“This,” (Train) said, “is the last public address that will be delivered within these walls! A terrible calamity is impending over the city of Chicago! More I cannot say! More I dare not utter!”
George Francis Train (March 24, 1829 – January 5, 1904) is a name that is mostly forgotten today, but during his early years, he was a serial entrepreneur who organized clipper ship routes, the Union Pacific Railway, and who traveled by balloon around the world in 80 days, in 1870, and may have been the inspiration for the Jules Verne novel, Around the World in Eighty Days.
Train’s tie to Chicago is perhaps a bit more ominous. The Great Chicago Fire began the evening of October 08, 1871 and in the course of a little over a day, burned six square miles of Chicago, including its business district, and left over 130 dead and up to 100,000 homeless. The night prior, October 07, 1871, Train, who earned a handsome income from the popular lecture circuit, gave a speech that predicted the fire. His words, in part, are above.
Blame for the Chicago Burn originally was pinned on Mrs. Kate O’Leary and one of the cows she kept in the barn behind her home at 137 (now 558) DeKoven Street. The beast was blamed for knocking over a lantern, but O’Leary, a first generation Irish immigrant, claimed her innocence until her dying day.
That there was a fire that occurred in the O’Leary barn is not questioned, but the real origin of the Great Chicago Fire remains a mystery. Was that fire deliberately set? Mrs. O’Leary claimed to be fast asleep at the time the fire started, due to having to rise early for the milk route she operated. Was the fire accidentally set by her son’s friends in the barn? Or, was the barn and other close structures ignited for mayhem and potential land-grab profit? This was a poorer section of town and Chicago was growing at an extraordinary rate, so… How did somebody in Train’s position, among the movers and shakers, state with such certainty that the building he lectured in that night would burn?
How was it that an exotic figure, known for large projects across the United States, made such an accurate prediction? Was it a coincidence or was it something more, even criminal?
A few days later Train was asked how he knew…
George Francis Train, tracked down in Denver several days after the fire and asked if he had based his prophecy on knowledge of a specific plot, alleged he knew of none and that he had inserted the statement about the dire fate that awaited the city strictly for dramatic effect because Chicago had a wicked reputation and anything that calamitous would be no surprise.
Before dismissing that thought keep in mind that Train set up a shell finance corporation, Credit Mobilier, in 1867, which financed the eastern part of the transcontinental railway, The board of directors of the finance corporation were the same as those building the rail line and included Train. All were greatly enriched by the double-dipping. Bribery to federal government officials by Credit Mobilier was a huge scandal of the time, involving discounted stock given to the Vice President, four Senators, the Speaker of the House and other House representatives.
Did Train know more than he let on? Did Chicago burn for a more sinister and greedy reason? Were 130- to-estimates double that, murdered, whole families incinerated in their beds? Many people rebuilt, but others left Chicago never to return, losing their homes to the fire and their land, in some cases, to speculators. Mrs. O’Leary’s house, ironically, did not burn, though her barn was reduced to ashes.
The Great Chicago Fire, to some, is a true cold case of history.