Disaster Relief in Response to the Chicago and Midwest Fires, 1871
The city of Chicago was not the only Midwestern community whose residents suffered from a catastrophic fire on October 8, 1871. The same night, the lumber town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, was destroyed by a wildfire, and three Michigan towns – Holland, Manistee and Port Huron – also burned.
October 1871 was a bad month for fire conditions in the Midwest. An exceptionally dry season and strong winds had Wisconsin citizens fighting forest fires in the early part of the month, and the western route of the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railroad was plagued by fires. A Minnesota prairie fire made front-page news in Pittsburgh on October 7th.
The calamity that struck Chicago the following day, however, exceeded those earlier events in both scope and newspaper coverage. The conflagration raged for two days and burned more than three square miles of the city. Among the victims of the fire were around 300 Chicago residents, countless animals, and Lincoln’s handwritten draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was destroyed when the headquarters of the Chicago Historical Society went up in flames.
As soon as the first headlines announced the tragedy unfolding in Chicago, Pittsburghers thronged the newspaper and telegraph offices on Fifth Avenue, seeking updates. They learned that disaster had also struck Wisconsin and Michigan. The town of Peshtigo had been obliterated in a firestorm that burned an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. Anywhere from 800 to 2,500 people lost their lives. In Michigan, the fires were plural and the communities ravaged were many. Millions of acres burned. The winds driving the flames were so strong that debris from the Holland fire was later found twenty-five miles away.
Pittsburghers responded to the disasters immediately. The terrible fire that had laid waste to Pittsburgh in 1845 was still within living memory of many residents. Citizens filled City Hall for a town hall meeting just one hour after the the mayor had called for the assembly. Pittsburghers elected a relief committee to oversee the city's official efforts, while countless organizations of private citizens got to work gathering supplies and donations for the stricken.
At 5:00 A.M. on October 10th, Pittsburgh Mayor Jared Brush received an urgent telegram from Chicago’s mayor pleading for firefighting assistance. City firefighters were roused by messenger. By 8:30 A.M., eight steam-powered fire engines and forty firefighters were on their way to Chicago via the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago Railroad. Fire Chief Engineer Crow of Allegheny City was in charge of the group.
Cash contributions poured in to the Chicago and Northwestern Relief Fund, swelling to $50,000 in just a few days. (The country’s Midwest was referred to as the Northwest in that era.) Clothing and provisions were also donated in abundance. The Ladies’ Relief Society gathered and packed clothes, and furnished volunteers who made clothing on sewing machines loaned by businesses around town.
Local merchants were similarly generous. Grocer Thomas C. Jenkins donated 500 barrels of roasted coffee. Other grocers contributed beef, ham, bread and crackers. Dollar Bank Trustee and retired president George Albree donated boots and shoes from his family’s shoe store, Albree & Son, located on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Wood Street.
By the morning of October 11th, all these provisions, which included more than 3,000 loaves of bread and 2,000 pounds of bologna, were on an express train en route to Chicago. Accompanying the supplies were Henry B. Hays, one of the trustees of Pittsburgh's relief committee, John B. Hare, chief engineer of the volunteer fire department, and Mayor's Clerk James Patterson. The three men had been entrusted custody of $20,000 in cash from the City of Pittsburgh.
The assistance rendered on the mornings of October 10th and 11th was only the first of many efforts made by Pittsburgh residents over the next several weeks. Contributions were solicited for the rest of October, with special emphasis in follow-up efforts given to gathering aid for the people in Michigan and Wisconsin who had been affected by the fires.
On October 23, 1871, Dollar Bank donated $4,000 to the Chicago and Northwestern Relief Fund -- $2,000 to the people of Chicago, and $1,000 each to the afflicted in Wisconsin and Michigan. This amount was the most given by any of the twenty-four Pittsburgh banks that contributed to the fund.