Friday, October 8, 2010

After the Fire

Magnet # 362: Chicago Skyline Silhouette

Material:  Metal

Purchased By:  Eric

Chicago burned on this day in 1871.  The fires would continue until October 10th, wiping out nearly four square miles of the city - about 34 blocks in all.  The events in place for the catastrophe pretty much made for a perfect storm - just the day before, local firefighters had been worn out extinguishing another blaze, and nobody really took this one seriously when it began.  At that time, the city had been built to a large degree with wood, which had been made pretty dry by a recent drought.  Finally, strong winds coming in from the southwest drove the flames and embers into the heart of the city.  To this day, it's still uncertain just what brought about the fire.  While the story is that Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern is often told, we now know that's simply untrue.  A pair of robbers trying to steal the cow's milk might have caused it, or perhaps it was someone playing craps.  A newspaper reporter named Michael Ahern lied and blamed Catherine O'Leary, finally admitting to it in 1893.  He claimed it made for a good copy.  But it certainly wasn't good for O'Leary.  As a Catholic Irish immigrant, she was already part of a group that wasn't popular in the city and she spent the rest of her life being blamed by the public.  She passed away in 1895, still miserable.  It's a shame she couldn't really sue Ahern for defamation of character.

O'Leary was hardly the only one in the city whose life was destroyed by the fire.  Hundreds died and many more lost their homes and nearly all they owned.  One of the victims was Horatio Spafford, a prominent lawyer in the city.  Although he and his family survived, he fell into financial trouble, as he had invested a great deal in the buildings that were destroyed.  But his family had also lost their only son a year before to scarlet fever, and he realized the importance of keeping his wife and daughters in good spirits.  So they decided to travel to England and help their good friend, the famous preacher D.L. Moody, in the evangelical campaign he was planning there.  At the last minute, Spafford was forced to stay behind for his work, but he sent his wife and four daughters ahead, intending to meet with them later.  But it was not to be.  The Ville du Havre, on which they sailed, struck the Loch Earn and was split in half.  Its lifeboats had recently been painted and had ended up sticking to the boat.  These mistakes cost 226 their lives, and all of Spafford's children perished.  His wife was among the 61 passengers who survived, as a plank surface below her as she floated unconsciously, lifting her above the water.  As soon as she was able, she sent a telegram to her husband - "Saved alone.  What shall I do."  He went to England to be with her and during the journey, the captain of the ship called him to the bridge.  There, he informed Spafford that they were passing the place where the ship had been wrecked. Inspired, Spafford returned to his cabin and began penning the words that would become the hymn "It Is Well With My Soul."  His friend Philip Bliss later composed the music.  Bliss would one day perish in tragedy when the railroad train on which he was traveling fell into a ravine after a bridge collapse.  He made it to safety, but went back to save his wife and they both died.  But a trunk filled with his writings was not destroyed and from it came his final hymn, "I Will Sing of My Redeemer."  As for Spafford, he and his wife were able to have three more children, although one did pass away.  The family traveled to Jerusalem, where they engaged in philanthropic work, and Spafford died there in 1888 from malaria.  Despite all that he had suffered, he never lost his faith.

I'd always liked "It Is Well With My Soul," thanks to its lovely music and inspiring words, but when I heard about the poignant story of its creation, it became my favorite hymn.  I guess it's proof that good can come from even the most horrible situations in life.  Spafford and his four lost daughters - Annie, Maggie, Bessie, and Tanetta - live on whenever it is performed.  And as it is a very popular hymn, it happens on a pretty regular basis.  Chicago also came back after the disaster which nearly ended it.  It was rebuilt with steel and has managed to become one of the nation's greatest cities.  Who knows if that ever would have happened without the fire.  What happened after Chicago's Great Fire of 1871 to both the city and its residents is a reminder that no matter how bad life can get, there is still good left to be found.

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