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Irma A Chicago Woman's Story, 1871-1966
By Ellen FitzSimmons Steinberg
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2004 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One Remembrances of Chicago, 1871
Between 1835 and 1860, Chicago evolved from a small trading post to a military fort to a town with potential. Then, during the 1860s, it developed into what some called the "most American of cities." The leap from town to city occurred because Chicago's location, on the shores of Lake Michigan, on the banks of a navigable river, and in the center of the continent, made it the ideal hub from which to move goods, supplies, and people in every direction. Stagecoach lines and railroad terminals carried an almost continual stream of visitors and settlers to this inland port. A large number of hotels, most notably the Palmer House and the Tremont, opened to serve them. Theaters, among them the outstanding Rice and the McVicker's, went up to amuse them, while the advent of Crosby's Opera House heralded the arrival of real "culture." Chicago boasted about its daily newspapers, its raised wooden sidewalks and new waterworks, and about hosting the 1868 Republican convention at which Ulysses S. Grant was nominated for president. It even bragged that its citizens were "paying more for fire insurance than was collected for state, county and municipal taxes." The city was prosperous and growing.
By 1870, Chicago's population pushed the three hundred thousand mark. At this time, German and Irish immigrants made up the bulk of those who had come to work in the city's factories, lumber and shipping yards, rail depots, slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants, warehouses, and commercial enterprises.
Wealthy business owners, mostly transplanted easterners, built their mansions along Michigan and Wabash Avenues. The less wealthy, primarily European immigrants or first-generation Americans, built or bought smaller houses on the streets west. Only a few urban pioneers lived to the south and north of what is now known both as Downtown and the Loop.
When the Irish arrived, they settled the Near West Side of the city. Then when large numbers of Germans arrived, they took over the formerly grand area around Fifth Avenue between State and Van Buren Streets, eventually spreading south into Bridgeport. The streets north of Chicago Avenue and west of Wells Street to Ashland Boulevard quickly turned into another German enclave.
Irma Rosenthal was born in Chicago on July 25, 1871. Her mother and father, Betty and Abraham, both German immigrants from Frankfurt am Main, had met at a charity bazaar in 1868. Late in her life, on August 25, 1953, Irma recorded the story she had heard from her parents:
Some discriminating person put costumes on [my mother and my aunt] and made them waitresses in the restaurant. On the second evening of the bazaar, a handsome young man, the catch of the town, sat down to [my mother's] table.
The tall slender girl [who was our mother], with the white skin, brown eyes and coal black hair, set off by red cheeks but lately come from the fresh air of the Taunus mountains, which blew over her native village, asked him, in German of course, what he would like to have. The rest is history-... [T]he young man who was our father, stepped over to the flower booth and ordered all the flowers that were left to be sent to the restaurant booth, to the tall waitress.
Theirs was a love story Irma recounted repeatedly. Six weeks after her parents met, they were married. They eventually had five children, of whom Irma was the third. When she was born, Irma's parents and her brother and sister lived on the South Side of the city. This area stretched from Twenty-fourth Street in the south to Twelfth Street in the north. Although one of the less densely settled parts of the city, it was fast becoming home to a number of Germans and their thriving businesses.
By the time Irma was a few months old, Chicago, including many of its heavily populated neighborhoods, was ablaze. Evidence points to the fire's origins in or near the O'Leary barn at 137 DeKoven Street in the heart of the German and Irish Near West Side. Whether the O'Learys' cow, Daisy, kicked over a lantern, or boys sneaking a smoke started the barn on fire, or spontaneous combustion caused coal, wood shavings, and hay to ignite has never been determined. Fire alarms went out, but through a series of mishaps involving misjudged distances, the firefighters were unable to contain the blaze. The fire, fanned by a high wind, hopped from barn to wooden shanty to frame buildings. It swept east and north, skipping back and forth over the branches of the river. People ran screaming from the flames and heat. There really was nowhere to go. The calamity became known as the Great Chicago Fire.
Throughout her life, Irma reflected on the stories her parents had told her about the fire. Each time she wrote about it, she recalled a few more details or added another anecdote. Her recollected story of her family's involvement in that catastrophe shares a vividness and immediacy with firsthand accounts of the fire. The following narrative has been pieced together from various of Irma's journal entries spread over a number of years.
