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The Chicago Fire: The Smith Family's Experience

902 Prairie Ave with Cupola that Offered View of the Fire
Earlier today, a member of the Chicago Genealogy Facebook group asked if anyone had ancestors who were in Chicago at the time of the Great Fire. I immediately raised my hand. "I do! I do!"

Well, actually, I don't. But my husband does and so it feels like I do. His great-great grandfather, James Ayer Smith, a manufacturing hatter and furrier, was in the city from 1835 until his death in 1875. In 1871, he was living at 902 Prairie Avenue.

We have a copy of a short unpublished family history (three typed legal-size pages) "The James A. Smith Family in Chicago," obtained from the Chicago History Museum some years ago that mentions the Fire in a couple of places and I promised the Facebook group that I would share. A blog post seems like a good way to do that.

There's no author listed but a note says that it was "Compiled from memoranda of [large blank space]  Smith and W. W. Smith" and I suspect it was James' granddaughter, Edna Valentine Smith, daughter of William Wirt Smith, who wrote it. She had a deep interest in Chicago's history and cherished her  family's ties to it.

Here's one paragraph from the history that talks about the family's loss from the fire.

The Great Fire of Oct., 1871, wrought complete destruction to their full fall
stock of the choicest and richest furs, together with a warehouse full. The total
fire losses to the Smith family aggregated several hundred thousand dollars and a
notable fact in connection with that is, that J. A. Smith & Sons were one of the very
few firms who paid dollar for dollar of their debts.

And here are three paragraphs that talk about what the family did while the fire was raging.

It was while residing in this house that the Great Fire of '71 wrought its de-
struction, which ended at 12th St., and consequently the home was spared by a wide
margin. On that night of terror, Mr. Smith's coachman called his attention to the
glow of what seemed a big fire down town. The household went up into the cupola from
which an extensive view was attainable and saw that quite a fire was raging.

Mr. Smith being apprehensive, ordered the light wagon made ready and he and the
coachman drove down town and they bagan [sic] at once moving valuables and furs. They work-
ed all night making three moves and lastly took their stock from the lake front, where
they were left temporarily, to the family residence where $40,000.00 worth were saved.

The firm, after the fire, opened a store at 513-515 Wabash Ave. and later at 161 State St.

If you have family stories about The Great Chicago Fire, I'd love to hear them!


Dana Leeds said…
What a neat story! And tremendous loss of property. But, thankfully your husband's family members were safe.

Weren't you thrilled to find that someone had written this story down? It's a great reminder for us to write our stories, too. Maybe we should record what happened to us on 9/11 or when man first walked on the moon (which was slightly before my time but I enjoy hearing my mother-in-law's story of this day) or when JFK was shot.

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