Chicago’s Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City
by Carl Smith
Atlantic Monthly Press
Devastation is devastation, whether brought about by fire or pandemic. The Great Chicago Fire occurred nearly a century and a half ago, but the experience of living through that cataclysm has many parallels with Chicago in the year of COVID-19.
It was probably late last year that Northwestern University historian Carl Smith and his publisher Atlantic Monthly Press decided to publish Chicago’s Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City in August. They had no way of knowing that the book would arrive in the midst of a deadly pandemic.
Yet, here we are, and Smith’s book resonates on unexpected levels for any Chicagoan—indeed, any human being—in this historical moment of worldwide disease.
First things first, though: Chicago’s Great Fire is an important book of Chicago history, highly readable, and deeply researched. Amazingly, it is also the first book since the 1871 conflagration to tell the story of the fire in a comprehensive way.
It opens with a stirring, moment-by-moment account of the city-leveling blaze that raged for some 30 hours from October 8 through October 10, destroying 2.64 square miles of the most built-up and densely populated part of the city, killing hundreds of people and leaving more than 90,000 people homeless.
In a 70-page account, Smith follows the mob of flames from their start in the barn of Catherine and Patrick O’Leary, and along their path of destruction. First, through the city’s West Division and then, after leaping the south branch of the Chicago River, through the South Division, before being driven by high winds, northward through downtown and—after vaulting the river’s main branch—across the width and length of the North Division. (These divisions are the equivalent of what modern-day Chicagoans call the West, South, and North sides of the city.)
Throughout this narrative, readers find themselves with eyewitnesses who stand in awe and dread as the wall of fire and a river of flames devoured building after building, block after block. Smith writes, for instance:
“The flames gorged themselves on the Bateham buildings and all the wood near them. The firemen were no longer battling a mere fire, but an inferno….
“The fire [said Fire Chief Robert A. Williams] ‘was coming down thicker than any snowstorm you ever saw, and the yard between the two mills was all filled with shavings, and chunks of fire came in all sizes, from the length of your arm to three inches.’”
Literal “chunks of fire”—tiny and large pieces of flaming wood—rained down on firefighters and Chicagoans fleeing to safety. And this storm of fiery airborne debris continued throughout the blaze.
It was so bad, the family living at the water intake crib two miles from shore were bombarded by “flaming boards” from the mainland fire. Smith reports that, at about 3:20am, “an enormous brand—by some descriptions twelve feet long—sailed by the Water Tower and lodged in the northwest corner of the Pumping Station’s roof.”
What Came After
Smith’s gripping account of the blaze itself, however, is only the beginning. More than 200 pages of Chicago’s Great Fire are devoted to what came after.
This includes the nitty-gritty of where and how the homeless lived, in addition to where and how the unemployed and penniless found food. It includes the ways the streets were policed, how rebuilding took place, and ways local businesses employed to keep operating.
During the century after the fire, histories of the blaze were essentially boosterish morality tales of a Chicago that, leveled by disaster, rose like a phoenix from the ashes, a better city than the one before.
Since the 1980s, however, scholars have looked behind that simple narrative to the more complex and messier realities of a city trying to regain its feet. Here are five important works, including an earlier one by Smith:
- 1986—The Limits of Power: Great Fires and the Process of City Growth, by Christine Meisner Rosen, 408 pages—Looking at the aftermath of destructive fires in Baltimore, Boston, and Chicago, this work tracks the inadequate responses of the cities to the need for improvements in a wide range of areas including water quality, housing, fire protection, and sanitation.
- 1990—American Apocalypse: The Great Fire and the Myth of Chicago, by Ross Miller, 287 pages—The aim of this book, later republished as The Great Chicago Fire, was to examine the myths surrounding the fire and how they reflect myth-making in America.
- 1995—Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871–1874, by Karen Sawislak, 396 pages—This book examines the social, political, and class disputes over how to rebuild Chicago after the fire.
