Mar 29, 2006

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Saugatuck lumber mills worked around the clock to help rebuild Chicago.

The Chicago Fire of 1871

Saugatuck lumberjacks come to the rescue.

Did Mrs. O'Leary's cow start the fire?

Daily boat service to & from Chicago.


Chicago and Saugatuck have been linked together since their coming of age in the early 1800’s. Back then when there were real bears in Chicago, a commercial relationship developed between the two budding villages—one destined to become a giant and the other a place that offered peace and serenity.

The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 provided easy travel for the thousands of immigrants who were now heading west to seek a better life. Many settled in Chicago—which was by and large a swamp facing on Lake Michigan. A U.S. Government surveyor described the location as uninhabitable in the early 1800’s.

But it did have a port that allowed ships to bring goods and materials; and that’s when Saugatuck entered the picture in the mid 1800’s. Chicago was a ready market for Michigan products—lumber, fresh fruit, flour, and tanned hides. Saugatuck had become a major ship builder on the Great Lakes, and had experienced masters and crews to man the ships, and shipping by boat was the fastest and cheapest way to move products.

One of the first ships to provide regular passenger service to Chicago from west Michigan, was the steamship Huron that started tri-weekly service to Chicago in 1859. The sailing master of the Huron was Capt. Frederick Pabst—more on him later.

Just when things were going so well between Chicago and Saugatuck, a devastating tragedy struck Chicago in 1871 when a neighborhood fire ran amok and burned Chicago to the ground. The legendary culprit in the Chicago fire was Mrs. O’Leary’s cow—believed to have kicked over a lantern in the O’Leary barn. Mrs. O’Leary swore on a bible that it wasn’t her cow, and a recent investigation suggests that her neighbor, “Peg Leg” Sullivan started the fire.

The Chicago Fire of 1871 is listed in the World Almanac as a disaster that destroyed 17,000 buildings, 250 deaths, and a dollar loss of $196 million. Tragically on this date, Oct. 8, there were two other devastating fires: A forest fire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin that destroyed towns, thousands of acres, and a tragic 1,182 deaths. Also on Oct. 8th, a raging fire in Holland, Michigan destroyed 210 dwellings, 75 stores, 15 factories, 5 churches, and 3 hotels. October 8, 1871 was the “Katrina” of its day.

Saugatuck’s Singapore mills and ships worked round the clock to fill the demand for lumber to rebuild Chicago. With vigor and an indomitable spirit, Chicago built a bigger, better city that was awarded the honor of hosting the Columbian Exposition—an honor won in competition with other major American cities—Washington DC, St. Louis, and New York. Now Chicago has to meet that challenge.                        by Rob Carey

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