I did plenty of research for Into the Whirlwind, a novel of the Chicago fire. I tried to use as many stories from real life as possible to incorporate into the fabric of the novel, since they add a sense of authenticity and the stories were so profoundly moving.
There were many glimpses into the fire I was not able to weave into the book, but they were too moving to be forgotten. Here are a sampling:
In the days after the fire, thousands of telegrams flew in and out of the city. Here is one from a man telling his wife (who was visiting relatives in New York) that they have lost everything: “Store and contents, dwelling and everything lost. Insurance worthless. Buy all the coffee you can and ship this afternoon by express. Don’t cry.”
Oh….. somehow that “don’t cry” gets me every time.
The streets were chaos and it was hard to breath. The owner of a hat shop stood on his front stoop, shouting at the moving mass of people to grab a hat for their journey. “They’ll all burn up anyway,” he shouted. “Make yourselves at home with a new hat free. No charge! Take what you want!”
Those hats surely came in handy. Survivors wrote that burning ashes swirled through the sky like falling snow, and it was better for a hat to catch fire than someone’s hair!
The story that moved me the most (because I’m a booklover,) was of the old man who was trying to save his set of beautifully bound Shakespeare plays….too many for him to carry. The streets were complete chaos, and the few people driving wagons had them stuffed to capacity as they fled the city. The bookman kept flagging down the wagons, offering people $50 if they would carry his books to safety. One driver after another refused. Finally, the old man said to a driver, “Will you take them if I make a present of them?” The driver agreed. “Take them then,” the owner said. He put them into the wagon, turned away, and burst into tears.”
There are literally hundreds of stories written by the survivors of the fire. You can find them online here.
Below is an artist’s rendering of the absolute chaos on the streets, as people made a mad dash for one of the few bridges to get across the river: