Witnessing the Great Chicago Fire

October 7, 2021

It’s hard to imagine experiencing the Great Chicago Fire firsthand, but many Chicagoans left incredible accounts of those three tumultuous days. In fact, Nature Museum Interpretive Programs Coordinator Marjorie Hoffman recently discovered her own great-great-grandfather’s account of his experiences during the fire. Below is an excerpt from Frederick Adolphus Battey’s autobiography.

October 7, 1871

A fire starting in a planing mill on Canal Street cleaned off ten acres of ground, a loss estimated over one million dollars. The greatest in Chicago since 1860. On the evening of the 8th another fire started on the west side of the South Branch of Chicago River, between DeKoven and 12th Streets and Canal and Jefferson Streets in a barn—its origin unknown and which became the most disastrous and destructive ever know in the City. The weather was very dry and windy—the fire sweeping everything in its path.

I was near the fire on the south and west of its start and secured a position on top of a three story building overlooking the whole conflagration. The flames were leaping from building to building, burning shingles and other detached pieces of wood which were carried through the air by the ever increasing wind, landing on the tops of buildings in the path beyond where people could be seen on top of the buildings endeavoring to put out incipient blazes started by the flying fronds, but soon to be driven from their position by the dreadful holocaust. So quickly did the flying flames consume and leaping catch anew, that the people had no time to save their household goods or even their personal valuables. Continuing, it leaped the river, caught on the East side by the time it had reached the Van Buren Street Bridge.

It then swept the central south side of the City where the main and most important lines of business were concentrated. The Post Office, Court House, City Hall, Banks, Hotels, Railroad depots—all had to go. At about 4:30 A.M. of the 10th it jumped the main branch of the river, reaching the north side and on to the water works, which was near Chicago Avenue, soon putting that important business out of service, and continuing on beyond Lincoln Park to the extreme part of the City until the limit of fuel was reached. It made no exceptions—the pauper, the vagrant and the wealthier class—all had to flee for their lives, in most instances having only time to save their life. It is believed that many lives must have been lost. At the outskirts of the City where no buildings stand, there is strewn in piles such of the few articles saved and huddled together are the refugees from the flames. How terrible this destruction is of the once Mighty City.

Tuesday, October 10th

Nothing but ruin meets the eye in the path where swept the flames and now, coal, grain in piles and the wrecks of buildings are slowly burning. It is enough to melt an iron heart to look upon the desolate condition. The fire swept a distance of six or more miles and more that 100,000 people have been driven from their homes. I was up all night—took only an hour’s sleep this morning. It so happened that our mill and business and living places are to the southwest of the fire and out of its path. Aid is being telegraphed from all over the country, and passes over the Railroads are being given to those of the sufferers who wish to go to friends outside of the City. Relief has begun to come in from the nearby sections and assistance is offered from all over the country.

Wednesday, October 11th

Calm and pleasant day. I went partially over the ruined city. Some safes and vaults may have saved some of the valuables of the city people, but only a few. Business firms are already locating on the west side out of the ruined section. Vigilance Committees are being formed to check the action of the criminal class—many visitors are arriving from outside to see the devastated condition. Never again do I want to witness the burning of a City like this just passed through.

Thursday, October 12th

A beginning has been made by many for temporary business quarters. The water supply of the city being cut off, cannot be remedied at once and so water is being hauled in barrels and sold. A small amount is furnished by a few fire engines forcing water through the pipes. An abundance of supplies are coming into the stricken city from all over. The homeless are looking up homes and the friendless are looking for friends. Our mill business is not running as we are out of water.

Friday, October 13th, 14th and 15th

Signs of mending are to be seen on every hand. We have tried to start the mill but the police interfere. We were told to shut down or be arrested—so we shut down. Rain has set in, giving some relief. Some shanties erected in the ruined portion and some permanent foundations begun. Late on the 16th we were notified of permission to run the mill as water is being supplied from the mended waterworks.

October 17th

Running the mill—business is good at there is demand for building lumber.

October 26th—Thursday

We are doing more business than ever before. Houses being put up by money furnished through a relief committee.


Young Frederick Adolphus Battey

Image2 1

Middle-aged Frederick Adolphus Battey


Frederick Adolphus Battey later in life


Notes from further down the page

Following the fire period in Chicago conditions in business at our mill have been unusually driving because of the demand for building material. On the evening of February 15th I attended Theater with a couple of customers where the building in the burned district had been put up in 35 days—a good structure it is. The Play was Oliver Twist by Lucille Weston as leading artist.

NOVEMBER 21, 1838—AUGUST 22, 1932

Keep Learning

Discover more about the Great Chicago Fire in our episode of Curious By Nature!

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