TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Disaster Recovery in 1871

Disaster Recovery in 1871

Patrick Townson (
Wed, 5 Oct 2005 23:40:38 -0500

[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: Here is an article I wrote nine years
ago, in October, 1996 for this Digest, marking the 125th anniversary
of the Great Fire in Chicago, October 8-9, 1871. I hope you will enjoy
seeing it again, in the event you missed it first time around. As the
Chicago Historical Society did this month, you might like to make some
comparisons between Katrina/New Orleans last month and the Great Fire,
134 years ago this week. PAT]

Telecom Disaster Recovery in 1871
by Pat Townson,

It was 125 years ago on October 8-9, 1871 that the Great Fire in
Chicago completely burned out a large portion of the city as it
existed at that time. The entire month of September had been very dry
and with no rain. In those times everything here was built out of wood
with the exception of 'modern fire-proof buildings' which were made
out of bricks.

The exact reason for the fire was never detirmined. There is the one
theory of the Cow, and although the cow's owner Mrs. O'Leary at first
alluded to the possibility that her lantern may have been kicked over
by the cow during its milking, she later testified under oath in
special hearings before the Chicago Board of Aldermen (what is now the
Chicago City Council) that no such thing had occurred. Other witnesses
who lived nearby Mrs. Oleary's home claimed they had seen teenagers
'sneaking into the O'Leary barn to smoke cigarettes ...'

Oddly enough, Mrs. O'Leary's house did *not* catch fire and burn down
although her barn and some 17,000 other buildings in the city were
destroyed by the time the fire was extingquished due to a heavy
rainfall early on Tuesday morning, October 10. About 90,000 persons
were left homeless, and about 300 persons died in the fire. The fire
burned from about 9:00 pm that Sunday night, throughout the day on
Monday and until shortly after midnight at the start of Tuesday.

A combination of factors made the fire as bad as it was. Not the least
were the nearly exhausted firemen who had battled a rather large fire
on the west side of the city less than 24 hours earlier. Winds of 30
miles per hour spread the blaze rapidly. The 'sidewalks' were made of
wooden planks elevated slightly off the ground and these had lots of
trash under them. The citizens also were caught off guard or perhaps
simply ignored the urgency of the matter until it was too late.

The steeple of City Hall contained a large bell which was used by the
Fire Alarm office to warn of such emergencies. It was operated by a
mechanical device which was spring-wound, much like the clock which
was also in the tower of the steeple. This device had a 'clutch' or
similar on it and could be set to ring the bell with various cadences
to mean various things. One ring and a pause meant a fire in the north
part of the city; two rings and a pause meant a fire in the south part
of the city; three rings and a pause meant a fire on the west side of
the city; four rings and a pause was a general alarm to which all
citizens were urged to heed.

But as the {Chicago Tribune} reported two days after the fire, for
nearly a week prior the bell had been ringing almost constantly due a
large number of small fires all over the city created by the very dry
weather and tinderbox conditions. The Tribune noted that 'our citizens
cannot be blamed for giving the bell little attention that night; for
over a week it seems everywhere we walk about town there is scarcely
more than a few minutes passing before we see a team of horses racing
down the street pulling their water-wagon with the firemen astride it
making loud noises with their gongs to warn us to step aside quickly
and let them past ...' So that warm and very pleasant Sunday evening
as the good citizens of Chicago returned to their homes from church
services they heard the bell in City Hall and most just said, 'oh, it
is another fire somewhere ...' and let it go at that.

At the telegraph office on LaSalle Street, the fellow who was the
combination clerk/telegrapher on duty that Sunday night sat 'on the
wire' talking about it with other telegraphers in cities far and
wide. Even to him, it was 'just another fire' -- although a bigger one
than usual -- as he looked out the window and saw the orange glow a
mile or so to his southwest. Everyone assumed the fire would end when
it burned its way to the south branch of the Chicago River near
Roosevelt Road. It was common for the telegraphers to 'chat' among
themselves when none of them had any traffic. They'd sit at the 'key'
and just idly 'converse' with their counterparts around the nation. If
any of them had something to send over the wire, he'd just tap the key
a couple times in a sort of heavy-handed way and the others who had
been chatting among themselves would become silent. Then the one who
had interuppted would key "I have traffic", and the other operators
would remain silent while he passed his traffic to wherever it was
going. When he had finished, there would be a few seconds to a minute
of silence as the others waited to see if more traffic was to follow,
and if none was there, the chit-chat among them would begin again. The
Chicago guy even mentioned it was quite a fire that seemed to be going
on the west side of town that night.

Then what no one expected would happen did happen. Strong winds
carried burning chunks of wood, etc across the river, and the first
few landed on the roof of the People's Gas Works Building. Employees
at the gas works had the presence of mind to cut the gas supply
immediatly, but sufficient gas under extreme pressure in a holding
tank nearby was all that was needed to cause an explosion that, as the
Tribune later reported 'must have been seen and heard by God Almighty
Himself, wherever He is, considering the huge ball of fire which rose
into the air and the noise of the explosion as the gas works went up
in flames. That was about midnight Sunday night, and from that point
on, the fire just simply spread from one building to the next
throughout the downtown area.

