By Christine Schaub
Sunday, October 8, 1871
Spafford stood with a thousand other spectators on the east bank of the Chicago River and simply stared. What he saw was breathtaking in its awful beauty.
For half a mile real estate on the west side of the river glowed orange. Flames danced across the night sky, reflecting off the water, bathing everyone and everything on the riverbank in the warmth of firelight. A wind blew, carrying across the fire's crackle-pop and smell of burning pine. It had all the elements of an early winter evening beside the hearth.
The night was full of sound as steam pumpers clattered down the street, horses' hooves pounding over the Madison Street Bridge, fire marshals and engine foremen shouting orders through their brass-speaking trumpets. The crowd reacted with "oohs" and "ahhs" when the first spray of water doused the burning wood and sent up great clouds of steam, as if from a giant teakettle. The observers pointed and exclaimed, speculation passing in and out of the crowd. "That Irishman, Patrick O'Leary ..." "... firemen into the whiskey ..." "... flames out of control ..."
And because no one had Tuesday's hindsight, because the madness and weeping had not even begun, because no one had the premonition of disaster, the mood was light and festive.
On this side of the river.
A gust of wind suddenly rushed through the crowd, sending hats and hairpins flying and coattails flapping. Spafford made an expert catch of his own hat as it lifted off his head and settled it precisely back into place.
Everything about the man was precise. He stood exactly six feet with a stalwart frame toned by a preference for walking the rambling route between his law office, the business district, and his vast real estate holdings. His features were strictly patrician and set at perfect angles--the square jaw and sculpted lips, the linear Roman nose, the spike-lashed eyes below arched brows.
He had even aged with perfection. His coal black hair showed gray only at the temples, and tiny lines fanned out from intelligent black eyes set in a perpetually tanned complexion.
He was as meticulous about his appearance as he was his business dealings. His suits were pressed, boots shined, nails trimmed, beard clean-shaven. His stance was both erect and skillfully passive, with no telltale signs of his state of mind.
His precision created an air of excellence and wisdom that inspired men to treat him with respect. His clients and business partners considered him a fair man, and he appreciated that. They also were a bit afraid of the furrowed brow, stubborn jaw, and piercing stare when he was displeased. And that suited him.
At the moment, his lips pursed in silent concern. While the crowd pointed and bantered with no sign of disbursing at such a late hour, the fire seemed to grow. It looked to him to be every bit as big as last night's blaze that had destroyed five square blocks and required sixteen hours of diligent fire fighting.
He squinted at his watch in the glow of the firelight--close to midnight. Nearly an hour and a half had passed since he'd stepped outside the Opera House and followed the crowd to the riverbank. He really should go home. He stole a last glance across the water, then watched in morbid fascination as the unthinkable happened.
The fire jumped the river.
In one dreadful moment, the wood on the great steeple of St. Paul's Church ignited, caught the wind, and rode to the east side in a terrific shower of sparks. The crowd gasped almost in unison, and shouts of "Across the river!" followed. Within minutes smoke began to choke the bystanders, and they backed en masse up Market Street and across Madison into the heart of downtown Chicago.
Spafford moved with the crowd and, like most of the hurrying people, kept turning to look behind him, surprised at the rolling clouds of smoke and ash caught up in the wind and moving ever faster with them. The night sky was lit with a strange dancing light that cast the familiar into curious shapes and angles. Almost without notice he was in the midst of a block of brick buildings, tall and serene and wholly unfamiliar. He turned about several times, searching for a landmark, and spied a statue of George Washington atop a fierce pawing stallion of the richest black. The president sat the saddle with complete confidence, shoulders back, pointing the way.
Ah, Washington Street, he mused and headed in that direction.
The whole commercial center was electric with hotel guests, businessmen, and late-night sightseers milling about the courthouse lawns, conversing over the clanging of the massive bell that signaled fire. The weeks of fall had been unspectacular in their dryness. The leaves did not change color as much as shrivel up like old paper bags, then hang dejectedly until a stale wind coaxed them to the ground to scuttle along the wooden streets. By October the drought-ridden city was averaging six fires a day, and a good blaze on a warm Sunday night kept the crowd outside and buzzing with excitement.
