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Chicago Fire

The Burning of Chicago (1871 ca.)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-4604

Horace Tenney and the Chicago fire

Horace A. Tenney (1820-1906) was Madison’s sixth village president, serving in 1853. He built the first house southwest of the Square, edited the Wisconsin Argus newspaper, helped organize the Wisconsin Historical Society, and served in the legislature in 1856. In 1857 he helped keep Madison the capital by arranging for the city to charge the state only $25,000 for a $100,000 enlargement to the Capitol building. In 1861 he converted Camp Randall into a training facility for Union soldiers. From 1870 to 1874 he edited the Chicago Post, and later the St. Paul Pioneer Press. His epitaph in Madison’s Forest Hill Cemetery reads “A Scholar, A Philosopher, An Honest Man.”

In October 1871 he survived the great Chicago fire. The day after the tragedy he came to Madison and recounted his experiences for the Wisconsin State Journal.

About 9 o’clock Sunday evening the bells sounded the general alarm, and on looking northwestward a bright glare was seen against the sky. This elicited no special attention as fires were not uncommon – it was nearly two miles away. Citizens, except in the immediate vicinity, rarely rush to a fire in Chicago. About 12 o’clock I again looked out and found the light had gained northward, but except for the clatter of teams in the street nothing was unusual. Some time after 3 a.m. I was again awakened, and there was no longer any doubt of a conflagration of monstrous proportions. Hurrying down the street with my brother, we passed for a mile and a half through an unburned district, first reaching the fire on Van Buren Street. Every avenue and street was filled with a constant throng of teams and hurrying fugitives, escaping into the unconsumed part of the city… There was a stern but hopeless look upon all that mighty sea of human faces gazing upon the oncoming flames. Mothers pressing their babes close to their hearts were leading little children, and men were hastening to cross the open front and take refuge all along the margin of the open lake. A single steamer had been playing upon the Field & Leiter block, the firemen conspicuous upon the roof holding to the last. Just at this moment the waterworks a mile northward took fire, and thus cut off the whole of what water was left to the city. When this took place I went to the engine and found one fireman situated on the useless steamer, covered with cinders and dust, sobbing like a child at the utter hopelessness of doing anything further, and in a few moments they were driven back, abandoning everything. Meanwhile the wind had grown to a tempest, blowing towards the fire with a force so awful that it was only by clutching to the iron railing of a still unburned block that we were able to hold against it. The fire came roaring up Michigan and Wabash Avenue, forming a colossal canopy of flames over the streets, all along the line of which huge blocks of buildings were pouring their massive walls and pillars, like a vast cascade, into the fiery gulf, and every moment shredded off mighty fragments which disappeared among the ruin. The boilers of all these buildings, as they became heated, either blew up or blew off steam with a roar above all the surrounding tumult, while the falling walls sent up a sound like the firing of whole regiments of musketry and artillery in the fiercest rage of battle… The multitude were hushed and awestruck. The calamity was too great and dreadful to call for any manifestation of ordinary emotions.

Mark Gajewski