Bonfires of the Vanities
Folly feeds the flames in Chicago’s past
See Illinois (unpublished)
Disease and flood were hardly the only ways that nature chastised Chicago for the haste and carelessness with which it built itself. Fires were a regular occurrence in old Chicago, as they were in every American city. But while every city had fires, only Chicago had the Great Fire of 1871, the event by which Chicago is known to millions. The event has inspired popular movies and books from the sensational to the scholarly. If it proved not quite the decisive event in the city’s history that it seemed at the time, “pre-Fire” and “post-Fire” have proved handy ways to mark history in Chicago ever since.
This is another excerpt from my never-published guide to the history and culture of Illinois. See also my History Lessons: The Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903.
Chicago in the fall of 1871 was ready to burn. The weather had been hot and dry, and the city, much of whose poorer districts had been thrown up like a camp, was mostly wood; indeed, even the streets and sidewalks were mostly "paved" with wood. When a fire broke out in October 8, 1871, it raged for two days. The central city engulfed in a fire storm as winds generated by the fire itself spurred more burning; witnesses said it didn’t spread, it raced even jumped from building to building. It wiped out the downtown area and most North Side homes. It killed at least 300 people and left 90,000 homeless. Traumatic as it was, the fire did not shock Chicagoans out of their accustomed boastfulness; they were delighted to repeat to visitors that the property loss in dollars was the largest ever sustained by any city anywhere, ever.
The Great Fire put Chicago on the map by nearly taking most of the city off it. While the scale of the destruction would be exaggerated by some, no one could overstate its ferocity. Photos of the aftermath reveal scenes that would not be seen again until the conflagrations that consumed cities such a Dresden and Hiroshima in World War II.
The fire made history, but at the cost of much history too. Early records of the city were lost. The Chicago Historical Society had begun collecting Lincoln material while he was still alive; the original draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of Lincoln's walking sticks, and Leonard Volk's marble bust of Lincoln were among the relics on display in the Society's building at Dearborn and Ontario streets when it burned.
The city’s ability to survive and recuperate of course became part of its lore, and inevitably in America, tragedy was re-imagined and rendered harmless as entertainment. The World Columbian Exposition in 1893 offered the Fighting the Flames outdoor fire show in which several fire-fighting wagons, fourteen horses, and 250 actors enacted the burning down of a hotel. Visitors who were still in town in the autumn of that year were able to see the real thing, when many buildings of the closed fair burned to the ground.
The most pious of its citizens saw the fire as a great cleansing, just retribution for the city’s wicked ways. Retribution it was, not for sins against god, but against prudence. Fires break out in cities all the time; this one nearly leveled Chicago not because of nature’s power but because of people’s stupidity. The press, among others, had been warning for years about the dangerous state of the city in which even the sidewalks had been built of wood. Wood was cheap and easy to build with. But it was hardly a wise choice in an era in which every building (in some seasons nearly every room) hosted an open fire in the form of coal stoves, fireplaces, and gas lamps.
The fire, or rather Chicago’s near-miraculous recovery from it, occasioned much hoohah about the “spirit of Chicago” manifested after the fire, when people of all classes pulled together to rebuild. In fact the city’s social fabric was left nearly as tattered as its infrastructure. The fire’s immediate aftermath saw so much looting that federal troops had to be sent into the city to keep order; the business class went on looting sprees too, in the form of much profiteering. Tension between social classes and ethnic groups over the dispensing of relief and reconstruction monies poisoned politics for years.
The moral and social renewal promised by the city’s resurrection never happened, but the city at least was reformed as far as building practices were concerned. The Fire shaped the physical city almost as much after it was put out as it did during the event. Fire-proof materials were among the measures demanded after the fire, at least in commercial structures; the priority was the protection of commercial property, as was probably inevitable in a city council still dominated by the business class. The city council hurried to slam shut the barn door, banning balloon frame structures within “fire zones” in the central city. The new fire-proofing rules forced architects to find new ways of building, using new materials; the result was engineering innovations such as iron girders within a hollow tile fireproofing envelope.
Because the new-house market would have collapsed under the cost of fireproof structures, most new post-fire working- and middle-class houses were built outside these fire zones. The fire thus proved to be a powerful force for dispersal, exciting the first of the many exoduses from the city center toward an ever-receding urban periphery. Much of what is now the Northwest Side lay beyond the city limits, and after 1871 it boomed with the construction of cheap wood cottages of the sort that had been ubiquitous in the pre-Fire city. Samuel E. Gross, house developer extraordinaire—he was to Chicago’s residential neighborhoods of the age what Daniel Burnham would be to its lakefront—built most of his thousands of houses outside the “fire limits.” Because Lincoln Park was excluded from the strict new Fire Ordinance of 1872 that laid out these limits, for example, many working men built frame houses between Fullerton and North Avenues, west of Lincoln Avenue. "Chicago cottages" soon covered the western half of Lincoln Park.
There is a natural tendency of boosters to exaggerate the damage wreaked by the Great Fire, because that makes the city’s recovery seem all the more miraculous. In fact the city was not destroyed; less than a quarter of the built-up area was leveled, although, to be fair, that included most of its important parts, including great swaths of the central business district, its government buildings, and its docks and bridges. The loss of life was surprisingly modest; epidemics routinely killed many more people. Nor was it much of a miracle that the city was rebuilt so quickly; the commercial advantages the city offered to men of capital were in no way reduced by the fire.
