1879: The Night the Union Burned

The year 1871 saw a great many momentous events. The British Empire annexed Basutoland to the Cape Colony, continuing to raise the tensions in South Africa that eventually led to the Boer Wars. Parliament passed the Regulation of Forces Act, ending the sale of commissions and promotions for officers in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, and instituting a system of commissioning and promoting in rank by ability and military need that, while still corruptible and vulnerable to nepotism, eliminated some of the greater idiots from the command chain. Parliament also legalised trade unions, although the Levellers remained a secret organisation afterward. James Clerk Maxwell became Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge, and published his work on thermodynamics, including the thought experiment that became known as Maxwell’s Demon.

In the Union, though, while there were certainly momentous events – North Georgia seceding from the Union and reunifying with South Georgia as part of the Confederacy, for example – the month of October wold be remembered for decades as the Devil’s Month, and the Night the Union Burned. Six great fires erupted on the night of October 8th, 1871, in six different locations. Were they related? Some of the less responsible newspapers seemed to think so, and speculated wildly on the possibility of arson on the grandest scale ever seen. Others blamed lightning strikes from the dry storms whose winds later fanned the flames, and a few even put forth the idea of meteorites, or debris and methane from Comet Biela, passing at the time. When a seventh fire burned most of downtown Windsor, Ontario, four days later, the more yellow of the publications screamed about the arsonist fleeing to Canada and escaping American justice. In Michigan, though, and Wisconsin, and Illinois, they were still too busy dousing the embers, locating and identifying the remains of those who had died, and making decisions as to whether or not to rebuild, and if so, how.

Michigan suffered the least, which is to say that the state only lost five towns. Holland, Manistee, White Rock, Alpena, and Port Huron all went up in a series of conflagrations. Whatever the cause, all agree that it had been a dry summer, with no rain at all in some areas for months. Clear-cut logging had left piles of slash scattered across the peninsula, and no standing timber to break the winds. Despite sitting on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan and right by Lake Macatawa, with plenty of water in easy reach, the blaze overwhelmed Holland’s firefighting teams and left the town a smoking ruin. As the fires grew, they joined, and the firestorm marched across the Michigan peninsula leaving ash and death in its wake. Manistee, north of Holland, vanished in the blaze, buildings, livestock, and residents. On the far side of the peninsula from Holland and Manistee, Port Huron and White Rock residents could only flee out onto the lake in whatever craft they could find, taking only as much as the weight limits of the boats could safely carry, and watch from out on the water as the firestorm devoured their homes. Thousands died, although with the lumber camps destroyed, no records of the laborers in the camps remained to speak their names, nor even to give a count of the transient worker population.

On the western side of Lake Michigan, the Peshtigo blaze started from a series of small fires started for land clearing, a common practice at the time. The incoming cold front whipped the fires out of control, pushed them together, and built them into a firestorm that devoured nearly two thousand square miles, an area half again as big as the state of Rhode Island. The flames jumped the lake, cinders flying for miles, and started a secondary blaze in northern Michigan, already on fire to the south, that raced across the northern tip of the peninsula and destroyed the town of Alpena. In Peshtigo, the updrafts grew so strong they sent rail cars whirling into the air in columns of roaring flames. Despite the Green Island lighthouse staying lit for three days, the smoke grew so bad that a three-masted schooner, the George L. Newman, ran onto the rocks and was lost. Some residents of Peshtigo survived by throwing themselves into the river, but some died of hypothermia or drowning before the flames relented to where they could crawl back out of the icy waters.

The greatest blaze of the night, though, belonged to Chicago. Legends of Mrs. O’Leary and her cow do no justice to the all-devouring monster that descended upon the city. From the stockyards south of downtown all the way north to Lake Shore Drive and Lincoln Avenue, the city burned from Sunday the 8th until Tuesday the 10th, finally going out only when the rains finally came. The city’s 185 firefighters, organised into just 17 companies, were no match for the conflagration, although they did their best. Stories of heroism throughout the event are too many to even count. The engineer in charge of the city’s main waterworks, for example, stayed at his post at the water tower and kept the mains flowing until the waterworks burned down around him. Today, the tower stands in the middle of a park, visited by countless tourists who have no idea that a man died there trying to save his city. When it was all over, an estimated three hundred people were dead (many bodies were never recovered and the fatality count could only be guessed at), while over a hundred thousand were left homeless. Many of these never re-established their lives, having lost not only their homes, but their possessions and their papers, leaving them with no means of returning to their occupations. A swath four miles long had been reduced to ash, with the destruction of over seventeen thousand buildings.

Why have I covered this in such detail? Because in game terms, it just happened. It’s only been nine years. Most people alive in the game world can remember the events of the Night the Union Burned. And it could happen again. How many fire stations does your city have, in 1880? How many firefighters? What are the evacuation plans? Are the buildings still made mostly of wood? Do they have fire-resistant shingles, to shed falling cinders from nearby blazes? What caused the fires? Was this a natural disaster, or supernatural, or the result of deliberate villainy? What would your characters do in such an event? Can you fight the fire itself? How many people can you rescue? Do you try to address the cause? What stories of heroism can you tell, of lives saved, homes defended, and bravery under literal fire?

Tally Ho!