currents, which, driving brands up on the heated roofs and cornices of the tall buildings to leeward, set them on fire, and through the rapid combustion of their contents, loosely piled tier upon tier, developed a degree of heat so intense that ordinary means of resistance to it proved of no avail. Under an old law, wooden buildings had been forbidden to be erected in or moved to the locality where the fire started. In 1867, upon the motion of men who wished to dispose of buildings they had contracted to move out of the more compact part of the city, the Common Council consented to a modification of this law. The Board of Health at the time urged the danger of doing so, and was told to mind its business. Underwriters, merchants, and capitalists were silent.

Chicago had a weakness for "big things," and liked to think that it was outbuilding New York. It did a great deal of commercial advertising in its house-tops. The faults of construction as well as of art in its great showy buildings must have been numerous. Their walls were thin, and were often overweighted with gross and coarse misornamentation. Some ostensibly stone fronts had huge overhanging wooden or sheet-metal cornices fastened directly to their roof timbers, with wooden parapets above them. Flat roofs covered with tarred felt and pebbles were common. In most cases, I am told by observers, the fire entered the great buildings by their roof timbers, even common sheet-metal seeming to offer but slight and very temporary protection to the wood on which it rested. Plain brick walls or walls or brick with solid stone quoins and window-dressings evidently resisted the fire much better than stone-faced walls with a thin backing of brick.

There has been no court-martial called for the trial of the fires service of the city. I understand that it was under the same board with the police. Most of the so-called police force of Chicago whom I had seen before the fire appeared in dirty, half-buttoned uniforms, and were either leaning against a door-post in conversation with equally disreputable-looking friends, and incessantly spitting on the sidewalk, or were moving with a gait and carriage which can be described by no word but loafing.

No one can be sure that the reasonably solid brick walls, reasonably good construction, and honest architecture, this fire could, once under strong headway, with the wind that was blowing, have been stopped at any point in its career, even by good generalship, directing a thoroughly well-drilled and disciplined soldierly force of firemen and police. But that the heat thrown forward would have been less intense, the advance of the fire less rapid, the destruction of buildings less complete, the salvage of their contents greater, and the loss of life smaller, may be assumed with confidence.

The walls least dilapidated are those of the Post-Office. They are of brick faced with stone, and two to three feet thick. It is stated that the fire entered by the upper windward windows, which, strangely, were not protected by iron shutters. The interior is thoroughly burned out. The windward side of the exterior is scaled and seared with heat, but the leeward side is scarcely injured at all, the glass even remains in the windows, and the sidewalks, rails, and lamp-posts are essentially unimpaired. It appears to me that this one building stood for a time a perfect dam to the fiery torrent. It was far from fireproof; but had there been a dozen other as well-built walls standing in line across the wind, and had there been no excessively weak roofs and cornices to leeward of them, I should suppose that half of all that was lost might have been saved. The two most important buildings in the city were the Court-House which was also the City Hall, and the pumping-house of the Water-Works. The Court-House was a costly structure with a stone exterior, ostensibly fire-proof, standing in the midst of a public square. No respectable structure in the same situation would have been seriously injured. Large additions had been made to it two years ago, and the design for them is said to have been bargained for under such conditions that no respectable architect could have been employed. The result, architecturally, was at all events very bad. There is much more beauty in the walls now, where they have been chipped and crumbled by the fire, than ever before. It has also been publicly charged that some of the legislators of the city were interested in the building contracts, and that much money was made on them. The first fall of snow after the roof was put on caused it to fall in, and other parts of the structure were so thoroughly shattered that it was feared that the whole would come down. A proposition to tear it down and rebuild it was seriously entertained, but, as one of the gentlemen who decided the question told me, in view of what it had already cost, the taxpayers would not have stood it, and it was determined to patch it up. On the top of it, a tall wooden, tin-clad cupola was set. The fire, true to its mission of instructive punishment, made a long leap forward to seize upon this; it soon fell in; and, before the nearest adjoining commercial blocks to windward had even taken fire, it had been completely burnt out with all its invaluable contents.

I have neither seen the Water-Works nor the justly distinguished engineer who is regarded as responsible nor their construction, and who may be depended on to give the reason of their unfortunate break-down with the utmost accuracy and candor. The roof of the pumping-house, of metal, I believe, is publicly stated to have been upheld by wooden timbering, which was charred by heat from firebrands which had fallen above. Breaking down, it broke some part of the pumping-engine, and thus the city was left without water. The main battle, such as it was, had been before this fought and lost, but that much might still have been saved had the flow of water continued, a single experience will sufficiently indicate.

A friend who had, with other treasures, a choice library of several thousand volumes, tells me that he had thought much of the dancer of fire, and was prepared to meet it. His house stood apart from all others, and was surrounded by trees. He had a strong force of instructed assistants, with private hydrants, hose, wet carpets, and buckets, well distributed. He had horses and wagons ready, but to the last was confident in his means of resistance. All houses to windward of him had nearly burned down, and he had extinguished ever spark that had fallen upon his own, when the water failed. Five minutes afterwards his roofs and walls were on fire in a dozen places, and he had all he could do to save the lives of his household.

