Summer 2012: Whether you believe the fire was started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, a meteorite or a one-legged vagabond, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 still ranks among one of the nation’s worst disasters.
The fire started Sunday evening, October 8, on DeKoven Street, near Chicago’s South Side and burned until early Tuesday morning. It destroyed the central business district as it raged northward, feeding on wood-framed structures and fueled by a persistent wind. The fire even jumped the Chicago River, driving citizens to the shores of Lake Michigan, where they sought refuge.
By the time the fire had burned itself out, 300 of the city’s inhabitants were reportedly killed and 90,000 were left homeless – nearly a third of the population.
Among the offices destroyed was the office of the Cook County Recorder – and with it all of Cook County’s official real estate records.
The Vital Role of the Data Abstractor
Nearly a quarter century before the fire, a young law clerk named Edward A. Rucker had devised a method of tracking and documenting real estate transactions by recording them in ledgers. Over time, his methods were adopted by leading abstract companies, which made their records available to attorneys needing access to real estate records but wanting to avoid the tedious task of searching official documents.
At the time of the fire there were three abstract firms serving Cook County: Chase Brothers and Co.; Shortall and Howard, and Jones and Sellers.
Legend has it that John G. Shortall was returning from church on Sunday evening and came across the fire. Alarmed by the sheer ferocity of the flames and the throngs of people heading northward, he grew concerned about his own property, which happened to be located near the Cook County courthouse.
He made his way to his home and collected his ledgers and attempted to hire a lorry to cart them to safety. He retained a driver and carriage at the point of his pistol, and his ledgers were safely loaded and transferred to a residence in the suburbs – escorted by Shortall and two convicts that were released from the Court House as the fire advanced.
Principals of the two other abstract companies – Chase Bothers and Jones and Howard – also managed to rescue their ledgers, though perhaps not in as dramatic a fashion as Shortall.
The Illinois State Legislature makes it official
The combined records of the three companies, housed together on the city’s west side, provided a complete history of land conveyances for the City. In 1872, the Illinois legislature passed the Burnt Records Act, which recognized the records as admissible as evidence of title in all courts of record.
While martial law was declared in the days following the fire, and looters and scoundrels sought to steal and defraud, homeowners’ rights were protected by the diligence and quick thinking of the three abstract companies.
The Birth of a Legendary Title Company
The firms eventually merged and became part of the Chicago Title and Trust family, which preserved and protected the records, now known as Ante-Fire Tract Books.
When Property Insight was established in 2002, it assumed responsibility for managing the plant assets of Chicago Title, including the Ante-Fire Tract Books. Today, the books are housed in the company’s office on La Salle Street, where they are available for research use by Property Insight clients.
Source: Chicago Title & Trust company records; Russell, A.F. (1939). Fifty Great Disasters and Tragedies that Shocked the World. Odhams Press Ltd.