From its humble beginnings as a settlement founded by the Haitian Afro-Frenchman Jean Baptiste Point du Sable in the late 18th century, Chicago experienced explosive growth in the 19th century to become a hub for American economic and industrial innovation and prosperity. When wars and forced evictions of the region’s indigenous people opened up land for settlement, Chicago experienced explosive population growth and emerged as a major trading post in the first half of the 19th century. During the Civil War, Chicago was a hotbed of pro-union sentiment and a major provider of equipment and personnel support for the war effort. After the war, people continued to flock to the city and sought opportunities in industries such as food processing and meat packaging, manufacturing and textiles. The city’s population more than doubled from approx. 112,000 people to nearly 300,000 in the decade before 1871. Immigrants from German, Irish, Scandinavian and British Isles made Chicago a city with a majority abroad. As one of the world’s commercial centers, Chicago was home to a major commodity exchange, the Chicago Board of Trade. Millions of dollars of value were transported daily in and out of the city due to Chicago’s centrality in the country’s railroad network, and the city’s massive working class population and diverse industrial profile made it a hub for organizing labor and activism.
On the evening of Sunday, October 8, 1871, a small fire broke out in the barn of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary, which lay behind their little cottage at De Koven and Jefferson Streets in the western division of the town. The relatively minor fire had possibly been extinguished fairly quickly, but the guards in the fire tower in the center triggered the false alarm, and misdirected the firefighters, who were already exhausted from fighting a major fire the previous night. This combined with the hot and dry conditions that had plagued the city since July caused the fire to grow rapidly. A strong southwest wind began to carry the burning embers from building to building. Soon, the fire had grown out of control and jumped across the Chicago River twice. In all, the fire would burn nearly three and a half square miles of the city, destroying approximately 18,000 buildings, leaving 100,000 people homeless and claiming 300 lives before finally burning out on October 10th.
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 shows us how, during and after a disaster, people make choices that transform societies and affect themselves and others in lasting ways. Due to decisions made by individuals and builders, in 1871 Chicago was a highly flammable wooden city where fire was a constant threat. Due to the decisions made in the fight against the fire, a combination of misfortune and human error caused it to spread out of control and take its own life. Due to the decisions made by those responsible for the city’s restoration, people were not treated equally in the face of a humanitarian crisis.
Chicago had grown so rapidly in the mid-1800s that fire safety had not kept pace with population growth. Homes to house the influx of newcomers were built entirely of wood and close to small lots with highly flammable materials used for roofing and insulation. The few paved streets and sidewalks that existed at the time were made almost entirely of wood covered with flammable coal tar. Many of the city’s most important public buildings were wooden frames that lacked fire blocking, a technique that prevented flames from running up the walls, with wood-carved ordination decorating their exteriors. Prominent voices, such as Chicago Tribune, sounded the alarm about the potential for a devastating fire. Still others thought Chicago was prepared. Although it was true that the city had made progress in fire preparedness, these advances proved insufficient during the three days of October 1871.
The answer to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 revealed and reinforced social differences and inequalities. The large influx of immigrants to Chicago prior to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was a continuing source of social tension and resentment. The anti-migrant mood was fierce and the city was separated along ethnic and classical lines. Like many Chicagoans, O’Leary’s were working people who survived very little; Patrick was a day laborer, and Catherine sold the milk from her cows. O’Learys was also an immigrant born outside the United States. They and other non-white, non-Protestant and non-Anglo-Saxon residents were already marginalized prior to the fire. The same classicist and nativist sentiments that divided Chicago before the fire enabled Mrs. O’Leary and her cow to make scapegoats, and even easily, afterwards.
Instead of using the recovery from the fire to create a more just society, those who are empowered to lead the efforts have made decisions that increase inequality. While the fire was still burning, on October 9, Mayor Roswell Mason set up the General Relief Committee, made up of officials, councilors and some private citizens. Two days later, however, Mason handed over the city’s relief effort to the Chicago Relief and Aid Society (CRAS), a private organization led by the city’s business leaders. The management of CRAS successfully leveraged their business associates to help with the recovery, but there were also drawbacks. CRAS took over the distribution of assistance and treated working people with suspicion, while going out of their way to help more “refined” people. As a result of this approach, the inequalities that defined Chicago before the fire would not increase. CRAS used its criteria of helping only the “diligent and deserving poor,” rejecting 40 percent of applications for capital assistance and making work demands for relief. The organization also purchased one-way tickets for nearly 40,000 families (approximately 157,000 people) to leave Chicago.
By giving our visitors the opportunity to examine what decisions were made during Chicago’s recovery from the fire that yielded unequal results, we at the Chicago History Museum will communicate how decisions made in response to future crises can either support and improve life for all equally or create and reinforce differences between people and communities.
How do you recover when you lose your home and all your belongings? What was it like for Chicagoans to experience a catastrophe of such terror and scale? How does a society rebuild after being destroyed? Tragically, these were the questions that the survivors faced in the immediate aftermath of the fire, and these are the questions that people encounter from time to time in their own lives. The exhibition “City on Fire” will feature the personal stories of fire survivors such as Julia Lemos, a widow who lived near the streets of Menomonee and Wells in the northern division of the city with her parents and five children. She processed her experience by writing her story and by creating Reminiscent of the Chicago Fire painting, both of which are part of our collection. Learn the story of a young boy named Justin, whose family and goat survived the fire, an experience he documented in a letter and an accompanying photo he sent to a friend who is also part of our collection. By exploring how fire survivors deployed endurance to respond to the challenges they faced, the exhibition will inspire visitors with a great historical example of resilience.
Disaster preparedness is an iterative process that needs to be done consistently to incorporate the latest advances in security technology. This is how Chicago and the United States responded to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and other fires that have occurred throughout history. The fire of 1871, another major fire that occurred in 1874, the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903, St. Anthony’s Hospital Fire in 1949, Our Lady of the Angels School Fire in 1958 and McCormick Place Fire in 1967 each led to reforms in fire safety and prevention, albeit slowly and unevenly. Eventually, Chicago has been extensively shaped by these fires, and experience from each of them has shaped fire safety standards throughout the United States.
Responding to a disaster is also a joint effort in which the community in question creates a collective historical significance for the event. This common meaning then informs the collective reaction. In the end, Chicago responded by reconceptualizing its experience of the fire into a positive mythology about itself as a Phoenix city that rose from the ashes and celebrated its performance at the world Columbian Exposition in 1893 on “Chicago Day” and later. These two events, the Fire and the World’s Fair, became so central to Chicago’s self-myth that they were the first events to commemorate the city’s new flag when it was adopted in 1917. In addition, our extensive collection of fire relics, found and made souvenirs, books, poems, songs and artistic representations will demonstrate to visitors how the fire lives on the city’s collective imagination. The Chicago History Museum exhibit concludes by asking visitors to think critically about what today’s challenges and problems are to be met with the resilience and perseverance of each of us as individuals and together as a collective.