How Baird & Warner Survived the Great Chicago Fire

The Great Chicago Fire began its path through Chicago on this day in 1871, 144 years ago. Baird & Warner had already been in business for 16 years, and both the office and the Baird family home were destroyed in the great blaze. The following is a family account of how Lyman Baird rescued his family, as well as a recount of how Baird & Warner was instrumental in the rebirth of Chicago. To read more company history,  click here.

The Great Chicago Fire

Built primarily of Michigan and Wisconsin lumber shipped in via Lake Michigan, Chicago had been plagued by fires from its earliest days.

But the fire that erupted on the night of October 8, 1871, was unlike any the city had experienced before. It began outside the business district and burned fiercely, fanned by a high southwest wind, until it reached the lumberyards along the South Branch of the Chicago River. Soon it leaped across the river and roared into the central business district to the Near North Side.

Baird & Warner founder Lyman Baird was awakened by the watchman at his home at 1119 North LaSalle Street early on the morning of October 9. He started toward his office at 90 LaSalle Street in a buggy, but mobs of people racing through the LaSalle Street Tunnel made it impossible for him to proceed. Continuing on foot, Lyman eventually made his way to the office.

He found it ablaze.

Returning home, he barely made it across the river, forced to crawl through part of the passage because of dense smoke.

At the Baird house, plans were being made to flee with whatever family possession could be saved. Lyman’s 12-year-old son Wyllys (future Baird & Warner CEO) and his friend volunteered the small cave they had built in the backyard. The six-foot deep cave was quickly filled with playthings, kitchen utensils and a large iron kettle filled with soap. The cave was covered with planks and sod.

Everything burned but the soap.

While the cave was being filled, Lyman and his brother-in-law, George L. Warner, loaded a grocery wagon that Warner had obtained. Into the wagon went a grand piano and as many household possessions as possible. Before the house burned, the family retreated, heading to Goose Island on the North Branch of the Chicago River. They took sanctuary in the Green Dock and Dredging Company, a shipyard owned by family friend Oliver Bourne Green, whose family joined the Bairds.

When Lyman returned to the office on LaSalle Street, he found it destroyed. But the office safe, with all the company records, was entirely unharmed.

The survival of these documents become especially important when city officials discovered that public real estate records in the courthouse had been destroyed. The privately owned ledgers and papers from Baird served to assure continuity in titles and lot lines as individuals and companies quickly moved to rebuild their stores and offices.

The fledgling company helped save the fledgling city.