In fact, one can argue that the fire was a good thing for Chicago. It cleared the city of sheds and shacks that a more responsible municipality would have burned long before; like burning off the underbrush in a forest, it made the next fire less explosive. It usually takes a disaster to reform anything about Chicago government, and the Great Fire inspired the aforementioned improvements in the city’s building codes. Mainly, the rebuilding was priceless publicity for a young city trying to impress the world, and Chicago went about impressing the world with something like bravado.
Were an arsonist to touch off the piles of books and reports on the Great Fire and its aftermath it would make a grand bonfire, and they are still being written. The city historic event, so it is sobering realize that how comprehensively, and how quickly history was distorted. The story of Mrs. O’Leary cow was blamed for starting it by kicking over a lantern. Historians have long since debunked that urban fable; her Irishness, in a city that was just beginning to feel unease at the political and social threat from its foreigners, made her a convenient target. When the Chicago Fire Academy, the training facility of the city’s fire Department, was built in 1960, officials abetted a calumny by placing it at 558 West De Koven Street, the site of the O’Leary house. (As if to exorcise a demon, the architects Loebl, Schlossman and Bennett sheathed the building in bright red glazed brick and decorated the site with a flame-shaped sculpture.) Thus to the unlettered public that canard remains a fact; Mrs. O’Leary’s cow is perhaps the best known bovine the U.S. apart from Elsie, the trademark of the Borden dairy company.
Of course, fires are always a risk in crowded cities, and Chicago has had many. There was a bad one downtown in 1839 for example, and a fire leveled several blocks of the then-South Side in 1874. A fire in 1934 raged through the Stockyards, leveling an exhibition hall, wrecking many acres of fences and freight cars, and killing hundreds of head of cattle; as noted, the buildings of the World Columbian Exposition (meant to be temporary) went up in flames shortly after the fair closed. Some fires did indeed seem providential, if one assumes God is a fan of good architecture. In January of 1967 a fire destroyed the original McCormick Place, a convention hall that was universally despised save for convention planners; the reconstructed version was a very much better building.
The Great Fire of 1871 was only the biggest to strike Chicago in terms of property damage and the acreage affected, but it was far from the deadliest. During a matinee on December 30, 1903, a fire broke out in the nearly new Iroquois Theater at 24–28 W. Randolph. Some 1,900 people were in the room, most of them women and children who’d gone to see a popular musical of the day; at least 600 of them were burned, suffocated, or crushed to death.
It is hard to read of the Iroquois fire without outrage even today. The Iroquois was touted as fireproof by its builders but that turned out to only one of the lies told about the building. Its construction has been hurried to open it in for the rich holiday season. Investigation revealed that the building had no exit signs or exterior fire escapes and its exit doors opened in rather than out. Indeed, neither its firefighting equipment, sprinkler system, or fire alarm worked. City building inspectors responsible for certifying the building’s safety proved corrupt—they had been paid off in free tickets—and fire department officials proved negligent.
The lessons of the Iroquois fire were slow to be learned. On December 1, 1958, Our Lady of the Angels School at 909 N. Avers caught fire. More than 90 people died, most of them students between the ages of nine and 12. The building, it was later learned, was a disaster waiting to happen; built in 1910, it had been exempted from a tough fore safety code adopted in 1949, and the building, as so many parochial schools were in that era, was very dangerously overcrowded. The disaster was especially cruel, in that many died who did not need to; the fire was not reported for fully 40 minutes, the first fire engine on the scene went to the wrong address, and misguided nuns instructed pupils to pray rather than try to escape.
It was not only civilians who died. In 1910, 21 members of the Chicago Fire Department were killed when a burning warehouse collapsed in the stockyards district—the single greatest loss of firefighters in U.S. history until Sept. 11, 2001. In 2004 a memorial sculpture recalling them and the rest of the 530 Chicago firefighters who have died in the line of duty was dedicated at Exchange Avenue and Peoria Street near the preserved Union Stockyards gate.
Happily, Chicago’s contributions to the history of urban fire-fighting consists of more than corpses. The fire pole was invented or rather discovered in 1878 by men of Engine Company 21, who found they could get to their trucks from the station’s third-floor hayloft by sliding down a hay-binding pole; the innovation was ordered installed at all city firehouses. Many of the accouterments that subsequent generations of moviegoers have come to take for granted, such as lighted “exit” signs and panic bars on out-swinging exit doors, owed their adoption to the Iroquois fire. The fire at Our Lady prompted safety improvements in thousands of school buildings around the country. Most its catastrophic fires were caused by failures of fire prevention—lax safety and building code standards and enforcement—rather than fire-fighting. In the latter area Chicago stands rather tall. The system is use across the country to classify extra-alarm fires was invented in Chicago, for example, as was the hydraulic snorkel used to lift firefighters to a fire.
While Aurora and Elgin have fire museums, Chicago did not. Since 1997, local buffs started collecting memorabilia and soliciting financial backing for a museum to honor the city's fire history and its firefighters. It finally got one, in what used to be Engine 123’s 1916 quarters on South Western Ave. in the Gage Park neighborhood; on display are leather water buckets, a hand-drawn horse cart, and restored fire trucks. Such a rich history would seem to deserve formal and permanent commemoration. ●