“The Pleasantest Business Letter We Ever Received”

Historians are pretty much in agreement that it wasn’t Mrs. O’Leary’s cow that started it, but no matter what the cause, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was devastating.

The fire was ignited on Sunday, Oct. 8, and wasn’t brought under control until two days later. In its wake, it left more than 100 people dead and 100,000 homeless. The fire covered 2,000 acres on a stretch from Belden Avenue in the north, to 22ndStreet in the south, and leaping over the Chicago River at the Randolph Street Bridge.

A depiction of the Great Chicago Fire crossing the Randolph Bridge after destroying the headquarters of the Western Banknote and Engraving Co.

By the time it reached the bridge, it had already destroyed much of downtown Chicago, including the headquarters of the Western Banknote and Engraving Co. and the homes of its employees.

Western Banknote, founded in 1865 by two New Yorkers – Charles Knickerbocker and Clarence C. Cheney -specialized in banknotes, stock certificates and documents of monetary value that required counterfeit protection. Western at the time was a relatively small, but important purchaser of Crane paper, aiding in the company’s westward expansion.

Shortly after the fire, Western had relocated west of the Chicago River at 10 Jefferson Street. On Nov. 22, Crane & Co. received a letter from a grateful Clarence Cheney.

Gentlemen: Your favor of the 16th is received – and we must say your action and kindness made a deep impression – not so much at what was offered (altho it was very generous) as the manner in which it was done. And I must say that the $100 for our workmen on top of the other – caused it to be one of the pleasantest business letters of we ever received.

Not having been in the habit of giving notes, we would prefer to let the account stand and shall endeavor to pay sooner than the time you are willing to allow.

Eventually settling at Madison and Michigan, Western Banknote remained a loyal customer for many years.

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