He stood gazing hypnotically at the colorful sky until it occurred to him that if he could catch a bridge across the river, he could watch the fire's progress from a safe distance and height ... in his own office.
He turned up Clark Street and arrived at the river just in time to watch the iron swing bridge, loaded with people, halt in the middle of the river while ships of every size passed through to Lake Michigan--a curious sight for the middle of the night. He'd had the misfortune of being "bridged" for long stretches of time and considered the LaSalle Street Tunnel a better option.
Off he headed down Clark, turning west on Lake Street. At the corner he looked toward the Sherman House and was surprised to see that during his short trek the formerly passive crowd had turned anxious. The sidewalks were crammed full of people looking upward, shielding their eyes against the falling ash. Guests hung out of hotel windows, pointing and shouting, their words tossed into the wind. Spafford listened closely but could decipher nothing until it was passed down the street toward him. And then what he heard made his blood run cold.
The gasworks were on fire.
The explosions started soon after, and the already anxious crowd panicked. Spafford raced down the next block and turned on LaSalle. The tunnel--just opened in July--loomed ahead. The vehicles in the center passageways were moving in a calm and orderly fashion, both north and south, and the footway glowed under the lights, revealing pedestrians moving steadily.
Spafford stepped into the underground highway and walked quickly under the river. The air was moist and cool here, and he relaxed for the first time in an hour. He started devising a plan. He would go to his office, secure essential documents, then look for a cab that would take him north into Lake View. The hour must be excessively late. He reached for his pocket watch, trying to guess at the time when, without so much as a flicker, the gaslights went out. A moment of stunned silence was followed by the screams of horse and driver plunged into total blackness. Fool! He admonished himself. You knew the gasworks were in flames. Through the stone wall Spafford heard the unmistakable sounds of a mass of frightened humanity trapped underground with skittish horses.
People in the footway had come to an immediate halt. Seconds ticked by, then a murmuring began, followed by a slow jostling, then apologies all around as strangers collided in the darkness. And then, gridlock. Their side of the tunnel was remarkably quiet and composed while they waited for verbal direction passed down from either end. People stood amicably, breathing in and out. The scent of lavender drifted toward him, and he thought of his wife, abed several hours by now.
He pictured her there. Her golden hair would be tied with a ribbon to match the trim of her nightgown. She would be lying on her side, one hand tucked under her cheek, a child's pose that suited her delicate features. When he slid into bed, she would open her eyes and smile ever so briefly, revealing very white and even teeth. And then she would return to her slumber on the lavender-scented sheets, content that he was beside her.
Content was a word he used often with Anna. Her Norwegian heritage had instilled in her a realism and discipline that resulted in few surprises. She was neither dramatic nor excessive, like so many wives of his colleagues, and therefore rarely dissatisfied. She'd had certain simple expectations when she'd married him--a cheerful home filled with flowers and children, a dining room open to friends and strangers alike for long lively suppers, a parlor for entertainment round the piano.
And that's what he had given her. His business success had allowed him to give her more, but she'd never come to expect it. And her surprise and delight at each gift, at each thoughtful gesture, was Elysium to him.
A more intense jostling brought him back to the tunnel, and the word was passed: North. All pedestrians must travel north. There was an edge of urgency to the message, and Spafford wondered at it as the crowd shuffled along in the darkness, then gained a little space, then moved freely under the river.
At last he was out of the tunnel and onto the ramp, then on the wooden sidewalk, clattering along with the crowd now laughing with embarrassment and relief. And then in slow motion, it seemed, they all turned and looked behind them.
Across the Chicago River, as close as Washington Street, the business district was consumed with red tongues of light. It seemed impossible, as he had just come from there. He stared in wonder. The Chamber of Commerce, Brunswick Hall, and Methodist Church all seemed to be burning. That would have to mean Farwell Hall was destroyed, and the Reynolds Block and McVicker's Theatre. It looked to be a wall of flame for blocks behind those buildings. His spirit took a tremendous plunge.
He was ruined.
All the money he and his friends had invested just this spring in land--land to the north, land in the direction of an expanding city--was folly. Chicago would not expand. It might not even recover. His ears were ringing with alarm, and he shook his head to clear them.
