William Huckell: The Chicago Fire 1871
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William Huckell survived the Chicago Fire of 1871 along with his wife, Emily ("Emma") and baby, Lyda. This letter  to "my dear sister" dated October 22, 1871 was reprinted in Ottawa Free Press, October 30th, 1871.

Chicago in 1871, before the fire

Chicago in October 1871, during the fire


Interesting letter from an Ottawa man

Thrilling Description of his Experience in the Chicago Fire

We publish below a lengthy extract from a letter of Mr. William Huckell, formerly a resident of Ottawa, who was among the unfortunate sufferers by the late disasters in Chicago, written to his sister in this city. As it contains the actual experiences of one who has been through the fiery ordeal it will be found interesting to our readers. Mr. Huckell's many friends and relations will be glad to learn that although he lost everything in the fire he has good prospects opened before him in Galesburg, Ill. where he has settled.

Galesburg, Ill, October 22, 1871

My Dear Sister - I am sure you are very anxious to hear from me since you have heard of the terrible misfortune that has befallen the great city of Chicago. I will give you a brief sketch of what I went through and saw myself.

The fire commenced on the west side of the river about half past eleven. I did not wake up till 12, and noticing that it was very bright I went and looked out of the window  and saw that there was a fire to the southwest where we lived in the direction of the fire of the previous night. In fact I thought it was the same fire , but on looking again I found it was about three fourths of a mile away and so I went back to bed but found I could not sleep on account of the bright light and sparks flying thick and fast to the northeast. I got up again about one o'clock and found that the fire was about 300 yards off, and had crossed the river. but I thought that where I lived would be all safe as the wind seemed to blow away from my house; and therefore did not hurry or worry myself. It soon became apparent that we had to get out of the way of the flames.

Emma had just got home a week and had not fairly unpacked her trunk so she packed up what clothes she had and I tied up two bundles of bed clothes, pillows, sheets and so on. There was no chance of getting help as everyone was for themselves, the fire spread so rapidly. Wagons, wheelbarrows or any article that was wheelable were seized on to carry away goods. Baby wagons were never so strong before. Owners of wagons and horses were knocked from their seats and their horses taken from them. Horses and cows were loose in the streets. One man had a horse loaded with goods on its back which he held with one hand while he dragged a trunk with the other and drove the horse by a rope with its teeth. No chance to cross streets --loaded wagons on full gallop and running both ways -- men hunting their wives and children and wives their husbands, and so on, were seen on every hand. It is impossible to describe the scene.

I had no sooner got my trunk, bundles, and sewing machine down than the sidewalk was on fire. Emma could not help me; she had the baby in her arms. I had to drag what I got out of the house about a mile, a block at a time, to a place of safety. I would first take my trunk and drag it a block, and Emma would go and sit on it till I ran back and fetched the sewing machine and bundles and I had no sooner got them together than the place I had started from was in flames and in this way I managed to make the lake shore about 8 o'clock in the morning. I found the top of a buggy standing on the water's edge  which I pushed down the bank into the water and placed my things on it., while Emma went a mile and a half to Mr. Williams (an acquaintance and a friend indeed) to get him to come and fetch me away. While she was away the fire spread to the south and cut them off from me and I had to stand there in the water till late in the afternoon before the fire had got down so that they could get to me.

The wind was very high and the lake shore was nothing but sand. The fire raged below me and coals, smoke and chunks of burning wood were flying all about me. There were hundreds who got their furniture and lost it as the sparks and burning boards fell upon their bedding and burnt it. I stood on my little pile almost blinded , my lips caked with dirt, and my cheeks knowing nothing but tears. I could peel off the dirt in strips from my lips. It was pretty warm from the heat of the fire and I had to keep brushing off the coals that fell on my "bundles" with my hands. One long sized coal left his mark on the back of left hand.

Liquor was so free that many were drunk and  fighting and shooting was all the go, chair legs and table legs and everything available being used as weapons. Emma came very near to being shot. She happened to be pushed down by a crowd in front of a negro they were pursuing. There was a drunken man that lay on the shore close by me, with the coals falling on him (he had on nothing but shirt and pants) and setting fire to his shirt and pants. When he would get on fire he would brush his hand and say "Jesus Christ" and so on, when I would go and put it out. He was so drunk he could not move.

When the fire went down, Mr. Williams came and fetched me to his house where I remained for two nights and a day. He was a commission merchant and lost everything he had in his store. The next day expressmen were on the lake shore loading their wagons and taking things away, God knows where. People that did not lose their goods by fire had them stolen from them. I went uptown the next day and walked among the ruins. During the night there had been rain, and the morning was terribly cold and many perished. In the streets you could see the remains of wagons that had been loaded with goods (the iron parts of them) strewn about everywhere. There was a fearful crowd at Booth's oyster store which had been burned down and you ought to have seen them fight for oysters. Where ever there had been a jewelry store they were there in crowds hunting for gold and silver.

On the north side of the river I had to go through a tunnel 300 yards long, dark as pitch, as the bridges were all burned-- the crowd going north shouting 'keep to the right, those coming south keep to the left. I saw a man chased from where there had been a jewelry store. He had picked up something; he was knocked down and pounded with a brick and left for dead. There are about 3 buildings standing in about 8 square miles. Houses that were standing, you might say, in a good size field were swept to ashes.

On Tuesday I saw a crowd throwing stones at a negro, on State street, but do not know what he had done. During Tuesday night I heard several pistol shots but did not learn that anyone had been killed. Several were caught setting fire to buildings on Tuesday and hung to lamp posts but I did not see any. The ruins I must say are a magnificent sight, but at the same time a sad one. As some of the railroads were transporting anyone that had been burnt out and as I could only get a pass on this side I took Emma's advice and came to Galesbury when I arrived on Wednesday week.

William Huckell, author of the letter

William Huckell was born in Buckinghamshire, England in 1847 and migrated with his family in 1858 to Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He worked there for a newspaper before leaving about 1866 for Chicago. In 1868 he married Emily Anderson and their first child, Lyda,  was born on October 22, 1869. Both are mentioned in letter which was written on Lyda's second birthday. The letter was sent to William's sisters who lived together in Ottawa. The Ottawa Free Press printed the letter on October 31st. At the time of the fire William was a typesetter (compositor) for the Chicago Herald Tribune. After the fire the family moved to Austin IL, until they purchased a farm in Spencer, Iowa in 1886. Emily (Emma) died there in 1894 and William in 1909.

The Legend of the Letter
A copy of the newspaper article printed in Ottawa was sent back to William and Emily and was placed in the trunk described in the letter. Many years later the article was copied by one of William's grandchildren, Hazel Kellogg, as part of a school exercise. The trunk was lost over time, and the newspaper article along with it. Somehow a portion of the school transcription survived, representing roughly the first half of the article. A legend among the Huckell family, the full text was not seen until the complete article was found on microfilm in the National Archives of Canada in 2002.

William's family in Ottawa had survived a similar large scale fire in 1870 by taking refuge in a river. The central part of the city was saved by the emptying of a reservoir into the city streets. Beyond the central tragedy of the Chicago Fires itself, readers of the Ottawa paper were therefore probably quite interested i n the experiences of another city which burned one year later. Ironically the letter itself was destroyed in the April 1900 city fire which razed a large part of city.  To see the original article click here

For more on the Chicago Fire of 1871:
The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory
Chicago Historical Society's comphrehensive site with the complete story, photos, maps, songs and panorama