When I was born, Chicago, situated where a river emptied into a mighty chain of lakes in flat easily manipulated terrain, railroading was expanding with Chicago as a natural conflexion between trains from the North and the South, from the East toward the West. St. Louis, farther west where the Mississippi River divided the country into two, a little too far south for the climate to be comfortable throughout the summer, had been the gateway to the expanding West of the pioneer, and the refuge of the fever[-]threatened population of the South. Chicago was surpassing St. Louis as the life magnet centre in the middle of the country.... Chicago had grown like a mushroom, [with] hurriedly put-in wooden buildings ... of balloon construction.
The city limits of Chicago extended to 39th Street on the South Side.
My father ... had rented a house on 24th Street near Indiana Avenue.
We lived in a sort of suburban district.
A new centre of population was growing around Milwaukee Avenue and 12th Street, mostly of German extraction. Business was leaving South State Street where our father had his store which was then around 18th or on 22nd Street, moving as far south as 22nd and north between Randolph and Adams Streets where Field, Leiter and Company had its fine, expanding retail dry goods store, and Potter Palmer had erected a very modern hotel. In time the district became the nucleus of our famous loop.
Mamma rarely went down town. Field, Leiter and Company was our leading dry goods store. Mamma rarely bought things there for people, [she] said Field, Leiter was more expensive than other stores. Many of the outlying small businesses were moving down town and the theatres were located down town. The Palmer House was the leading and the swank hotel.
Three months after I was born, Chicago was a mass of twisted, smoldering ruins in the biggest fire any one had ever seen....
Throughout our childhood, we heard stories of the night of the Chicago Fire [October 8, 1871]. It was as much a part of our early childhood as the one[-]armed or one[-]legged men we sometimes saw on the streets who had been in the Civil War.... It changed our calendar. When I was a child events happened not on specific dates. They happened either before or after the fire.
The fire occurred on Sunday night.... Mrs. O'Leary, late in the p.m., thought she had better go into the barn to milk her cow. It was beginning to grow dark and so she took her kerosene lamp with her and set it down in the dry straw of the cow's stall. She should have milked her cow an hour sooner. The cow must have thought so too for it was restless and kicked over the lamp. The dry straw caught fire, the wooden barn caught fire, and Chicago caught fire. Most of Chicago's rapid-growth buildings were of wood and, after a dry summer, they went up in smoke like tinder boxes. I never heard what became of Mrs. O'Leary or the cow, but Mrs. O'Leary has been famous ever since.
A brisk wind fanned the flames and burning faggots were blown about from building to building. Persons had to run for their lives with anything they could save from the horrible flames and heat. Many lost everything they had, even their lives.
Terrible stories and beautiful ones were told about the biggest fire that had ever happened in the whole country. Chicago has always boasted about having the biggest things. The fire finally burnt itself out at the lake front for it could go no farther. Thousands of people were camped on the sand. The new Illinois Central Rail Road along the lake shore could continue to operate. The wind changed. Some buildings on the North side near the river held miraculously. For days the firemen and the citizens continued their fight among the smoldering ruins. The heart of the city had been burnt out.
Here was this city, which had grown more rapidly than any city in the land had ever grown, a heap of smoldering ruins.
Out on 24th Street the sky turned red, dreadful stories were told about the huge fire. My parents were worried about my mother's relatives [parents, six sisters, and two brothers, along with assorted uncles, aunts, and cousins] who lived across the Chicago River on the west side of the city. There was a rumor that the whole West Side was burning.
The West Side was on the other side of the Chicago River, then spanned by wooden bridges. After a while my father decided that he would try to find out if they were safe....
How he managed to reach one of the wooden bridges that crossed the river I do not know. Somehow he made his way through all the excitement and fear to the West Side, found that the fire had not reached as far as where my grandparents, uncles and aunts lived, and then he turned to go back to the South Side. Crowds were lined up on the banks of the river because all the bridges had burned to the ground. Crowds were clamoring to get across to find a way to reach the shore of Lake Michigan-some swam across, some were ferried across in row boats that had been alongside the rivers or on it. My father managed somehow to reach the other shore, to reach 24th Street, and tell my mother that her family was safe. The whole might have passed in frightful suspense for my mother because she feared for her family, and for my father. Where was he? Could he have perished in the flames? When he appeared on the early morning of October 10, she hardly recognized him. He was black from head to foot with soot and dirt....