The fire brigade pulled up and began pumping the chilly water directly from the river and throwing it onto the facing buildings. "Little Giant" was stamped across the engine's side, and indeed, it looked to be a David and Goliath moment. Spafford turned up LaSalle and prayed they could stop this violence.
Within moments he was standing outside his office building, torn between continuing on to Anna or gathering essential paperwork from his desk and safe.
Somewhere a bell tolled one.
Spafford looked up. The unmistakable glow of kerosene lamps lit the upper-floor windows with a soft, inviting light. He hung his head. McDaid was inside and must be told of their loss.
He dragged himself up the stairs, forming the words that would forever change his partner's life and livelihood. At the landing he scanned the brass nameplate:
Spafford & McDaid
Five years they'd worked together, two with another partner, the last three comfortably paired in Rooms 4 and 5 at 147 LaSalle.
The office was open, and Spafford stood in the doorway watching his partner sort methodically through a mound of papers. He stepped into the room and clicked the door shut. McDaid looked up from the files just long enough to acknowledge him.
"The real estate paperwork is scattered. Truly, I thought it more organized."
Spafford grimaced. "Leave it."
McDaid ignored him. "I've managed to find the original investment with all signatures and the profit forecast--"
McDaid looked up, a wariness in his eyes.
"The business district is gone."
"I stood at the river and watched it burn. The hotels, the banks, the theatres--all are gone."
Several emotions flashed across McDaid's face--confusion, disbelief, horror, and finally resignation. Spafford knew the same realization had struck his partner--that the bulk of their investment, land for enlarging parks and expanding a growing metropolis, was useless now. For who could think of such trivialities when an entire commercial city must be rebuilt? He noted how his partner's shoulders slumped, then squared as he carefully organized the paperwork and slid it into his valise anyway.
Spafford watched him work a few more moments. Theirs was an easy partnership. Where he was outspoken--even blunt--with clients, McDaid was reserved and cautious. His partner could sit through hours of meetings, taking meticulous notes, smiling at the animated bantering, and speak no more than five words. While he itched to be out, surveying new properties and soliciting clients, his partner was content to work complex financial equations and pore over tedious real estate law at his desk. Their personalities and skills were a true complement to each other. It was what made the law firm of Spafford & McDaid so successful.
But their partnership was more than that. McDaid was deceptively smart, driven, and a gentleman--in short, the brother Spafford had always wanted. He had never known a kinder, gentler man than Henry McDaid--a man no one hated, a man who would drop his jaw in astonishment to learn that his partner aspired to be more like him.
A gale-like wind shook the building, rattling the windows, and the men looked up and out in unison. Beyond the panes it looked as if a snowstorm was in full force ... little flakes of ash stained with fire.
Spafford's hands hung at his sides like iron weights. The futility of it all overwhelmed him. He could not even bring himself to step into the adjoining law library with its leather-bound volumes of books--books on which he'd lavished so much money and pride. But McDaid's persistent sorting and storing provided a purpose and a glimmer of hope that they would recover from this, that all would not be lost. He moved to his desk and started to work.
No words passed between the two men as they saved and discarded papers pertinent to their corporate survival. Land leases, client histories, court judgments came and went.
When the glass on the windows facing the street cracked and the frames began to smoke, they worked faster. When their valises bulged, they removed large documents to the steel safe and became more selective.
When smoke crept into the room and hovered near the ceiling, Spafford consulted his watch--half past two. He moved to the window and peered out through the rolling fumes. In the distance, aglow like a warrior's torch, the courthouse's grand cupola blazed in majestic beauty. As he watched, the tower glowed even brighter, then crumbled inward, the massive bell still clanging until, with a resounding thud that shook the earth, the symbol of a thousand civic ceremonies and celebrations tolled no more.
He was surprised at the tears that sprang to his eyes. He wanted to weep at the destruction before him and bowed his head, schooling his emotions until the intense heat emanating from the cracked glass forced him to jerk back.
He looked toward the street, and what he saw and heard in that brief moment was enough to propel him into action. He grabbed his valise off his desk, fastened it, and turned to McDaid.
"We must go. Now."
McDaid never slowed. "Just a few more documents."
Spafford stopped him with a viselike grip on his upper arm. "The sidewalks are on fire and people are stampeding in the street. We are in danger here."
