Riverside's Great Fire

Village's hotel resort for Chicago's elite went up in flames 125 years ago

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By BOB UPHUES

Riverside does not suffer very many large structure fires these days. But in the early days of the village's history, it experienced some spectacular conflagrations, including fires that destroyed both the water tower and the original Central School.

But the largest single blaze in the history of Riverside marked its 125th anniversary on April 23. It was on that day in 1887 that the Riverside Hotel - once the centerpiece of a plan to make Riverside a summer resort for Chicago's wealthy - went up in flames.

Riverside didn't have just any old hotel. It was a bona fide attraction, if only for a few short months.

Just prior to opening on July 4, 1871, the Chicago Tribune described the Riverside Hotel as "the crowning feature of the Riverside idea."

Designed by William LeBaron Jenney and built in a scant couple of months, the Riverside Improvement Company reportedly spent $140,000 on the three-story, E-shaped edifice that stood along Riverside Road on a site now occupied by the building that houses First American Bank and the large apartment building to the east.

The 124-room hotel was built in "the Swiss style" and was supposed to be connected via a raised wooden promenade over Riverside Road to what was known as the Refectory (later the site of the Youth Center), which had elegant verandas overlooking the Des Plaines River. It's unclear whether that connecting promenade was ever built.

The Riverside Improvement Company's marketing booklet published in 1871 describes the hotel as featuring a ball room, reception rooms, dining areas, a barber shop and other amenities. The structure was surrounded by park spaces and flower gardens.

On June 28, 1871, the Tribune remarked that "the guest at the Riverside Hotel may enjoy the croquet grounds, bowling and billiard pavilions; may sail or fish on the adjoining river, ramble in the charming groves or the recesses of the noble forests; and have all of the comforts of the city while just a 30-minute train trip from the city.

And the swells indeed came that summer. Chicago's elite - the Peabodys, Kimbarks, Chittendens, Chandlers and Buckinghams - spent the summer of 1871 there, according to a Tribune article reporting the fire 16 years later.

But the bloom came off the rose quickly. In October 1871, the Chicago Fire devastated more than three square miles of the city, killed hundreds and left nearly 100,000 homeless.

And while, the hotel reportedly was busy during the winter of 1871, by the summer of 1872, it appears to have ceased to operate as a hotel.

According to the Tribune in 1887, "The great fire ruined the prospects of Riverside for the time being and the hotel has not been used as a hotel since."

A Jan. 23, 1913 article in the Riverside News stated that the hotel "was rented out in suites for housekeeping purposes" and that "the management was unsatisfactory and the better class of tenants became discouraged, and there was a promiscuous tenantry."

In the summer of 1886, the building got a new owner. According to Suzanne Bartholomew, the former president of the Riverside Historical Commission, Edward Driver bought the hotel, using a straw buyer. The historical commission acquired documents relating to the sale from Driver's family, Bartholomew said, showing his involvement. Driver made several improvements to the building about nine months before the fire.

A March 17, 1932 article from the Riverside News identified one of the hotel's 1887 tenants as Herbert Brooks, who was then the young verger for St. Paul Episcopal Church. He, his wife and their infant daughter were paying $5 a month for their four-room apartment at the hotel and were home at 8:30 p.m. on April 23, when the fire started.

"In a few minutes of time it seemed that the whole building was a mass of flames," Brooks told the News. "We had difficulty rescuing our daughter and escaping with her from the burning building."

The Brookses lost almost everything they owned in the fire, including a week's worth of groceries bought that day.

Burning wooden roof shingles sailed through the air "for a considerable distance and every home nearby was in danger," said Brooks. Homeowners on Lawton Road extinguished flaming cinders as they landed and a crew covered the roof of the refectory with rugs.

With firefighting equipment scarce in Riverside, the Chicago Fire Department put an engine company on a train car and sent it to Riverside, but it either never arrived or came too late. At least one neighboring home was destroyed as well.

The Tribune reported the day after the fire the Brookses were among the 20 families (in 1932 Brooks said there were 30 families) left homeless by the fire. Brooks found shelter for his family "in a building near the old mill dam."

The cause of the fire was never definitively determined. The day after the fire, the Tribune trumpeted that "a drunken old pensioner," a British Army veteran named Brody was "maddened with drink" when he threw a kerosene lamp at his wife during a fight. Further down in the story, however, the reporter stated that "there was some doubt as to the truth of the charge that [Brody] caused the fire" and that it started in another wing of the building.

The building by 1887 was commonly considered a blight on the community, according to Brooks. During his 1932 interview, Brooks reportedly told the Riverside News that "he is convinced that when the building burned down there was considerable jubilation among residents of the community."

Three years or so later, Driver built the Malden Block, which still stands, on the corner site. The brick apartment building to the east was built later. The only remnant of Riverside's history as a summer resort was the refectory, which survived the fire.

A picture taken after the fire, probably from the roof of a building along Burlington Street, shows a rubble-filled vacant lot where the hotel once stood and the refectory across Riverside Road.

Unfortunately there don't appear to be any existing photos of the hotel itself. The only image is an engraving in the Riverside Improvement Company's marketing booklet, and it's unclear whether that picture accurately represented what was built on the site.

In 1905, said Bartholomew, the refectory became the Riverside Hotel and served that purpose until 1920. It was bought by a couple and was a private home until 1944, when the property was willed to the village, which demolished it in 1945 to build the fire house addition and parking lot next to the township hall.

Courtesy of the Riverside Historical Museum

 

 

 

Courtesy of the Riverside Historical Museum

 

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