- 1995—Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymarket Bomb, and the Model Town of Pullman, by Carl Smith, 395 pages—The focus here is on how the fire and two other violent events shaped the way Chicagoans thought of themselves and their disorderly city and how the rest of the world did.
- 2002—The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow, by Richard F. Bales, 338 pages—Despite the myth, generations of historians have exonerated Mrs. Catherine O’Leary and her cow from starting the fire. With its painstaking research and fresh examination of the evidence, this book could have been titled Case Closed.
In Chicago’s Great Fire, Smith builds on these earlier works and, for the first time, brings together their insights into a thoroughgoing look at the fire, its aftermath and its meaning.
Indeed, following up on his own earlier book and the one by Sawislak, Smith spends a great deal of his book examining the collision of classes that resulted as decisions were being made on the creation of the New Chicago. These decisions ranged from who received charity to whether bars could be open on Sundays, from whether the poor could use wood to construct their new homes to who should dole out the millions of dollars in contributions from around the world.
Mirror Images—1871 and 2020
For 2020 readers, such long-ago class issues mirror aspects of the present pandemic.
A poor person is much more likely to get COVID-19 and die from it than the rest of the population. The same is true for African Americans and Hispanics as compared with whites. This says much about access to healthcare before the pandemic and raises questions about how American society will respond once the crisis of the disease has passed.
In 1870s Chicago, the city’s native-born elites ran things. Those on the outs—the poor and immigrants—had to live with it or try to leverage change through strikes and protests.
In a mayoral election held a month after the fire, the city’s powers-that-be selected a slate of hand-picked candidates headed by Joseph Medill, the owner and former editor of the Chicago Tribune. The effort was a move to get the government out of the hands of the professional politicians who tended to listen to their poor and immigrant constituents.
The Tribune, in comments that would be echoed 15 decades later by President Donald Trump, told their Establishment readers to get out to vote, and, then, as Smith reports, advised them “to stick around the polling places to make sure the bummers did not pull any dirty tricks.”
Working at home—does that sound familiar? That’s what many people had to do after the great conflagration, and without the benefit of the Internet. As one reporter wrote:
“Many a man who has done a business of half a million a year has invaded his own front parlor on the Avenue, has whisked the piano, the gorgeous sofas, the medallion carpet and the clock of ormolu into the capacious upper stories, and has sent his family to keep them company; while show-cases have been arrayed through drawing and dining rooms, and clerks now serve customers with hats, furs, shoes, or jewelry, where they formerly spooned water ices at an evening party.”
Smith adds that one house might have several businesses—“a shoe store in the basement, a button factory upstairs, lawyers and doctors seeing clients and patients in the bedrooms.”
As in 2020, post-fire marriages were celebrated as signs of hope and resilience. As in 2020, there was a move by many affluent away from the center city to neighborhoods and suburbs.
And, as in 2020, Chicago’s downtown was quiet after the fire’s destruction. Of course, in 1871, unlike today, the central business district was in ruins. “Chicago’s downtown, normally one of the most hectic places on the planet, was more still and silent than it would ever be again,” Smith writes.
John Greenleaf Whittier, the major American poet, wrote verses that included the line, “The City of the West is dead.” Thirteen-year-old Bess Bradwell, searching for her parents and family, was crossing the State Street bridge when she heard a man crying, “This is the end of Chicago.” To that, she answered, “No, no, she will rise again.”
Chicago, of course, did rise again. It was certainly different in terms of the rebuilt Burnt Area. But, in many ways, it was very much as it was before—the elites still ran things, businesses still got preference over the rights and needs of individuals, streets remained laid out in a grid, and improvements to avoid another devastating fire took a very long time to be brought about.
There’s probably a lesson here about post-COVID Chicago and post-COVID America. We’ll see what happens.
As for the catastrophe 149 years ago, Carl Smith has written a crackerjack history that is rousing, thought-provoking and a necessary addition to the city’s historical bookshelf.
Chicago’s Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City is available at most bookstores and through the publisher’s website.