Tuesday, October 8, 2013

142 Years Ago ~ The Great Chicago Fire

Panorama of Chicago After the 1871 Fire. Image attributed to George N. Barnard. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

There are a plethora of websites that tell us what happened in Chicago, Illinois, starting in the evening of Sunday, October 8, 1871. You can use your favorite search engine to find all kinds of resources.

In addition to these sources, I have a twelve-page booklet written and published in April 1904 by my maternal second great grandfather, Samuel Sewall Greeley, a civil engineer and surveyor who lived in or near Chicago for over sixty years. (He died at the age of 91 in 1916; see excerpts from an obituary here.)

The upper right-hand corner has pencilled: "Lowell Townsend Copeland, 180 Linden St., Winnetka." This is my grandfather; his grandfather was the author, Samuel S. Greeley.

The introductory paragraph:
"Some years after the great Chicago fire of October 9 and 10, 1871, a number of persons, who had taken part in that tragedy, were asked to write, for the Illinois Historical Society, some account of their personal experience. The purpose seemed to be to get a number of independent reports of the burning, as seen by different observers in different localities and under widely varying conditions. In compliance with this request I wrote the following account, which has been lying unfinished and half forgotten in my desk for a quarter of a century. If it has value, it is that it was written while every incident and action was freshly stamped upon my brain in lines of fire."
Greeley's description of his experiences in the fire are wonderfully detailed. At the time he was living "at the northwest corner of Erie and St. Clare streets in the North Division of Chicago, in a new house which I had begun to occupy some ten weeks before." [p. 1]

Excerpt from page 2

He continues to describe in detail, what he could see and what he was thinking. For a short time, he put out the occasional cinders that landed on his barn, but realized the inevitable, and just after 2 a.m., he and his family rode northward in their buggy and rockaway (a small carriage).

That night, the family managed to flee to the home of a friend. The next day, they continued to move northwestward, away from the fire, ultimately finding a place to stay at "Emmanuel Hall, a great school for boys."

On page 8, Greeley writes "my wife, delicate in health, and caring for two young children, was quite exhausted." This was his second wife, Eliza May Wells, and the two young children were Annie, age 2 years 3 months, and Henry, not quite five months old. (Neither of these children survived to adulthood.) My great-grandmother, Ethel, would not be born for another four years. (His household also included Frederick, age 15, and Morris 8, children of his first marriage.)

Within a couple of days, the city government adopted the policy of arranging with the railroad companies for free transportation of all who could go elsewhere. By Thursday, Samuel Greeley and his family left for Boston, where his wife's parents (Thomas Wells and Elizabeth (Willis) Wells) lived. After a brief rest and borrowing money from friends and family in Boston, Greeley returned to Chicago to help rebuild, leaving his family in Boston.

As a civil engineer and surveyor, Samuel Sewall Greeley was well aware of what the rebuilding of Chicago would entail.

Excerpt from page 9

I love how he knows how valuable his experience will be, but is rather modest about it.

Excerpt from page 10

Greeley is able to look back through his books and see that he started work surveying on October 24, 1871. He also explains that plat records were saved from being burned, reducing the chaos in land ownership that could have occured.

Excerpt from page 10

I have shared only a small part of the booklet. It is a great description of both the fire and the personal experience of my second great-grandfather during and after this historic event.

My descent from Samuel Sewall Greeley > Ethel May Greeley > Lowell Townsend Copeland > my mother > me.

I would be remiss if I did not note that I also have a paternal second great-grandfather, James Monroe Adsit, who was a banker in Chicago at this time. As I have noted previously, family lore is that he loaded his wagon with his bank's cash and securities to save it all from the fire, thus saving him and his customers a lot of money. I think these unrelated second great-grandfathers of mine must have known each other, but, although Greeley mentions disputes with regards to bank accounts he didn't mention Adsit in his memoir of the fire.

My descent from James Monroe Adsit > Charles Chapin Adsit > Elizabeth Adsit > Charles McAlpin Pyle, Jr. > me.


  1. Fascinating.
    My Robert S Worthington was also there in the fire.
    His future son-in-law came to help with the rebuilding as part of the Bank of Montreal (I wrote a blog post about that). I found that the Bank of Montreal had records, maybe the bank your Adsit worked at might also have records. Check it out. Thanks for sharing

    1. Adsit's obituary, as well as an advertisement in the 1882 Chicago City Directory refers to "Chicago National Bank." I wonder what happened to it...

      Thanks for the comment and great idea for additional research.

  2. Elizabeth, this is so cool! To see a description of such an historical event published written by your own close ancestor-- writhing with jealousy!

    1. Karen, this has always been one of my favorite historical items that I has been handed down. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. Replies
    1. Jana, Glad you enjoyed this - it is a treasure!

    2. Elizabeth,

      I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2013/10/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-october-11.html

      Have a wonderful weekend!

  4. Whew, the Chicago fire must have been awful. Your second great grandfather's first- person account of what he saw, what he was thinking, and how he left the city makes me more aware of the impact of the fire on individual lives.

    1. I love these first-person accounts of historical events. I wish I had more, but I'm glad I have this one and I treasure it!

      Thanks for reading and commenting.