At that time we had two maids.... The maids were called hired girls.
We were not rich but everybody was able to afford plenty of hired girls for very small wages, or no wages at all; girls coming in from the country, and immigrants from foreign lands often were happy to have a home with board and lodging.
People had back yards, and washing the clothes was done entirely by hand, and people hung their clothes in the back yard to dry. There was great rivalry among the maids in all the houses near ours ... and the hired girls vied with each other to see who could get her clothes out in the yard first.... Our hired girls, in order to get the wash out on the lines first, had filled all our wooden wash tubs and the metal wash boiler with water before they went to bed. During the night, the water works were destroyed, and the water which our hired girls had collected in the wash tubs was the most precious thing in all of Chicago. People from the whole neighborhood clamored for it to be used for drinking.
The anxiety of that night made Mamma with the three months old baby, very ill and a food question arose.... Cows became scarce and babies needed milk. Perhaps they gave me unsterilized water out of the wash tubs whose contents were as liquid gold, [because] during the night the water works went up in flame. Only the old water tower, ever since, a quaint landmark on the Near North side, held its own....
For years, people who lived at the time, and came through the Fire, told stories of suffering and loss, but they told more stories about hospitality among the citizens who escaped the calamity, and more stories about the heroism of those who saved lives and property....
Never did a country respond more promptly ... supplies of food, furniture and clothing began pouring into the city in streams.... After some hours, from nearby places, the people all around us came driving into the city as far as they dared go, with blankets and clothing and food. A brother of my mother's came from downstate Illinois where he lived [in Shelbyville] with a huge wagon-load and our back yard became a distributing depot for life-saving commodities [and] things....
In a miraculous way, the rise of our family dated from the disaster of the city. Here, for inexplainable reasons, the fire largely propelled by a fierce autumn wind, left a building standing. The old water tower was one of them, and another one was the boot and shoe store of my two unmarried uncles. They had just replenished their stock, and [so], they were the only persons in Chicago who had boots and shoes for sale.
In those days the charge customer had not yet been created. Mamma used to tell about how people clamored for boots and shoes, especially boots, and offered fabulous prices for them.
My uncles were human. They often took the fabulous prices and just as often sold their precious merchandise at regular prices, and in extreme cases, of which there were many, sold below cost or even gave away a pair of boots or shoes. The great thing was they sold out their entire stock and, when transportation was re-established, easily replenished it. Every night when they came home, they emptied their cash receipts into Grandma's apron, and I like to think what fun it must have been to stack the gold pieces and silver dollars, and have Uncle Joe who was a mathematical wizard, count the receipts, and discuss their plans and hopes. I was three months old, but I've always been sorry that I wasn't old enough to play with the gold coins.... And, this started my babyhood and early childhood.
Although Chicago had burned once before, in 1868, the devastation had not been nearly as severe. Then, despite losses totaling two million dollars, damage had been confined to a group of shops on Lake Street. Merchants had quickly set up shop on State Street, and carried on business as usual.
The Great Conflagration, however, changed all that Chicago had been. Five separate fires ate away at the heart of the city for two days before burning out. The flames charred five miles of the city from Clark and Fullerton in the north to Congress and Van Buren Streets in the south. Over two thousand acres with almost eighteen thousand houses and businesses were destroyed. At least three hundred people died. Untold scores of animals were lost. Hospitals, public buildings, stores, and banks had been incinerated.
Close to one hundred thousand Chicagoans found themselves without food or shelter. In addition to the loss of homes and boardinghouses, hotels, too, had burned to the ground. There was nowhere for the homeless to go, so the railroads offered free rides out of the city for those who wanted to leave.
The city government set up temporary quarters in the First Congregational Church. From there, officials recruited five thousand special police to help in any possible way. General Sherman also ordered one thousand Troops into Chicago to keep order.
Excerpted from Irma by Ellen FitzSimmons Steinberg Copyright © 2004 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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