The Great Chicago Fire

One hundred forty-one years ago today, these prophetic words appeared in the Chicago Tribune:

“For days past alarm has followed alarm . . . [and] the
absence of rain for three weeks has left everything in so dry
and inflammable a condition that a spark might set a fire
which would sweep from end to end of the city.”

As Emily and I wrote Plank Road Winter, vivid illustrations and eyewitness accounts from period newspapers and magazines helped us to imagine the struggles of the Hoffman family in Chicago on that October day in 1871:

Fleeing the Chicago Fire, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, October 28, 1871

From Chapter 7:
A terrified whinny and shouts came from up the street, as
a horse careened around the corner, its wagonload aflame.
Above the constant roar of the crackling fire rose shouts and
cries, along with prayers for God’s mercy.
From behind him, Hans heard a clatter of exploding wood
and breaking glass, followed by a whoosh of warm air. Another
home had collapsed in flames. The crowd gasped as a flaming
plank sailed through the air and lodged in the rooftop of
a house up ahead. Mama’s steps became quicker, and Hans
hurried to keep up.
Now the embers fell like red snow, landing on coats and
bundles. Elsa’s scream pierced the air, as a glowing bit of ash
caught in her fine blonde hair where it sizzled until Mama
smothered it in her kid-gloved hand. As the smoky air swirled
about them, Elsa’s sobs turned into hacking coughs. Between
her coughs came the tearful words: “Mama, I can’t walk
anymore.” (Plank Road Winter, p. 42)

Rush of fugitives through the Potters Field toward Lincoln Park, from Harper’s Weekly, November 4, 1871

If you are interested in viewing an extensive collection of images and reading fascinating accounts of the Chicago fire, we recommend this website: The Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory.

Categories: Chicago, Plank Road Winter | Leave a comment

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