CHICAGO (CBS) — This week marks the 150th anniversary of the city’s signature disaster.
The Great Chicago Fire began on Sunday, Oct. 8, 1871 on what we would now call the city’s Near West Side. Over two days, it jumped the South Branch of the Chicago River, destroyed the downtown area, and jumped the Main Branch of the Chicago River – not stopping until it reached Fullerton Avenue.
On Monday, CBS 2’s Jim Williams examined the lessons we might learn as it tries to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
First, as we look at the devastation left by the Great Chicago Fire, we must address the issue of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.
If you grew up in Chicago, you might have learned in school that a cow kicked over a lantern in the O’Leary family barn on DeKoven Street. Historians today say that’s all a myth.
But what historians say is beyond dispute are the conditions on that Sunday night.
“Chicago is the fastest growing city in the world, and because of that, it’s being built hastily build out of wood,” said Julius L. Jones, assistant curator for the Chicago History Museum, “so wood is everywhere.”
“That long, dry summer, a strong wind from the southwest, a major fire the night before that weakened the already too-small and inadequately-equipped fire department,” added Carl Smith of Northwestern University.
Thirty straight hours of flames ended up destroying what was then a third of the city. The fire left an estimated 300 people dead and 100,000 homeless.
The map below shows the breadth of the devastation. North is to the right on the map, while west is up.
Bessie Bradwell Helmer, who served as president of Chicago Legal News in the early 20th century, described the fire as “like a snowstorm, only the flakes were red instead of white.”
“As thousands fled to the North Division, the fire pursued them. By 3:30 a.m., the roof collapsed on the Pumping Station at Chicago Avenue, effectively rendering any firefighting efforts hopeless. By noon on Monday the North Division fires had reached North Avenue and then continued the better part of a mile to Fullerton Avenue,” Palmer wrote. “Back in the South Division, the luxurious new Palmer House gave way, along with the offices of the Chicago Tribune, whose editors had exhorted the Common Council to raise the level of fire protection or face disaster. Tuesday morning a rain began to fall, and the flames finally died out, leaving Chicago a smoking, steaming ruin.”
In Bradwell’s narrative, which was posted to the history website “The Great Chicago Fire & the Web of Memory,” the North Division is what we would now call the Near North Side, while the South Division would include the present-day Loop.
Immediately after the fire, there was a worldwide outpouring of support to rebuild the city. Was it sympathy? In part, yes. But there was also an acknowledgement that Chicago, even in the 1870s, was important to the world economy.
Professor Smith describes that importance in his book “Chicago’s Great Fire, the Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City.”
“Chicago is providing wheat to Europe, and this place is needed – and it’s also a place where money is exchanged. It is important to the rest of the world,” Smith said. “Chicago remains in 1871, burned down as it was, a superb investment.”
Paul Durica of the Newberry Library notes the rebuild was rapid.
“Within a couple years, Chicago is mostly recovered – and certainly was completely rebuilt, by the time of the World’s Fair in 1893.”
At the Chicago History Museum, a special exhibit on the fire opens this week. Assistant Curator Jones tells us the rebuild largely favored the wealthy over those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
It is a lesson for the city as it recovers from the pandemic, he says.
“I think in our contemporary moment, as we come out of the pandemic, we should commit ourselves to building a more inclusive and equitable city,” Jones said.
The Chicago History Museum exhibit on the Great Chicago Fire opens this Friday, Oct. 8. And at 6:30 p.m. that evening, the Newberry Library has an event telling the story of how the fire connects to the history of the library.