Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Great Fire

Back in the days before stringent fire codes and modern fire fighting technology, catastrophic urban fires were not uncommon. That's perhaps how Mark Twain in his 1883 memoir, Life on the Mississippi, could get away with this flip remark, commenting on the quality of the architecture of New Orleans:

New Orleans, I believe, has had the good luck--and in a sense the bad luck-- to have had no great fire in late years. It must be so. If the opposite had been the case, I think one would be able to tell the 'burnt district' by the radical improvement in its architecture over the old forms. One can do this in Boston and Chicago.

I've been doing some research at work on a multiple frame photographic panorama (not pictured here) made shortly after the Great Chicago Fire, perhaps made by one of the most important nineteenth century American photographers, George Barnard. It's difficult to find any "good luck" in the devastation pictured in any image made shortly after the fire. The hard facts are these: 300 people died in the Great Fire that began on the evening of October 8, 1871, 100,000 were left homeless, and roughly four square miles, including the entire central business district were leveled in the conflagration.

General view of the ruins from Tribune Building, Booksellers Row in the centre, by Lovejoy & Foster

Chicago had been a city for 34 years at the time of the fire. In that time, it had grown from a settlement of 4,000 mostly rough hewn scraggly settlers, to a metropolis of 300,000, the most important city in the Midwest. The canal that joined the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River System at the Chicago River, and the railways that connected the city first with the East Coast, then the West Coast, meant that all roads led to, and through Chicago. Industries followed, along with the people to work in them. It was a boomtown the likes of which had never been seen before, or possibly since.

Out of necessity, Chicago was constructed hastily. The balloon frame was invented here, a method of framing a house using readily available wood for the beams and joists that would form the structure. Then more wood was slapped on top of the frame to form the skin. It was quick and cheap, you could build a house in a few days, entire neighborhoods sprung up in weeks providing much needed shelter for the new arrivals who flooded into the city.

Even the more substantial "fireproof" buildings downtown, the ones with the magnificent stone facades, still had plenty of wood in them. The industries that provided the inflammable materials that went into those buildings, lumber mills, paint factories, turpentine factories, lined the river. Add to that all the other industries that used wood and other inflammable materials to manufacture their products, as well as one of their chief by-products, sawdust.

Back then heating fuel, wood again, was stored in the home. Many folks kept livestock in barns behind their homes to supplement their incomes, the most famous of which of course would be the one belonging to the O'Leary family of DeKoven Street. Those of greater means had horses at their disposal. All those animals required feed and bedding stored in the barns and stables which were themselves made of wood and highly inflammable.

Oh did I mention that Chicago's sidewalks, and the streets that were actually paved at the time, were also made of wood?

Topping it all off was a summer of record drought. Barely one inch of rain fell between July and October. In early October, the western half of the United States was in the midst of an enormous cyclonic storm capable of producing winds of up to 80mph.

Chicago the great tinderbox, and the rest of the Midwest in the fall of 1871, was a disaster waiting to happen.

On Saturday October 7th, a massive fire broke out on the city's West Side. It would be the worst fire in the city's history, a distinction that would last exactly one day. The city's over-worked, under-manned fire department was able to bring that fire under control, but not before it consumed four square blocks, and left the firefighters exhausted.

The evening of following day, the fire that was to claim more lives than any other in United States history took place.

It happened in a town and the surrounding forests in northeast Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The Peshtigo Fire claimed between 1,500 and 2,500 lives. It consumed an area roughly the size of Rhode Island. That same day, Holland, Manistee, and Port Huron, all sizable Michigan towns, also burned.

And of course, so did Chicago.

In all the details about Chicago Fire, certainly the least significant was how it started. Given the circumstances, a great fire was practically inevitable. Yet at the time, the media was obsessed with finding a scapegoat, or in this case a scapecow. That the fire started in or very near the barn behind Patrick and Catherine O'Leary's home in the near west side is indisputable. The story of the cow kicking over a kerosene lantern carelessly placed in the way by its owner, the lady of the house, unlikely as it turned out to be, became a legend, fueled largely by the anti-Irish sentiments of the time. Mrs. O'Leary would unfortunately become the symbol of the lazy, drunken, good-for-nothing immigrant portrayed by the media and the native born public. She would not live it down for the rest of her life.

However it started, the fire spread quickly, feeding on all that dried out wood, straw and sawdust of the barns, shanties and businesses of the west side. A series of tragic mishaps involving mis-communication, led to wrong directions being sent to the first responding firemen, wasting critical moments early in the blaze. Soon the fire easily leaped over the river which itself burned due to all the grease and garbage in it. The gale force winds, greatly exacerbated by terrific winds produced by the firestorm, blew toward the northeast, sending burning embers in that direction high into the night time sky, depositing them on the wooden roofs of the fancy downtown buildings, marking their doom.

One of the most enduring images of the fire is that of the great bell atop of the courthouse. It rang continuously warning Chicago of the fire, until the tower containing it succumbed to the flames, sending the bell crashing to the basement that only moments before, housed the city's prisoners.

