Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 6.djvu/642

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Report of the Chicago Relief and Aid Society of Disbursement of Contributions for the Sufferers by the Chicago Fire. Printed for the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, at the Riverside Press, 1874.

This volume is one of unique and remarkable interest, founded on one of the most terrible tragedies in all history. Within a period of twenty-four hours an immense portion of a great city was laid in ashes. The total area burned over was 2,124 acres, or nearly 313 square miles, containing about 73 miles of streets and 18,000 buildings, while, of a population of 334,000, the houses of 100,000 were destroyed. Of the experience of that terrible Sunday night, when the conflagration spread through the city before a driving gale of wind, the "Report" remarks as follows:

"As the fire raged, the number of homeless people became greater and greater, and, possessed by fright, many were inapt in expedients of self-preservation. Many sought temporary abodes for themselves and their effects in the hospitable homes of their neighbors. But the hope of security here was soon surrendered, and those who had been but mere spectators of their neighbors' calamities, were now panic-stricken householders, engaged in taking care of themselves, their families, and their property, until thousands together were fleeing west, north, and south, in consternation, and frequently in despair of saving life. And thus the streets were filled with an indescribable mass of fugitives forcing their way through the stifling clouds of dust, smoke, and cinders, and the confusion and utter chaos of the night—a night lurid with flames, the reflection of which, in itself, gave to the countenances of these fleeing thousands an awe-stricken and almost unearthly aspect. The hissing and crackling of the flames, and the deafening roar of the gale, the pelting cinders and brands, and the crumbling of material, gave tragic coloring to the scene, and leave the night memorable in the minds of those who witnessed it, as a picture of appalling horror, distinct in its outlines, weird in its dark shadings, but utterly incapable of verbal representation."

But, appalling as was this phase of the great disaster, the consequences it immediately entailed were hardly less dreadful:

"Comparatively few, of those who had fled before the flames, had tasted food since early Sunday evening, and hunger came to them to add its terrors to those of exposure and, in many instances, apprehension of death. And then came the greatest terror of all—the consciousness of the fact that families had been separated; husbands and wives, parents and children, were missing. The flight had been so rapid, and, in all directions, the thoroughfares had been so obstructed, and in some cases utterly impassable, by the crowding of vehicles and masses of people, and the city itself a wave of fire, it is no marvel that, under these circumstances, thousands, for the time, were lost sight of, and became lonely wanderers; and that hundreds perished in the flames. The seeds of permanent or temporary disease sown, the bodily suffering and mental anguish endured can never have statistical computation or adequate description."

Instant measures were required to meet the emergency. The news of the calamity spread by telegraph through the world, roused universal sympathy, and back, along the wires, as if by reflex action, came prompt offers of abundant assistance. The telegraph poured in reports of world-wide contributions in money, and the railway-trains came freighted with provisions, clothing, merchandise, and all the necessary supplies which a suddenly unhoused and bankrupted community might require. To meet these universal proffers of help, and carry out the work of distribution, the "Relief and Aid Society" was called suddenly into existence, and the present "Report" is the history of its experience. Its officers consisted of the ablest men in Chicago, and the record of their prompt and vigorous doings is in the highest degree interesting and instructive. The report they have issued is a model of systematic, detailed, and comprehensive statement of operations, and will be permanently valuable, both as an impressive chapter in the history of Chicago, and as a register of experiences that will be valuable for consultation in similar emergencies that are liable to happen in other cities. The volume before us is gotten up in superior style, but we hope there is a cheaper edition for general circulation.