The 1871 Chicago Fire—Bellinger Cider House Story

Chicago history is more than just a fire. But sooner or later, there’s bound to be a story of the Great Conflagration of 1871. The house at 2121 North Hudson Avenue is at the center of this particular tale.

The Chicago Fire started on the Near South Side on Sunday evening, October 8. Pushed on by strong southwest winds, it burned through downtown, jumped the river, and continued moving north. Nothing in its path seemed safe.

By the second evening the fire had advanced more than three miles, passing Center Street (today’s Armitage Avenue). Here the buildings were fewer and farther apart. On Hudson Avenue, the only house was a little wooden cottage belonging to a policeman named Richard Bellinger.

Bellinger had built the house for his new bride two years earlier. It was their dream come true. As he looked to the south, Bellinger could see the wall of flames coming closer and closer. He could feel the air getting hotter. Hell was bearing down on him, but he would not surrender. He would save their home.

The sidewalks were wooden, and would feed the flames. Bellinger tore them up. He tore up his picket fence and front stairs. He grabbed buckets and bottles and cups and whatever else was handy, and filled them with water from the cistern. Then he sat down to wait.

He did not wait long. Sparks from the onrushing fire started to hit the front porch, and Bellinger quickly doused them. The fire kept coming, Bellinger kept pouring water. He ran around the four sides of the little cottage, he climbed onto the roof, he dropped back to the ground. Wherever the flames lit, Bellinger was there to put them out.

He grew tired. He lost track of time. But he was winning. The flames around him were almost gone. And then—he ran out of water!

Was all his hard toil for nothing? All he needed was a bucket or two more! Oh, cruel twist of fate!

But wait! Bellinger remembered the barrel of apple cider in the cellar. He told his wife to draw some of the cider into the buckets. And with this last little bit of liquid, the valiant policeman was able to extinguish the remaining flames, and save his home.

Later that Monday night, as the winds died down and a light drizzle hit the city, the Great Fire burned itself out. On Tuesday Chicago started to rebuild. Now word spread through the ruined metropolis of how one determined man had fought the forces of destruction and won. It was an inspiring tale at a time when inspiration was needed.

The story quickly passed to the local newspapers and from there to the national press. In the years that followed, The Triumph of Policeman Bellinger became a part of Chicago folklore. It was even reprinted in school textbooks. Each year on October 8, teachers would march their classes to the cottage on Hudson Avenue, and tell their wide-eyed students how it had been saved by cider. Besides the Water Tower, this little frame house was the only building that had survived the disaster.

Then one day in 1915, a little old white-haired lady appeared at the door of 2121 North Hudson Avenue. It was Mrs. Bellinger, come back to visit the old homestead. She was invited in and looked around. Then she began to reminisce about the events of forty-four years before.

Yes, she said, her late husband had worked mightily to save the house, but her brother had also been there to help. And after the fire, the Bellingers had sheltered twenty-one people in the tiny cottage. However, that business about using cider to put out the fire had been invented by a newspaper reporter with an over-active imagination.

“We did have a barrel of cider in the basement,” Mrs. Bellinger declared. “But we didn’t use it because we were able to get enough water from the dugout across the street.”

That destroyed one myth. And more recently, historians have determined that a couple of other wooden cottages on Cleveland Avenue also came through the fire. So the Bellinger house is not even unique as a survivor.

But it still makes a damn good story.

This 150th anniversary post is just one of the 60 stories in my book, HIDDEN CHICAGO LANDMARKS.  Available at local bookstores or on Amazon.


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