That evil wind became even crueler as it fanned the blaze in a straight line right toward the Waterworks at Chicago Avenue and Pine Street (now Michigan Avenue). Like most of the buildings downtown, the pumping station, the walls of which still stand today, was attacked from above by flaming embers carried by the wind, landing on their wooden roofs. It was the first building in the area to go. With it, all hope of controlling the fire was lost as it was the only pumping station in town. When it went, the fate of the entire north section of the city, as well as downtown was sealed.

Given free reign, the fire would indiscriminately take the homes of the rich and poor alike, turning working stiffs as well industrial titans like Cyrus McCormick into refugees. The fire did not destroy all of downtown at once. Employees at the Tribune on Madison and Dearborn worked feverishly to get out an edition of the paper, in the end unsuccessfully, while the flames were consuming buildings only a block away.

Palmer House, by Lovejoy & Foster 4

Guests at the Palmer House on State Street breakfasted at the luxury hotel on Monday morning before being forced to evacuate shortly thereafter. Hours later, all that was left of downtown were a scant few surviving buildings, and some very impressive ruins. By Tuesday there was little left to burn and a welcome rain finally put an end to what was left of the fire.

But the rumors of Chicago's demise, this time to paraphrase Samuel Clemmons, were greatly exaggerated. The fire it turned out, was merely a temporary setback. Resolve and energy soon replaced grief and despair. Before the dying embers cooled down, plans for the "second city" (the origin of Chicago's famous moniker) began. The panorama photograph I've been studying was made perhaps one month after the fire. In it you can see that makeshift businesses and shelters have already appeared along with telegraph poles and streetcar tracks. Perhaps most indicative of the life goes on spirit, a beer hall is seen in the foreground of the picture.

Within three years, the city was virtually rebuilt. That's not to say all was right. The temporary equanimity that came out of the common plight of the homeless quickly eroded. The haves, with their wealth of resources, recovered quickly while those of lesser means struggled for years, if ever, to return to normal. Fearing that chaos among the have-nots would break out after the fire, Mayor Roswell Mason with the support of the leaders of the business community, called for marshal law in the streets. General Phillip Sheridan was happy to oblige. Those measures were strongly opposed by Illinois Governor John M. Palmer who saw the act as a blatant violation of the U.S. Constitution. The governor's protests turned prophetic when a volunteer sentry in Sheridan's militia ironically shot a member of the establishment, one Colonel Grosvenor, the public prosecutor. He was questioned by the sentry who tried to stop him late one night as he was walking home from a party. Having had possibly one too many, the prosecutor gave the sentry some lip and kept walking. For that brief indiscretion, Grosvenor paid with his life. In the end it turned out that most of the mayhem that occurred in the city according to an official report, was "committed by soldiers of General Sheridan's command."

The class struggle that inspired martial law and the vitriol leveled against foreign born Chicagoans escalated after the Fire and would have world wide consequences in the subsequent decade. The right for workers to organize that we take for granted today was born during those heady days at the plants of McCormick, and George Pullman, in Haymarket Square and on the gallows of the basement of the new courthouse built on the north side of the river.

Through the struggle, Chicago continued to grow in prominence. With its selection to host the World's Fair of 1892 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America, (later pushed back to 1893), Chicago announced to the world that it had finally arrived. The sky was the limit, between the Fire and the end of the nineteenth century, its population would increase tenfold. Only New York City stood in the way of Chicago's claiming the title of pre-eminent city of the United States.

It's difficult to say what would be different had there been no fire. Despite a depression starting in 1873, the boom that occurred after the fire equaled or eclipsed the original boom. Certainly the opportunities to rebuild Chicago attracted even more people to the city, including the architect Louis Sullivan. But it would be a mistake to assume that the great architecture that this city is known for would not have been possible were it not for the fire. With the exception of Sullivan, most of the architects who would create the movement known as the "Chicago School" were already in town at the time of the fire. Besides, the city was pretty much rebuilt in the old style by 1874, several years before Burnham and Root built the Montauk Block, considered the first Chicago School building.

One significant change in the landscape was the new zoning law that prevented frame construction in the commercial district. Gone would be the homes and churches that once were sprinkled through that part of town. Downtown Chicago would remain exclusively commercial until very recently when commercial buildings were converted to residential use.

While the Chicago Fire ranks as the fifth worst disaster (in terms of loss of life) in Chicago, it is the defining moment in this city's history. Our Great Fire wasn't even the worst tragedy on the day it occurred. The Peshtigo Fire claimed at the very least five times the number of people. Yet the Peshitgo Fire and the other Chicago disasters are merely footnotes in history while volumes continue to be written on Great Chicago Fire. It can't simply be the tragedy that captures our imagination.

No, it was the total devastation of a great city, then the recovery and rebuilding, the phoenix rising from the ashes, that symbol of indefatigable human spirit that turns destruction and misery into hope, opportunity, and progress that so indelibly attracts us to the story. After some tragedies, we pick up the pieces, mourn our dead, then move on. Other tragedies are transcendent.

Fire survivor and real-estate man William Kerfoot put it all into perspective better than most. Shortly after the fire he put up a temporary office in the midst of the rubble of the South Side. A sign in front of his new place of business simply read:

All gone but wife, children and energy.

Inspiring words indeed that we should take to heart in our own troubling times.

Post script:

Here is a list of some of the sources for this post.

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