The Great Chicago Fire started in Catherine O’Leary’s barn on DeKoven Street at about 9 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 8, 1871.
By early Tuesday morning, with the aid of heavy rains, it finally was quenched, but not before four square miles of downtown Chicago, including most of the city’s 18,000 structures, had been destroyed.
About 300 individuals lost their lives in this horrific conflagration, while an additional 100,000 were left homeless. Although the O’Learys lost their barn, their home was, by some amazing twist of fate, left standing amongst the smoldering ruins.
Traditional lore, that the fire was sparked when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern whilst being milked, has been reduced to nothing but a bunch of bull. But this destructive fire would kick off something in our neck of the woods, for amongst those burned out were individuals who would later endeavor to establish a colony here, and thus it was that Chicago Park came into being.
News of the notion to establish a colony, in an area up to this time known as Storms Ranch,* began hitting the newspapers in 1887. The following headline and story, copied from the Auburn Republican, ran in the Oct. 24, 1887 edition of the Sacramento Daily Union.
CHICAGO PARK. Progress of the colony Recently Established Near Colfax.
The enterprise of colonizing Chicago Park near the town of Colfax is noteworthy as being the first real colony in the northern part of this State. Thermalito is not a colony in the more recent sense of the word. There, a large tract of land was cut up and is being sold to all comers, mostly old Californians. Chicago Park is to be peopled by actual new settlers, most of whom will come from the city of Chicago or its immediate vicinity.
Enough of the land has now been sold to warrant the announcement that the colony at Chicago Park will be a perfect success, and the conditions of the sale of its lands are such that success is doubly assured. The scheme was organised by Morris Lobner and W. B. Hayford, of Colfax, who interested nine Chicago gentlemen in the project, and the eleven men formed a syndicate which bought and bonded 6,700 acres about three miles from Colfax on the Nevada County side of Bear river.
It is rolling land with a rich soil, well adapted to the production of apples, pears, grapes and the more marketable varieties of fruits. Operations were begun by laying off a town site of eighty acres.
In the center is reserved a public square 360x600 feet. Streets and avenues have been laid out eighty feet in width, and the remainder of the town is cut up into lots which average 40x125 feet in size. The streets have been named after prominent streets in Chicago, such as “Calumet” and “La Salle” avenues. Three larger lots have been reserved for two churches and a school-house. The Nevada Narrow-guage (sic) Railroad cuts across the eastern edge of the town site. Just outside of the town five acres have been reserved for a hotel which the company will build, possibly this fall, at a cost of about $25,000.
One-half of these town lots have already been sold in Chicago to merchants, tradesmen, mechanics and others, who will build business and dwelling-houses upon them the coming year.
Of the land which it is proposed to put under cultivation, 2,300 acres have been put on the Chicago market, and 2,000 acres have already been sold at $75 an acre in tracts of ten, twenty, and forty acres.
There are very few which contain forty acres, and none which are larger. These tracts have all been sold upon the condition that five acres shall be improved and planted during the coming year, and no deed will be delivered until this stipulation has been complied with.
The sellers also agree to allow a rebate of $10 on each addition acre which shall be improved during the coming year. There is a fine tract of fourteen acres just outside of the town site which will be reserved as a public park, the common property of the town …”
The colony idea pretty much fell to the wayside, partly due to speculators’ fears that some type of trickery was afoot as evidenced from the Los Angeles Herald item of Oct. 28, 1888:
LAND FAKE. Chicagoans Swindled by a Bogus Boomer.
CHICAGO, October 27. The Tribune prints an extended account of the formation and development here of what is known as the Chicago, California Park Colony. It alleges in substance that R. R. Porter, a constractor [sic] and builder originated it. He visited California and negotiated with W. B. Hayford and Maurice Labner (sic), real estate agent at Colfax, and secured an option on 3000 acres of land near that place.
This was platted into town lots at $50 to $75 each, and acre property at $75. The situation, climate, etc., were glowingly described and about 100 people have been induced to buy and about $30,000 cash was realized. A number of investors claim they have been unable to secure abstracts of title to their purchases, and it appears now that land in the immediate neighborhood is selling for $8 an acre. Meanwhile nobody seems to know where Porter is.”
Thus the planned hotel never saw the light of day, nor do any of the original “Chicago” based street names appear on signage in Chicago Park today. But Calumet, La Salle, Dearborn and Chicago avenues did appear on the Plat of Chicago Park, “Filed at Request of R. R. Porter January 21, 1888 at 9 O’Clock A.M.”
And as to R. R. Porter’s alleged unknown whereabouts? He actually went on to call Chicago Park his home until his dying day.
The Chicago Park community celebrated its 125th anniversary in April 2013.
*Namesake of Storms Ranch: Simmon Pena Storms, local Indian agent.
Donna Reynolds is a volunteer at the Doris Foley Library for Historical Research in Nevada City.