Considering the circumstances under which the arrangements for relief were formed, they appear to be admirably good. In the midst of the most pressing demands of their private affairs, men of great good sense and well informed have taken time to devise and bring others into a comprehensive and sufficient organization, acting under well-guarded laws. Chicago, when all did well, exceeded all in her manner of providing for the sick and wounded, prisoners and refugees as well as friends; and now the bread she then floated is truly returning to her under natural laws; for men and women more fit to be trusted in every way than those to whom the control of the contributions for relief have at length, after, it is said, a hard struggle with political speculators, been given, could hardly be found in any other city. The most scrupulous caution is taken to guard against waste or imposition, and to avoid encouraging improvidence, indolence, or a disposition to mendicant habits. Among hundreds of women drawing rations, I saw few who did not appear to have been decent, tidy, motherly persons---nearly all were European born.

The most costly and best form of charity has been that of supplying, either as a loan or as a gift, a limited amount of building materials with printed plans for a rough cabin of two rooms to be made of it, together with a stove, mattresses, and blankets, to men having families, and able by their work to support them. This has already been done in 6,000 cases. Great eagerness is shown to obtain this favor, especially by those laboring men who were burned out from houses of their own, and who can thus at once reoccupy their own land. The thankfulness expressed by these men---thankfulness, as the Mayor says, "to all the world"---is sometimes very touching. The cost of the cabins, lined with heavy paper and supplied with a chimney, is, according to size, from $90 to $120. Besides the shelter thus provided, the public squares are filled with temporary barracks, and the whole number of those who have been housed by means of contributions received is, I believe, about 35,000. Wherever it is possible, persons not of families able to at least partly support themselves by labor, are helped to leave the city. The number of those to whom aid is thought needful to be administered has been rapidly reduced, every care being taken to obtain work for them and to avoid feeding those who avoid work. It is now a little over 60,000. With the coming on of winter, work will fail, and the number needing assistance increase. The funds thus far promised are not enough to meet the requirements of the barest humanity, and, especially if the winter should be severe, larger contributions than there is now reason to expect will be sorely needed.

Arrangements are made for searching out and privately and delicately administering to such sufferers as will not ask or be publicly known to receive charity. It is easy to see that the number of such must be very large. It was a maxim in Chicago that a fool could hardly invest in city real estate so badly that, if he could manage to hold it for five years, its advance would fail to give him more than ten per cent. interest, while there was a chance for a small fortune. Acting on this view, most young professional men and men on small salaries, if they had families, bought a lot and built a small house for themselves, confident that by hook or by crook they should save enough to pay the interest as it fell due on the necessary mortgage, together with the cost of insurance. To accomplish this they lived pinchingly, and their houses and lots were their only reserves. In thousands of cases, they have lost their houses, their insurance, and their situations all at one blow. Fifty of the insurance companies doing business here have suspended payment, seven of them being Chicago companies, whose directors were men of local influence and often employers.

The Sanitary Department has a list, known to be as yet incomplete, of 180 regular physicians who were burned out. Many, if not most of these lost house and furniture, as well as office, instruments and books, and the families in which they practised are dispersed. Judge Wilson reckons the number of lawyers, mostly young men, whose libraries were burned at five hundred. Many of both classes, for some days after the fire, took their places in the lines in order to get the rations of biscuits served out by the relief agents.

But even the condition of young men with families who have lost everything is hardly as sad as that of many of the older citizens, much overworked men who had fairly earned leisure and affluence. Owing to peculiar commercial conditions here, the number of such who have lost everything is larger than it would be in an older city. Cautious men averse to the general habits of speculation were most disposed to invest in buildings, and patriotic men, who had grown up with the city, and who had the most interest and pride in it, were most apt to insure in the local companies.

Amidst all the material prosperity of Chicago, there had always been a few of her citizens who had really bonded themselves to have no share in it, in devotion to higher pursuits. As examples of these, the Kinnicut brothers, as both are dead, may perhaps be named. There were others, their instructors, leaders, supporters, and followers, who, like them, had travelled frugally and far, studied devotedly, and who, aided by a few worthy men of greater wealth, were laying the foundations of a true seat and school of art, science, and learning. Several special collections had already been gathered which money can never replace. These, with libraries, many series of notes, the work of half a lifetime, and some unpublished books, more or less nearly complete, are lost; and most of those who had supplied the funds to sustain these most interesting and important bases of the higher civilization for the great Northwest, are thrown back to struggle again for the decent maintenance of their families.

But great as is this loss, it will be consciously felt by comparatively few. Even more appalling, in view of the long years of weary labor of many educated men involved, is the destruction of important papers, contracts, agreements, and accounts, notes of surveys, and records of deeds and mortgages. It is estimated that nine-tenths of the papers held by attorneys were kept in various patent safes on upper floors, and were destroyed. The same is true of those held by surveyors, real-estate agents, etc. The city and county records were, I believe, in vaults built, like those of the Custom-House and Post-Office, on stone slabs, supported on iron columns, which, soon yielding to the heat, tumbled them into a pit of fire, and all were lost. How the city is to recover from this blow no one can yet see, but the difficulty is engaging the study of its best and most conservative minds; and that in some way it will recover, and that it will presently advance even with greater rapidity, but with far firmer steps, than ever before, those most staggered and cast down by it have not a shadow of a doubt.

Fred. Law Olmsted.

F&M College/American Studies/David Schuyler/Sept. 1, 1996