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 tale.
The Chicago Fire started on the Near South Side. 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 passed Center Street (Armitage). 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.
As the fire approached, Bellinger was determined to save his home. He tore up the wooden sidewalk, then collected all the water he could, in whatever bucket or bottle or cup was handy. Then he waited—but not for long.
Sparks from the fire started to hit the house, and Bellinger quickily doused them. The fire kept coming, Bellinger kept pouring water. He ran around the four sides of the little cottage, he climbed on 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 fire around him was 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 buckets. And with this bit of liquid, the valiant policeman was able to extinguish the remaining flames, and save his home.
The Triumph of Policeman Bellinger became a part of Chicago folklore. It was even reprinted in school textbooks. On October 8, the anniversary of the fire, teachers would march their classes to the cottage on Hudson Avenue, and tell the story of 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. After the fire, they had sheltered 21 people in the tiny cottage. However, that cider business had been invented by some 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 at 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.