As if in emphasis, a ball of flame burst through the window, scattering little pockets of fire across the room, igniting stacks of papers. McDaid slammed and locked the safe, then grabbed his valise, and the two men dashed out the door and down the stairs.
At street level, the scene was pure chaos. The door had burst open and flames from the sidewalk licked at the frame. In the street, panic-stricken people pushed and shoved, screaming children crushed behind their parents, and everywhere cinders fell like snowflakes, lighting new fires.
Spafford took one look and pushed McDaid back into the hallway. He was shouting now, the street noise and roar of collapsing buildings deafening. "You must get to Anna if I cannot. And I will do the same with Dora. Lake View may be too close to the forest to be spared. Go to the north beach in Lincoln Park. Anna knows the place. I will find her there."
McDaid nodded. "God be with you." The partners and friends clasped hands and locked eyes now red from smoke.
"And also with you."
Out the door they ran, leaping across the burning sidewalk and into the masses of stampeding people. It was futile to do anything but move with the crowd as it surged forward, the leaders searching for a street or alleyway not yet consumed by smoke and fire.
Barely one block west the crowd came to a bone-crushing halt, and Spafford turned his head, looked back, and watched as the law offices of Spafford & McDaid, against a backdrop of a lurid yellowish red, crumbled to the ground. The collapse made a tremendous roar and sent a storm cloud of dust and cinders rolling down the jammed street. And as he threw up his hand to shield his eyes, he instinctively thought of the biblical promise that in hell everyone will be salted with fire.
He clutched his valise to his chest and his hat to his head and determined he would not test that promise today.
He watched the destruction march toward him, masses of flames bounding from building to building, and could see that the pace of the fire would soon outmatch that of the crowd. He cast about for McDaid, not finding him, then fought his way to the street's edge and leapt onto the elevated sidewalk, jumping over flaming wood and bundles, halting at the edge of Wells.
Here, the route was swarming with a rush of people streaming across the Wells Street Bridge on horseback, in carts, carriages, wheelbarrows, and every type of conveyance. Horses pranced and tore at their harnesses. Stray cows, dogs, and cats ran terrified through the people on foot. The din of screaming children and animals and shouts of "North! North!" was terrible.
He calculated his odds and decided to continue westward toward the north branch of the river. It was no more than four blocks away, and he could fling himself into the water if the heat and fumes became too great. A plan formed as he fought his way across the crowd. He would get to the river and cross at the railroad trestle on Kinzie. The area was nothing but iron track. Surely it would not burn.
But he underestimated the desperation of the fleeing crowd. He tried to push westward, and the people dragged him north. He watched a man on horseback force his way through, flinging a whip left and right, his horse trampling those who would not yield. He wanted to tear the brute from his saddle and watched in some satisfaction as many of those marked by the whip did just that.
And always they were just moments from being consumed by the fire.
They were surrounded now by near-constant explosions of stores of oil and other combustible material. Windows blew out, showering them with glass, tearing into their skin. Buildings fell with a force, their bricks, boards, and burning shingles picked up by a hurricane wind and flung over their heads, falling around them, setting their hair and clothing ablaze.
It was more horrific than any description of the bowels of hell.
At last, singed and bleeding, his hat still miraculously on his head, Spafford was on the other side and at an intersection he was sure was Wells and Ohio. He turned left and was suddenly, eerily, alone.
Buildings burned on both sides of the street, and the air was so full of dust that he could see no more than half a block ahead. He hesitated, glancing back at the mass of stampeding people. Should he go west when everyone else headed north? The wrong decision could cost him his life.
A sudden, terrific explosion pitched him forward and blew his waistcoat over his head. He tumbled like an oak leaf down the burning street, his valise clutched tightly against his chest, and slid to a halt against a stack of bricks.
His body numb and hearing muffled, he scooted to an upright position and tried to disentangle his coat from his head. Hot, sticky objects slapped against him, and he ducked down, deciding to leave the coat in place and peer out at his surroundings.
Truly the Day of Judgment had come.
The air was full of firebrands--little red and yellow devils that darted and swirled through the street, tugging burning planks and shingles along like kites. He watched in disbelief as a marble-topped dresser danced silently by, collecting embers in its open drawers. A man's shirt sailed close behind, sleeve outstretched, waving good-bye.
