Chicago Fire (1871)

Chicago Fire (1871)
Chicago Fire (1871)

The fast-moving blaze that consumed more than three square miles of Chicago, Illinois, causing the Chicago River to boil, killing at least 300, and leaving 90,000 homeless, would, within two decades, produce a reinvented city more prosperous and beautiful than had seemed possible when the fire burned itself out after 36 hours.

In the process of renewal, the Great Fire tested the ability of politicians, magnates, and ordinary city dwellers to deal effectively with the human causes and outcomes of natural disaster.

Chicago, 37 years old in the tinder-dry summer of 1871, was a fast-growing, 35-square-mile city of 300,000. Located at the confluence of Lake Michigan, major canals, and a growing railroad network, the city was a place of fevered speculation and rapid growth that produced showy mansions abutting the mostly wooden shacks of an expanding poor and immigrant population.

It was in one such southwest neighborhood that the fire of Sunday, October 8, was ignited, possibly, although not conclusively, by a lamp overturned in a De Koven Street barn by a cow owned by Mrs. O’Leary, an Irish immigrant. Just a day earlier, a fire in an industrial district had been contained, but only after $1 million in damage.

Already exhausted, fire fighters were unable to quell the new blaze, despite some success by men under the direction of Civil War veteran general Philip Sheridan who used gunpowder to curb the fire’s southerly spread.

Major enterprises, including a flour mill, the city’s water supply system, rail yards, the McCormick Reaper Works, and even the “fire-proof” headquarters of the Chicago Tribune, were destroyed. Overall losses would be estimated at $196 million.

After the great Chicago fire of 1871, corner of Dearborn and Monroe Streets
After the great Chicago fire of 1871, corner of Dearborn and Monroe Streets

Amid acres of twisted rubble, rebuilding began almost before the coals had cooled. Fire debris was used as landfill to expand the city along the lake and river. Shorn of buildings, some parts of Chicago, including its famous loop, became targets of investment and speculation.

The importance of the city as an agricultural depot and manufacturing and transportation center assured that financiers from Wall Street and elsewhere would lend ample money for rebuilding.

The initial recovery proceeded with great speed, making Chicagoans feel better about their ruined city, but it produced mostly shoddy structures that ignored lessons about the need for planning and fire resistance administered by the Great Fire.

A nationwide financial panic of 1873 brought much of Chicago’s building frenzy to a halt. In 1874 the so-called “Little Chicago Fire” inflicted millions in new damage to the city.

By the time business conditions improved, a new generation of architects, including Daniel Burnham, John Wellborn Root, and Louis Sullivan, had emerged, along with such newly available technologies as structural steel and elevators. The result would be an innovative new architecture that made Chicago a national and international leader in the field.

By 1893 the Columbian Exposition, a hugely successful world’s fair, would showcase a reborn Chicago and highlight the city’s triumph over both natural and human disaster.