Myths Debunked, History Examined, and Lessons Learned from the 150th Anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire – CBS Chicago

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CHICAGO (CBS) – This week marks the 150th anniversary of the city’s iconic disaster.

The Great Chicago Fire began on Sunday October 8, 1871 on what we would now call the city’s Near West Side. In two days, he jumped the South Arm of the Chicago River, destroyed downtown, and skipped the main Chicago River – without stopping until he reached Fullerton Avenue.

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On Monday, CBS 2’s Jim Williams looked at the lessons we could learn as he tries to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

First, as we look at the devastation left by the Great Chicago Fire, we need to address the issue of Ms. O’Leary’s cow.

Mrs. O’Leary’s cow knocks down the apocryphal lantern. From a painting by LVH Crosby. (Photo by Chicago History Museum / Getty Images)

If you grew up in Chicago, you might have learned in school that a cow knocked over a lantern in the O’Leary family barn on DeKoven Street. Historians today say that this is all a myth.

But what historians say is indisputable, these are the conditions this Sunday night.

“Chicago is the fastest growing city in the world, and because of that it’s being hastily built out of wood,” said Julius L. Jones, deputy curator of the Chicago History Museum, “Therefore wood is everywhere”.

“That long, dry summer, a strong southwest wind, a major fire the night before that weakened the already undersized and under-equipped fire department,” added Carl Smith of Northwestern University.

Thirty consecutive hours of flames eventually destroyed what was then a third of the city. The fire left around 300 people dead and 100,000 homeless.

Randolph Street Bridge during the Great Chicago Fire

View of the Randolph Street Bridge during the Great Chicago Fire, United States of America, engraving from the Illustrated London News, No. 1678, November 11, 1871.

The map below shows the scale of the devastation. North is on the right on the map, while west is at the top.

Chicago's

The map shows part of the city of Chicago, with the shaded area marking the more than 2,000 acres of land and real estate destroyed in the Great Fire in Chicago, Ill., In late 1871. (Photo by Stock Montage / Getty Images)

Bessie Bradwell Helmer, who was president of Chicago Legal News at the turn of the 20th century, described the fire as “like a snowstorm, only the flakes were red instead of white.”

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“As thousands fled to the North Division, the fire pursued them. At 3:30 a.m., the roof of the Chicago Avenue pumping station collapsed, rendering any firefighting effort hopeless. By noon on Monday, the North Division fires had reached North Avenue and then continued for nearly a mile to Fullerton Avenue, ”Palmer wrote. “Back in the South Division, the luxurious new Palmer House has given way, along with the offices of the Chicago Tribune, whose editors had urged the Common Council to increase the level of fire protection or deal with the disaster. On Tuesday morning, it started to rain and the flames finally died down, leaving Chicago in a smoldering, smoldering ruin. “

LaSalle Street Station after the Great Chicago Fire

The ruins of LaSalle Street station after the great Chicago fire, United States of America, engraving from the Illustrated London News, No. 1679, November 18, 1871.

In Bradwell’s account, which was posted on the story website “The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory”, the north division is what we would now call the near north side, while the south division would include the current loop.

Immediately after the fire there was a worldwide wave of support to rebuild the city. Was it sympathy? In part, yes. But there was also a recognition that Chicago, even in the 1870s, was important to the world economy.

Ruins of the courthouse after the great Chicago fire

The ruins of the courthouse after the great Chicago fire, United States of America, engraving from the Illustrated London News, No. 1679, November 18, 1871.

Professor Smith describes this importance in his book “The Great Chicago Fire, the destruction and resurrection of an iconic American city.”

“Chicago supplies wheat to Europe, and this place is needed – and it’s also a place to exchange money. It’s important to the rest of the world, ”Smith said. “Chicago remains in 1871, burnt down as it was, a superb investment.”

Ruins of Tremont House after the Great Chicago Fire

The ruins of the Tremont House after the Great Chicago Fire, United States of America, engraving from the Illustrated London News, No. 1679, November 18, 1871.

Paul Durica from the Newberry Library notes that the reconstruction was rapid.

“Within a few years, Chicago was largely recovered – and was certainly completely rebuilt, by the time of the 1893 World’s Fair.”

At the Chicago History Museum, a special exhibit on the fire opens this week. Deputy Conservative Jones tells us that the reconstruction has largely favored the rich over those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

It’s a lesson for the city as it recovers from the pandemic, he says.

“I think in our contemporary times, as we come out of the pandemic, we should commit to building a more inclusive and equitable city,” Jones said.

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The Chicago History Museum exhibit on The Great Chicago Fire opens this Friday, October 8. And at 6.30 p.m. that evening, the Newberry Library has an event tell the story of how the fire connects to the story of the library.


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