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CHICAGO FIRE A QUARTER CENTURY AGO
From the Coast Review, Vol. 51-2, 1897.

A tiny blaze in a wooden building in Chicago on October 8, 1871, spread and spread and grew in fury as it consumed whole blocks of buildings. As an exchange eloquently says, "It was a huge marching blast furnace, with the roaring wind for its bellows and an all conquering sweep of power which laughed in brazen wrath and defied all human barriers, while it remorselessly sucked into its hundred doors the garnered wealth and the buoyant hopes of a great city."

A destructive fire broke out on October 7, but this was finally subdued. About ten o'clock on the evening of the following day the weary firemen were called out to fight another and infinitely greater fire which had started in the midst of a gale, in a barn at the corner of Jefferson and DeKoven streets. This was the beginning of the great fir which continued all the next day, and ended only with the total destruction of four square miles of buildings and their contents. The flames leaped the rivers. Iron and stone melted in the fierce heat before the blaze kindled their contents. Human victims, in the places of supposed refuge, found every avenue of escape closed by gates of fire, and were cremated alive. The number of human lives lost is estimated at 250. Nearly 100,000 persons were made homeless.

The loss of property can never be known. It is variously estimated at from $150,000,000 to $200,000,000, based on the assessed valuations. No fewer than 17,500 buildings, covering 2,200 acres of ground, were burned to ashes. Some 1,500 of these buildings were substantial business structures, but nearly all of the remainder were flimsy, inflammable pine affairs which ignited easily and quickly, swelled the irresistible gale of fire. Chicago at that time was about the size of San Francisco now; but though the latter is a largely a wooden city, the redwood of which it is built is not so nearly as inflammable as the pitchy pine of which Chicago was largely constructed. Redwood is very porous, and has so little resinous matter that it is not fit for kindling wood.

Two hundred and one fire insurance companies had risks in force on Chicago property at the time of the fire. New York was represented by 67 companies; Ohio, 29; Massachusetts, 23; Illinois, 22; Connecticut, 11; Pennsylvania, 8; Maryland, 7; Rhode Island, 7; Missouri, 6; Great Britain, 6; California, 5; etc. Illinois stood first in amount of risk, and California, seventh. In percentage of loss paid, New Jersey, with two companies at risk, ranked first; Great Britain, fourth; California, fifteenth. In amount paid, New York stood first; Connecticut, second; Great Britain, third; Illinois, fourth; Massachusetts, fifth; Ohio, sixth; Pennsylvania, seventh; California, eighth, etc. In the greatest amount paid the companies by states stood: first, Illinois; second, New York; third, Connecticut; fourth, Ohio; fifth, California; sixth, Massachusetts; seventh, Rhode Island; eighth, Pennsylvania; ninth, Maryland; tenth, Great Britain, etc. The only states whose companies paid in full were Minnesota with one company and New Jersey with two companies. Subsequently, we believe, the British, Missouri, Michigan, Maine, Wisconsin and West Virginia companies paid in full.

The amount at risk in the burned district was a little over $100,000,000, of which $96,500,000 was claimed as lost. Of this amount, only $180,000 was resisted. Salvage and discount amount to $5,200,000. Six months later, $38,000,000 had been paid. In time $10,000,000 more was paid, leaving about the same amount, say $48,000,000, unpaid. Sixty-eight American companies, with $20,000,000 cash capital and $5,000,000 net surplus, were forced into liquidation. Of the California companies interested, two (Fireman's Fund and Union) paid in full, and three (Pacific, Peoples and Occidental) failed. Of the New York companies interested, twenty-six failed; Illinois, seventeen; Connecticut, seven; Ohio, five.

[Fireman's Fund Archives: 4-1-2-4-30; 0718.]



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