In an interview in the {Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine} in 1911 on
the fortieth anniversary of the fire and the fiftieth anniversary of
the employment of the man who had been on duty in the telegraph office
that night, the man told his memories of the occassion. By 1911, the
Chicago telegraph agency was operated by Western Union (it had not
been in 1871). WUTCO, as readers here know, was itself a consolidation
of several small telegraph companies and their agencies which took
place over a half century or so. The old gentleman was retiring from
employment with WUTCO that year in 1911, and people at the Chicago
Historical Society, the Tribune and others felt his story needed to be
recorded, because as the {Chicago Daily News} noted about the same
time, 'soon all the people who were around at the time of the fire
will be dead, and no one will be left to tell the real story.'

In his interview in the Tribune Sunday Magazine in 1911, the man
mentioned a few things he remembered from that night forty years
earlier. He remembered that:

Mayor Roswell Mason had come to the telegraph office with some of the
aldermen about 1:00 am when it was apparent the fire was going to
destroy most of the city. Mayor Mason had told him to send out several
telegrams immediatly; one to the president of the United States
informing him of the disaster; one to General Sheridan of the United
States Army asking for a declaration of martial law and to send
troops; 'and a few others were sent calling for assistance to be

By the time he had sent those messages as ordered by Mayor Mason, the
wires were abuzz all over the country as other operators heard the
messages being transmitted and began talking among themselves. By then
it seemed every telegraph operator in the United States on duty at
that time of night was talking about the great fire going on in
Chicago. There was also traffic on the wire about a fire of similar
fury and destructiveness going on at about the same time in the
smaller town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, where some 2000 people lost their
lives over a 24 hour period. He recalled watching the fire as it was
burning in several buildings across the street from the telegraph
office and then it became obvious his own office was going to go up in
flames also. He said that he gathered up what he could of the
company's books and records, as well as the cash box at the front
desk, and stored it all in the fireproof safe there.

He sat down at the telegraph key one last time and 'broke' the
chatters who immediatly went silent expecting that traffic was to be
passed. When he had their attention he said, "the roof of our
building here has caught fire and I am getting out now. Goodbye, we
will be in touch when we can ..." He said he recalls grabbing a few
more things to toss in the safe before locking the door on it while
the 'key' was chattering and other operators were sending words of
encouragement. He said he remembers 'God bless' coming on the wire as
he was going out the door. It was fortunate he left when he did,
because within about a minute the roof collapsed in flames and the
entire building began to burn, just as every other building around him
was already doing.

[TELECOM Digest Editor's 1996 Note: A quick side note: I am reminded
of the great flood a few years ago when the old underground tunnel
system here sprang a leak and the Chicago River began pouring into the
tunnels and the sub-basments of buildings all over the downtown
area. Although City Hall was one building which had to be totally
evacuated, there were ten or so women who stayed behind -- the centrex
phone operators -- who took call after call from the media all over
the world as well as countless frightened citizens asking for
information about the disaster. One of the ladies was asked, 'how long
are you going to remain there?' and she replied 'until the phones go
out of service or the water has risen to this level or the police come
and carry us out. :) '

For about two hours employees of Ameritech frantically worked to
re-route the City Hall centrex lines away from the rising flood waters
in the basement to a location directly across the street in the
Chicago Temple Building. They lost to the flood; the water rose faster
than they could get the Fire Department lines and the centrex lines
relocated, so the ladies were 'off line' about 45 minutes along with
the people who answer fire calls routed to them through 911. For about
45 minutes, calls to 312-744-4000 and/or 911 just went off to nowhere;
no ring, no answer but then suddenly it started ringing again and the
cheery ladies who had taken several thousand extra calls that day
responded once again. They had all gotten up and walked across the
street to the Temple Building where banks of phones had been set up
for the operators and the Fire Alarm office personnel. Other City Hall
workers would be without phone service for a few more days. PAT]

He said he remembered walking around downtown the rest of the night,
going no where in particular but just watching the fire everywhere.
The streets were almost entirely deserted. He said perhaps the most
grotesque thing of all was the bell in the steeple at the City
Hall. His words were, "the bell was on a wind up spring attached to
gears which allowed it ring without human intervention. What was so
strange was that long after the people in the Fire Alarm office itself
had fled in terror seeking to save their own lives and what they could
of their possessions in their homes, that bell continued to
ring. Totally deserted streets downtown and that bell with its hideous
sound as it would ring four times and pause, then four more times and
pause ... a fire everyone! a fire! ... but no one there to listen to

And then he watched as the cupola of City Hall caught fire and 'the
flames swept wildly up the steeple itself and into the tower. The
ropes which held the bell in place began to burn and presently the
bell itself fell to the ground with an awful noise and the mechanicals
kept moving up and down as the remains of the rope to the bell got
tangled up in it.' And then soon the clock itself got dislodged from
above and fell to the ground next to the bell. He recalled that about
about 3:00 am that Monday morning the fire further jumped the main
part of the river and spread into the north part of the city. The
water works caught on fire and the hydraulics which caused air
pressure to go into the mains went out of order. That was the end of
any possible fire fighting efforts. Nonetheless people did what they
could on the north side all day Monday to save their homes but with
little or no success.