He shook his head. He felt as if he were in a dream--a nightmare with no sound and no escape. Yet he was awake and alive and still in command of his limbs.
The ground rumbled and the wall at his back collapsed inward, sending up and out a cloud of dust so thick he could see no more than a few feet around him.
He struggled to his feet, peeking out through the coat, hearing little. A curtain of embers fell in front of him and lit the street. The gale-force winds still blew but now were filled with particles that pinged against his torso like sewing needles. He turned and followed the wind, the needles at his back.
* * *
Monday, October 9, 1871
He woke with a yell and looked wildly about him. The children! Where were his children! He groped around for Bessie, reaching for her little arms still pudgy with baby fat. His hand connected with rough wood, and his surroundings came into slow focus.
He was on a pile of lumber, on a dock, on the edge of the river. It was daylight, but the sky was overcast and hazy with smoke, and as far as the eye could see north and south, across the river, Chicago was aflame. The Queen City of the West was no more. He stared at the sight, dry-eyed.
What time was it? He pulled his watch from his waistcoat, blinked down at it, then remembered. The crystal on his watch had shattered in the explosion, and the mechanism had stopped at three minutes after four o'clock this morning. He recalled fighting his way to the river, crossing at Kinzie Street, turning down Canal, and collapsing close to the water. He looked around and recognized his whereabouts as Avery's Lumberyard.
He lay back down, sick of the sight of burning buildings, sick of the running, desperate for a drink of cool water. He closed his eyes and immediately opened them as his nightmare returned. Anna was there, surrounded by Annie, Maggie, and Bessie, baby Tanetta in her arms. They were gathered in the parlor around the rosewood piano, holding quite still for a family photo. Except, he was not with them. He was standing in the hallway watching them smile, watching the picture start to burn around the edges, watching the flames move closer and closer, shouting at them to run! Watching in horror as they kept smiling, even while the flames licked at their faces.
Tears streamed down his cheeks, and he forced himself off the lumber pile with a sob. He had to keep moving. He had to find his family.
He turned north and followed the river, still clutching his battered valise. He trudged block after block, choked by the smoke, his throat screaming for moisture. Not a soul was on the streets, and he supposed they had fled west to the prairies when word came that this fire jumped rivers. But it hadn't crossed the river here. Not yet.
He finally reached Chicago Avenue and found a well where, mercifully, someone had left a tin cup. He pumped the handle and fresh water trickled out, just enough for a desperate man and a little cup. The feel of it on his tongue and throat was enough to move him to tears again. He choked them down, rested no more than ten minutes, and continued north.
By nightfall he came to North Avenue. He had spent precious time at each street crossing, turning east to the edge of the water, turning back from the flames, then finding a way across the river's north branch, then back to the canal. As dusk settled, he realized he'd walked all day and covered less than two miles.
A current of defeat coursed through him. He would never make it in time. He would die failing to protect his family. He leaned against a wooden fence, slid down to the ground, and wept like a child. The burning photo played over and over in his mind. He tried to think. He tried to pray. But all that came to his mind were snippets of verses about hell, being cast into hell ... soul and body in hell ... the rich man in hell.
He tried to think of better verses. He would recite the Twenty-third Psalm. But how did it go? Panic was taking over his mind. He couldn't think. He couldn't breathe. He was sick with worry.
And then he heard a voice--not his own--from deep within.
He was trying to pray, but he could not remember the psalm! It had always been such a comfort to him, and now he could not even recall--David! King David wrote it. He was sure of that. But he wasn't always a king. He was a ... a ...
Speak to me ... from your own heart.
His mind went blank. From his own heart? He couldn't. He didn't know where to begin. What could he say that could possibly be more eloquent, more worthy, than the words of a king?
Come to me ...
He heard the voice and instantly his heart completed the phrase. And I will give you rest.
So he sat perfectly still somewhere on North Avenue, just yards from fallen walls and blackened trees, and for the first time in his forty-three years, he bared his soul and had a simple conversation with the Lord.
Finding Anna (MUSIC OF THE HEART #1) by Christine Schaub
Copyright © 2005; ISBN 0764200593
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.