Monmouth, Ill. — On Oct. 8, 1871, a devastating fire destroyed more than three square miles of the city of Chicago, leveling 17,500 buildings and leaving 100,000 people homeless. Monmouth residents hearing the news of the Great Chicago Fire could empathize, as just five months earlier nearly half of their city’s business district had been wiped out by a fast-moving blaze.
The causes of the Monmouth fire, which occurred 148 years ago this week, were similar to Chicago’s, although a particularly hot, dry summer contributed to the latter fire’s intensity. The key factors in both conflagrations, however, were buildings constructed entirely of wood and a stiff breeze.
On the night of May 9, the fire broke out in the alley behind Monmouth’s T. J. Thorpe Marble Works, at the northwest corner of First Street and Broadway. An inexperienced person turned in the alarm, causing the fire department to be slow in responding to the blaze, which burned rapidly toward the west, engulfing John Babcock’s hardware store, which stood on the current site of Monmouth City Hall.
At that point, the wind shifted to the south, causing the fire to leap across Broadway to Carr’s block. Soon, according to the Monmouth Atlas, the fire on both sides of Broadway burned “as if rivaling the other” — the fire on the north extending to Main Street, while the fire on the south was stopped by the solidly built Churchill’s Hall, a brick structure with a fireproof slate roof. Had that building (which today house’s Market Alley Wines) not stopped the fire, it was believed it would have continued west, perhaps to the city limits.
The fire might also not have been stopped had there not been an earlier disastrous fire. Three years earlier, the destruction of a row of business houses on East Broadway had led the city council to appoint a fire marshal and two assistants. The council also gave the marshal the authority to organize a 30-man hook and ladder company, and issued bonds of $10,000, which the mayor used to purchase a pump engine with a circulating boiler.
After two hours on the scene of the 1871 fire, the hook and ladder company managed to control the fire with the old steam pumper. Another change of winds assisted the company in its task.
Unlike the Chicago fire, which killed 300 people, the Monmouth fire resulted in no fatalities, although there were a number of close escapes. Four firefighters were standing on a roof adjoining the Babcock store when a barrel of gunpowder blew up, hurling a column of debris high into the air. The men were hit by flying embers, but not seriously injured.
As the sun came up the next morning, the citizens of Monmouth surveyed in horror the smoking rubble of much of their downtown. The fire had caused a loss estimated at $300,000-$500,000, leaving 45 firms without a place to carry on their trade. The businesses, which employed 150–200 workers, carried insurance policies totaling less than $84,000.
Comprising the charred district was a diversity of businesses, offices and public buildings — clothing stores, boots and shoes, a news depot and book store, the Odd Fellows hall, attorneys, a millinery, a tailor, grocers, a jeweler and even a sewing machine dealer who did not fare particularly well. Of the 40 machines he had in stock, only five were saved.
But the businessmen were resilient. Within two weeks, J. W. Scott had begun work on a new two-story brick building on the site of his former grocery, while hardware merchant John Babcock and attorney James Madden were preparing to begin their new buildings. Many of the other businesses had relocated — a couple of them to other towns.
Fires, like politics, apparently make strange bedfellows. The editor of the Atlas remarked: “It was a neighborly sight, last week, to pass around the square and notice a butcher and barber shop, a book and millinery store, etc., crowded together in the same room, but the novelty was lost in the number of such incidents.”
Two days after the fire, safes belonging to W. D. H. Young, John Babcock and James Madden were pulled from the rubble and their contents found to be in good condition, with even the books and papers being perfectly preserved. The elated Babcock immediately wrote an effusive letter to the Herring safe company of Chicago, which the company used in testimonial newspaper ads for several months.
As the merchants and downtown landlords considered whether to rebuild, some community leaders saw a potential boon in the tragedy. City weighmaster C. K. Smith initiated a petition to have the city purchase the lots burned by the fire and extend the public square east to First Street. Signed by many of the town’s leaders, including Monmouth College president David Wallace, the petition prompted a community meeting in the courthouse, presided over by Mayor William Boyd. Enthusiasm for the project was nearly unanimous, with a proposal to build a new courthouse in the center of the enlarged square being a key attraction. A committee was formed to determine the value of the real estate that would need to be purchased.
Days later, however, the city council met and quickly quashed the idea, deeming it too expensive — with upper estimates approaching $80,000. The editor of the Atlas was crestfallen, writing: “The square as it has been is an eye sore, and must so continue. It gives no opportunity for improving in any particular. We may succeed in raising it above the level of a common mudhole, but anything like beauty, convenience or utility is out of the question.”
In the 15 decades since 1871, a handful of other large downtown fires have further transformed Monmouth’s business district. These include the 1953 Elks Club fire, the 1974 Centennial Block fire and the 1975 Larson Furniture fire. Only the 1974 fire was determined to have been set on purpose, but arson is inevitably rumored in all such blazes. Even the 1871 Monmouth Atlas noted that while the origin of that fire was unknown, it hinted that it might have been set “either by design or from the pipe of some drunken outcast.”
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 38 years.