He went back to the place where the telegraph office had been located
shortly after daybreak to find only smoldering ashes with the building
completely down, but the company safe still standing there. One of his
supervisors asked him to go along with him to the telegraph office in
the village of Austin to the west of the city (now a neighborhood in
the city known as Austin) where they could obtain tools and spare
equipment to get themselves up and going as soon as possible. He said
they rode their horses out that way and he recalls passing two young
ladies on their way to work downtown carrying their lunch sacks; they
were totally oblivious to everything and apparently unware of the
fire. He said to his supervisor they would certainly be surprised when
they got downtown ... :) With tools in hand, a lot of wire, spare
telegraph keys and the help of everyone employed there, he said they
managed to relocate the telegraph office by the middle of the day
Tuesday. He said they relocated in an area in the 'Customs Building'
on South Clark Street near 18th Street and after working the entire
day Monday and all that night they had a crude facility set up and
operational Tuesday afternoon. He recalled that when they first began
attaching the keys to the newly installed wire, the keys of course
came to life immediatly with traffic and at the first available free
space in the traffic he 'broke' the other operators 'this is Chicago,
I told you we would be back as soon as possible.' The other operators
started chattering about it immediatly of course, wanting to know the
extent of the damage, etc. There were 'floods of traffic for several
days afterward' as people anxiously inquired about relatives and
friends. He said that at every minute there were three or four
telegraphers on duty; none of them stopping for more than a few
minutes at a time with people lined up in the street waiting to get
out messages and a lot of messages coming in almost constantly around
the clock.

The first messages sent out were by Mayor Mason to government
officials telling them of actions he had taken. He recalled Mayor
Mason's message to the president of the United States in which he
stated, "In emergency session of the Board of Aldermen on Monday I
instructed the aldermen to get on their horses and ride to Lincoln
Park (where over a hundred thousand people camped out homeless on
Monday night) to assure the citizens that everything possible is being
done for their welfare, and to advise them that the government has
been restablished and is in control." He noted the message to the
president continued by saying that martial law had been declared and
that the First Congregational Church had been seized by the government
to serve as the temporary location of City Hall ... and that
furthermore, several railroad trains which had entered the city on
Monday and Tuesday had been comandeered by the police with the food
and other supplies therein seized to be given to the citizens 'most of
whom went without their supper on Monday night as they stood in the
park, grateful that the only real things of value -- their loved ones
-- were there safe with them ...'

He remembered the day afterward, the Tuesday when the telegraph office
re-opened for business and his visit to the downtown area that afternoon:
'Never did I see so many people downtown on one day. Thousands of people
came downtown to wander the streets and look in amazement and awe. Just
rubble everywhere. The safe remained too hot to open on Monday but after the
rain Monday night it cooled off and on Tuesday morning executives of the
telegraph agency went to the now burned out premises to open the safe and
retrieve the contents. Quite a few of the documents were singed and crumbled
into ashes when picked up, but there was quite a bit they saved.'

Looters and trouble-makers used the circumstances of Monday to their
advantage that night, and groups of citizens formed vigilante parties
to protect what remained from the disaster. He noted in the Tribune
interview that 'General Sheridan and his troops rode into town late
Tuesday evening and never were the citizens so glad to see anyone in
their lives. Order was restored almost immediatly when General
Sheridan placed on display a revolver and a noose made from rope and
explained "these are the tools I will use for those who need them.
__Orderly distribution of relief supplies_ will follow immediatly
beginning at six tomorrow morning (Wednesday). My men (the troops)will
be at nearly every street corner assisting the police. The first
business to re-open downtown was that same Wednesday, two days after
the fire. A man built a small wooden stand and had vegtables and
fruits for sale. The Tribune Building had also burned down despite its
supposedly fire-proof status, and the Tribune missed publication that
Monday, but was back in business with a Tuesday edition from their new
headquarters a few blocks away, and their headline that first day back
after the fire was 'Chicago Will Rise Again'.

The telegraph office stayed at its new location for several years until
Western Union bought it, and it then moved into the new building WUTCO
constructed at 427 South LaSalle Street where it remained until the 1980's.

Telephones were yet to come; they would not be available for another seven
or eight years in the city.

Visit the Chicago Historical Society on the web.


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