‘The Great Chicago Fire of 1871’ topic at meeting of Mathontes Club


Continuing the year’s study of “Wrong Place at the Wrong Time,” the program at the recent meeting of the Mathontes Club was on “The Great Chicago Fire of 1871,” presented by Sharon Wyatt and Jacque Walker.

The meeting was held in the Oak Room of the Pine Bluff Country Club.

Wyatt presented a well-illustrated and researched description of the Windy City at the time of the fire. It was at the height of optimism, prosperity and growth, as banking and businesses flourished, aided by railroads, stockyards and shipping on the canal that flowed through the city.

This canal, which had been key to the rapid growth Chicago was experiencing, had been built mainly by Irish immigrants. Most of them came to this country specifically to do the work that most of the citizens were not eager to do. As is so often, even to the present time, immigrants were looked down upon by people who had been born in this country, but were the descendants of immigrants themselves. There was also a good deal of religious prejudice toward the Irish, who were mostly Catholic.

The Irish immigrants lived in squalor, in wooden shacks mingled among the finer buildings of the city. Their animals, which they had to have for survival, were kept in wooden barns built beside their houses. They had only oil, coal or wood to use for heating during the cold Chicago winters.

Even though the city leaders knew of the dangers, they refused to pass zoning laws. The politics of the time prevented them from doing the sensible thing, the right thing. The needs of the people are often put aside for political convenience, greed and prejudice. This had a disastrous effect on the entire city.

On a peaceful Sunday evening, Oct. 8, 1871, the fire began from a spark that spread in the barn of Mrs. O’Leary. Legend has it that her cow kicked over a lantern. It was later determined that it was simply from a fire being used for warmth somewhere near her barn. But the spark quickly ignited the barn and the great fire soon roared out of control. The wooden shacks, oil and coal immediately set off an inferno, which burned for 30 hours. Three hundred people were killed, 17,450 buildings burned, 4 ½ square miles in the city were destroyed and millions of dollars in damages were inflicted.

Walker continued the program with a thought-provoking view on tragedies, their lingering effects, as well as their common denominators. There are those who react with bravery, concern for others and the determination to overcome, however long it may take. Also, the ugly side of human nature comes out in some, and there is rampant disregard for others, robbery and other despicable criminal behavior.

She told a touching story about a little girl who became separated from her parents. Mobs of people were running in all directions and she was carried along with them. She ended up in a burning alley and somehow survived the tumbling building, smoke and flames. After 30 hours, she began to wander the streets and amazingly saw her father desperately searching for her.

There was also a once-prosperous lawyer who lost most of his property and wealth. Earlier he had lost a son to scarlet fever, so he was especially grateful his family survived. He later lost four daughters who were traveling on a ship that sank at sea. He must have been a man of great faith and courage because after the passage of some years he wrote the beloved hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul.”

During the business session, Belinda Brown, president, appointed a nominating committee comprised of Wyatt, Joannye Crabb and Walker.

She announced that Catherine Anne Atkinson will serve as the yearbook chairman and would welcome suggestions for themes for the next year’s study program.

Brown also introduced Ami Sato, who was visiting from Tokyo. She is a former exchange student who lived with Brown and her family during the time she attended school here.

The hostesses, Bonnie Williamson, Connie Kitchens and Becky Roberts, followed the theme of the day’s study with table decorations, which included assorted lanterns, firemen’s hats and red hots sprinkled about.