A take on the 1871 Chicago Fire (Fiction)
|"tic tic tic tic tictictic tic tic……" The soft clacking sound of the new telegraph was something I still hadn't gotten used to. As of late, I always felt excitement in my belly whenever I had walked into the store. It was a modern invention, the thing of magic and dreams. Day before yesterday, my boss, Dan, wearing a new cardigan jacket, had been instructing my uncle, Clinton, on how to keep the space organized and how to separate the messages. He had told me that if I kept my duties up, he'd teach me one day.
Never in a million years, did I think they'd both be dead two days later. It was breezy. You could say, "there was too much wind in the street." The sun blazed too hot. The devil himself conspired to create hell on earth. I should have prayed more in church yesterday. I should have paid more attention on how to use this telegraph!
"Send a message to the east side! You have to get the message out. We need more help! We need all the men to come to the Lumber Co., down by O'Leary's barn! The firemen are overwhelmed! Do it now, son! Hook it!!" Magistrate Tally yelled, looking scared and sweating profusely. He was normally a brick of a man, but in that moment, I knew things had turned for the worse. My boss and uncle had already left the store to try and help.
Chicago was normally warm this time of year. You’d walk outside in the middle of the day and it was like breathing a stew that warms your soul. Today was not a normal day. The air was thick with smoke, hotter and dryer. Your eyes burned and the smell was unnatural. A terrible mishap of Mrs. O’Leary to have misplaced the lantern near the shed in the dark of last night. I’d heard the postman tell my Aunt Sarah just this morning that the cow had kicked it over. And now today, Chicago ablaze – may not be saved.
I fumbled with the telegraph trying to figure out how to make it work. I had been studying morse code for a few weeks, looking forward to instruction from Dan. But the normal, “tic tic tictictic…” started to slow. It was now just a tic here and there. I’d seen the brass looking cylinder mounted to the wall right above the telegraph. It had been installed the day we got the new invention with cords that connected the two. My uncle called it a battery. I wondered if it was like milking a dam towards the end. You had to move on to the next bessy when she was out of juice. That maybe I had a low battery and I raced to the back office to see if we had another one. Much to my horror and dismay, we did not – or at least I couldn’t find one.
It was then that I looked out of the front windows of the building and saw lights flickering, reflecting off the windows of the tailor shop across the street. I ran outside and nearly choked on smoke and fumes. The fire was roaring just down the road. The hat store, the post office, the mercantile, all were consumed by huge flames. I could feel the heat and in the distance, I could hear a woman scream, “Fire, Fire, Fire!” In that same moment, a little closer this time, I could also hear firemen yelling, “Water, Water, Water!”
Ash had begun to rain down and I looked up to see a woman, leaning out of the three story theater next door, already engulfed in flames. A man had called, “Jump lady, Jump!” The scream she let out, I’ll never forget and with a thud, she fell to the ground. I ran. I ran as fast as I could. Our building had caught fire. My boss and uncle were nowhere to be found. The telegraph, the beautiful telegraph broken. And my only home, Chicago, had been almost completely destroyed. I had just turned 18 and it really was the worst year of my life. 1871.