Horrors of the Great Fire of 1871

Here is an excerpt from a book written by the daughter of eyewitnesses to the great fire that destroyed Chicago in 1871. There were many Christians in the city who were conducting noontime prayer meetings, including D.L.Moody. If this is not Great Tribulation, there is none, yet, there was NO Rapture for these people:

As she (the mother of the author) watched from the porch of the cottage she could see Chicago rising like a pillar of fire in the night. Lake View lay well outside the city, still the stretch of forest between was tinder-dry after the long hot summer. The glare lighting lake and sky was terrifying, and adding to the terror were the explosions that continued to shake the burning city for days and that could be heard for miles. Chicago, roused from sleep, was trying to escape from itself.

Torrents of people were fleeing its blazing streets and struggling over flaming bridges to the country. Tragedy piled on tragedy in the stricken city.

As miles after mile of wooden buildings, homes, stores, and sidewalks caught fire, the glaring illumination showed a city gone mad with terror. Crowds of men, women, and children ran first in one direction, then in another, shouting and screaming, saving objects no matter how worthless, carrying them, losing them again. Every explosion that shook the city added to their panic.

Drays, express wagons, handcarts, trucks, and every imaginable conveyance was being driven pell-mell through the crowded streets, laden with trunks, boxes, furniture, goods, and papers of every kind. Collisions happened every minute. Wagons broke down and impeded traffic, causing frantic scenes. Hundreds were trying to drag trunks along the sidewalks.

Truckmen were offered fabulous sums to carry people or goods.

Trucks drove along the streets with their loads blazing, and goods dragged into the streets from homes and stores, and piled there, caught fire. One man told of “delicate ladies standing guard by their rescued pianos” while crowds swept around them senselessly. . . .

Word spread that the bridges over the Chicago River were burning and all escaped to north and west was cut away. The distracted crowds passed the rumor, adding to the pandemonium in the streets. Women, half-dressed, carrying babies and with other children clinging to them, screamed and ran until trapped in the milling crowds. Passages and sidewalks jammed, and people clawed at one another in selfdefense. Women and children were flung down and trampled by men trying to save their goods or their lives.

Invalids lay halpless on mattresses on the sidewalks, wailing for help. One woman knelt in the street with her skirt in flames, holding a crucifix before her while she prayed, and a runaway truck dashed her to the ground. In the running crowds hundreds of lost children screamed for their parents. Families were separated, and many never came together again, for unknown thousands lost their lives. Pet animals whimpered their terror underfoot, hunting their masters.

In a city lawless with panic the brutality and horror of some of the scenes were sickening.

Thieves and looters forced their way through the crowds to satisfy avarice in streets lined with unclaimed treasure. Deserted saloons and liquor stores were broken into, and shouting men brandished bottles of whisky and champagne. Drunken boys reeled about carrying casks of whisky, offering drinks to the crowds of excited men. A survivor told of seeing a little girl run screaming down a street with her long golden hair on fire. A drunken man threw a glass of liquor over her, and the child was covered with blue flame. One man carried a blazing plank to a pile of costly furniture before a magnificent residence and ignited it. Then he mounted a packing box and screamed that this was the poor man’s opportunity.

One ragamuffin lay dead under a fallen marble window ledge, with kid gloves on his hands and his pockets bursting with plunder.

Large-scale disaster is bound to bring the worst in human nature to the surface. But also the noblest in man came to the fore. Many gave their lives to save others in those dreadful hours. Men and women perished trying to rescue invalids, children, and dumb animals. Strangers helped one another. Unknown heros survived, and others died, in the Great Chicago Fire.

(Our Jerusalem, an American Family in the Holy City, 1881-1949, by Bertha Spafford Vester, introduction by Lowell Thomas, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, N.Y., 1950)

Great churches were burned to the ground and many people lost everything they had worked their whole lives for. The mother of the author later lost four daughters in a ship-wreck crossing the Atlantic.

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