Friday, December 20, 2013

The Chicago Fire and Emma Dryer

This photo of the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire
hangs on the wall of the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago.
On the night of October 8th, 1871, the Great Chicago fire began. The sight of the flames spreading as far north and south as they could see was both terrifying and awesome. Emma joined her friends at the window where they could watch the blaze coming ever closer.
“We saw a veering wind, fearing that the fire might be blown one more point westward, and so destroy the entire city,” wrote Emma. The wind held its northward course and the river helped spare the west side of the city. The devastation, however, was widespread.
Among the city’s 300,000 population, as many as 100,000 residents were left homeless by the great fire. Of these, many were the poorest immigrants, already barely able to meet their families’ basic needs before the tragedy. The area of destruction spread four miles and long and nearly one mile wide. One hundred and twenty-five people were confirmed dead – although some thought as many as 300 had perished in the blaze and smoke. The fire raged for three days, finally subsiding only when the heavens opened and a heavy rain fell upon the charred, blackened ruins that had once been Chicago.
Many people, including Emma Dryer, lost everything in the Chicago fire. “Every article of clothing except what I was wearing at the time was burned in the fire,” she wrote. Emma’s home, her books, and her belongings were completely destroyed. Her life, however, was spared.

Rather than being discouraged by the tragedy, the resolute schoolteacher felt a confirmation of God’s call upon her life and immediately headed to work. Chicago’s mayor called together all the women who were available to help. They met at a church on the west side of the city and began to organize the task ahead.
“We were all at once busy, ministering to the homeless, the sick and the suffering,” wrote Emma. With her leadership, the YWCA reorganized itself, temporarily, as the Chicago Women’s Aid Society because of the needs presented by the fire. She designated certain rooms to serve as the distribution headquarters for clothing as donations came in from across the country.
"I was unexpectedly forced into work of various kinds. It crowded us from every side," wrote Emma. Her abilities to organize and conduct schools helped her to react quickly to the overwhelming needs caused by the fire. She founded an employment agency, a women's aid office, a food/clothing and toy bank, and began an industrial education program at the YWCA.
- excerpted from When Others Shuddered: Eight Women Who Refused to Give Up. Available on Amazon February 2014.
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