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The Great Chicago Fire
Transcript of The Great Chicago Fire
"Luck of the Irish"
Tuesday, October 10, 1871
Vol XCIII, No. 311
The Great Chicago Fire
The Great Chicago Fire destroyed a large part of the famous city. It was once believed to have been caused by a cow that kicked over a lantern, now it is more likely that it was simply an accident. The fire destroyed a huge portion of the city. The city was made almost entirely of wood including the buildings and sidewalks. The fire was made more severe by several factors including coal and lumber being stockpiled in the city and environmental conditions. The destruction of the city made it possible to rebuild the city into something greater. During rebuilding, fireproof materials were used to prevent a recurrence of the disaster. These steel and concrete building materials were the beginning of what we consider to be modern day Chicago.
SURVEY OF DAMAGE
Donations flew in from other cities, such as: New York, St. Louis, London, even commercial rivals, such as Cincinnati, Cleveland and Buffalo. Mayor Mason placed the Chicago Relief and Aid Society in charge of the city’s relief efforts
Destroyed a 2,000 acre area about 4 miles long and ¾ miles wide. $222 million in property (⅓ of the city’s valuation). Of 300,000 inhabitants, 100,000 were left homeless.
120-300 people killed.
QUESTIONS ABOUT THE FIRE
What was the cause of the fire?
Cow in O’Leary’s barn dispelled as a fabricated story. Meteor shower one possibility. May have been started by a vandal or thief.
Did over-industrialization contribute to the fire?Religious speculators saw the fire as a result of over-industrialization
"Chicago had a weakness for “big things,” and liked to think that it was outbuilding New York. It did a great deal of commercial advertising in its house-tops. The faults of construction as well as of art in its great showy buildings must have been numerous. Their walls were thin, and were overweighted with gross and coarse misornamentation."
(Frederick Law Olmsted)
ONLY SURVIVING STRUCTURES
St. Michael’s Church
Chicago Water Tower
Chicago Avenue Pumping Station
St. Ignatius College
Holy Family Church
⅔ of structures were entirely wood
Most had highly flammable tar or shingle roofs
All sidewalks and most roads were raised, and also made of wood
Lumber yards, warehouses, and coal yards were all along the Chicago River
Due to location next to Lake Michigan
Particularly strong southwest winds at this time
Severe drought condition prior to fire
Only 1 inch of rain from July 4 to October 9
Chicago was big hub for business in Midwest
Lumber was especially a common good
surrounding areas were logged extensively and brought to Chicago
Only 185 firefighters
17 horse-drawn steam engines for the entire city
During the Fire
THE GREAT REBUILDING OF CHICAGO
The first attempt to raise an alarm was met with speculation and we might never know what really occurred but one thing is for certain, the alarm never registered. William Lee who lived about a block from the O'Leary's ran to Bruno Goll's drug store, when he saw sparks of fire leaping into his yard, demanding the key to the alarm box. Bruno Goll would not here of it and refused insisting a fire truck had already passed. These remarks are later countered by Goll who says he later turned in not one but two alarms before he left the store. Yet according to reports neither alarm ever registered, thus causing no one to come to cut off the fires growth.
"But the mythic lesson that linked the Great Fire to the White City had less to do with destruction than with resurrection. Even as the embers lay smoking amid the ruins, all the old booster arguments about the predestined inevitability of Chicago's metropolitan growth reemerged. They soon coalesced in a metaphorical image that appeared repeatedly for the next quarter century: the city as phoenix, that magical bird that could find rebirth even in the ashes of its own funeral pyre."
(Nature's Metropolis, William Cronon)
The fire began on the night of October 8, 1871. Unlike the previous nights fire, this would be one for the records. The fire began to engulf Patrick and Catherine O'Leary's barn. Luckily for the O'Leary's Daniel "Peg Leg" Sullivan was in the neighborhood and was the first to warn of an impending fire. Unfortunately his early warnings weren't enough because the particular dry and windy conditions allowed the fire to spread from the barn to the cottage and from the cottage beyond. You would like to think that at some point the fire was containable and you aren't wrong the fire was but two grave errors that night crippled the chances and doomed the city to ashes.
The second mistake was made by Mathias Schaffer, a forty year old courthouse watchman. A courthouse watchmen would overlook the city 100ft from the ground and relay the location of any fire to the nearest firehouses. Schaffer in one night would make multiple stumbles that without a doubt delayed help but quite possibly it also doomed the city. He initially debunked smoke being seen on the horizon as the smoke from the night's past. Schaffer's second mistake was when he sent in the wrong location because of his inability to precisely identify the origin of the fire. The final mistake was actually made by Schaffer's stubborn young assistant who refused to send in a more accurate area because he believed it would confuse the the firefighters. The combination of these mistakes allowed the fire to progress while some firefighters chased a phantom fire and others stayed put as they believed the fire to be outside of thier district.
Before the Fire
Fireproof materials & steel girders became standard but expensive
Terra-cotta clay became a popular, cheap alternative to other fireproof materials
New plain-looking buildings without ornamentation became known as the Chicago School of architecture:
William Le Baron Jenney, Daniel Burnham, and Louis Sullivan
Built the Home Insurance Building - considered the world's first skyscraper
The fire would continue to devour much of the business district jumping from building to building because of the great wind that caused an uplift or fire whirl. Citizens joined in with the fire department crew and attempted to halt the flames advance but it was all to no avail. The fire was like an animal bent on destruction and not even the river would defy its reaches as the fire whirl sent sparks over the river setting flames to both sides. People, the wealthy and poor alike, were in a frenzy taking what they could and running for their lives. The fire got so bad that the Mayor had to call for help from all surrounding cities as well as making a decision to release prisoners when it caught fire. And only after buildings were reduced to rubble, bridges were burnt and at least a hundred dead the fire was through with the great city of Chicago.The fire began to burn itself out and on the evening of the 9th there finally came rain. What was left was a shocked, bewildered crowd of survivors left with ashes of a place they once called home...
OTHER RELATED FIRES
"A tragedy and the recovery that follows are connected events from which lessons about the human experience may be derived. Consider Chicago's fire of 1871 and the spirit of recovery that flourished in its aftermath. The development of the skyscraper can be understood not only as an architectural style, but as the manifestation of tragedy turned triumph by human will. "
(Jo Ann Rayfield, Historical Research Narrative)
Peshtigo, Wisconsin-250 miles north of Chicago. At same time. Killed 1,200 to 2,500 people - everyone in the town. Deadliest fire in American history.
Holland, Michigan - also at the same time, also burned to the ground.
Many other fires in this area led to what is called the “Great Michigan Fire”