great chicago fire from the ashes

The Great Chicago Fire: a Calamity that Reset a City


Here’s what you probably know about the Great Chicago Fire:

There was a fire.  It was here, in Chicago, quite a while ago.  Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lamp and burned down a barn, and then most of the city.

Some of that is true (although the story probably doesn’t involve a cow) but the significance of the fire for Chicago is much greater even than the tremendous loss of life and property that it caused.  Find out what Chicago looked like before the fire and how it was forever changed afterwards.

Chicago before the fire

The several decades before the Great Chicago Fire were a time of astonishing growth for the city. In 1850, Chicago’s population was around 30,000 people (a large town) but it more than tripled in 10 years to 110,000 in 1860 and again to nearly 300,000 in 1870.  Check out great growth maps and timeline created by Dennis McClendon at this great page on UIC’s website.

All that population growth was being fed by incoming rail lines and exporting both the centralized agricultural produce of the entire midwest and the products of the numerous factories springing up in the young city.  Land values skyrocketed and the building boom was on.

By the 1850s there were some serious problems with the growing city.

There was an extreme lack of clean water.  The 1862 Report of the Board of Public Works apologizes the annoyance of small fish coming out of faucets occasionally and for the effluent from meat packing plants getting picked up in the water supply.  There were major cholera outbreaks in 1849 and 1854. The polluted river would be reversed to flow away from the lake Michigan water supply a few decades later in 1889.

It was also a city of mud.  The unpaved streets couldn’t handle the pressure of traffic attempts to “pave” them with wooden planks could result in mud geysers spraying up to attack unsuspecting pedestrians when a team of horses when by.  The city resolved to install a city wide sewer system at the existing street level by RAISING EVERY BUILDING by 4-10 feet, then filling in on top of the new sewer lines and paving the street above.

briggs house hotel raising chicago 1866

October 8th 1871

There’s no evidence against Mrs. O’Leary and her cow (and the story at the time was largely compounded of overdramatic journalism and anti-Irish prejudice).  It did originate near or in the O’Leary barn but fires were not uncommon in the young city and it had been a dry summer.  The tinder dry, mostly wood city combined with high winds and some early human error to create a conflagration that billowed out of control and burned a huge swath of city including the wooden sidewalks, the supposedly fireproof stone buildings down town and even the greasy river.

For a very complete account of the fire and its aftermath, check out the excellent Chicago History Museum website (source of the image below).

great chicago fire burnt district

Interestingly on the same day Chicago burned (with an estimated 300 person death toll), the Peshtigo fire burned the better part of two counties in Wisconsin and killed about 1500 people.  A fire storm described by survivors as “a tornado” jumped the Peshtogo river to burn both sides of the town and “threw rail cars and houses into the air.”

The Great Rebuilding

The fire destroyed downtown, the business district and left 90,000 people homeless but it did not put a dent in the industrial and agricultural base for the city.  The stockyards and factories on the south side were largely unscathed and the rail lines still ran into and our of the city.  Only around 300 people had died and the rest of the city set to work to rebuild from the ashes.

“We have not lost, first, our geography. Nature called the lakes, the forests, the prairies together in convention long before we were born, and they decided that on this spot a great city would be built.”

Unitarian Minister Robert Collyer, the week after the fire

Reaching for the Sky

Chicagoans set to work to rebuild, sweeping the rubble of the old business district into the lake (and extending the shoreline out from Michigan Avenue).  The downtown district doubled and new buildings were planned to be taller and more ambitious in scale.  Unlike the peripheral business districts in older east coast cities – constructed at the side of existing historic districts, Chicago’s center rose tall and set the stage for the early skyscrapers.

A new School of Architecture

Practicality, the streamlined needs of businesses looking to get back on their feet, demanded a more simplified building style.  The First Chicago School of architecture was simple in form and innovative in material, using steel framed buildings and increasing natural light.  The Home Insurance Building was completed in 1884 and is widely recognized as the first skyscraper.  Other Chicago building types, the Greystone flat buildings and Courtyard Apartments were also products of the housing shortage and fire safety regulations Chicago set in motion after the fire.  Architects, Louis Sullivan and John Root, and planner Daniel Burnham cut their teeth on the re-building city and their legacy extends far beyond Chicago today.

And a Little Learning

Chicago also owes its Public Library to post-fire relief.  There had been private circulating libraries before the conflagration but none free and open to all.  Not realizing this, several prominent Englishmen took up a collection to replace the public library and sent 8000 books.  The city then formed a Public Library housed the collection in an abandoned water tower that had survived the fire.

And don’t miss Curiocity’s great exploration of what Chicago Would Have Been Without The Fire.

Note: image included in header sketch from wikimedia commons.