The anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire is tomorrow. On October 8, 1871, Chicago just about burned to the ground during a two day conflagration.
The fire spread fast due to high and shifting winds. The Great Chicago Fire was a tragedy and blessing for the city.
1.) The fire started in the barn of the O'Leary family. The family cow did not kick over a lantern, as legend has it. The cause of the fire was never determined. The Chicago Fire Academy sits on the site of the O'Leary farm.
2.) Due to a poor fire watch system, firefighters were sent to the wrong address first. Worse, they were worn out from fighting an earlier fire in another part of the city.
3.) Over 300 known people died. Those were only the bodies recovered. The true death toll was much higher. Many bodies were never found, including those who went into the lake and river for protection who drowned. Many people later died due to epidemics like cholera. Over 100,000 people from all walks of life were left homeless. The fire was an equal opportunity destroyer.
4.) The commercial interests and local officials swore to rebuild the city. Within days the city was rebuilding. There were advantages. Chicago was the lumber capital of the nation. Many of the lumber yards were spared. They were located on the river, in many cases below the fire. The fire swept over them and left many unscathed. Being a transportation hub, Chicago could get raw materials fast. Within three years Chicago was on its way to be coming a world class city. The city historians would call the most American of American cities.
5.) Donations of various goods poured in from all over the world. Schlitz brewery, in Milwaukee, shipped barrels of fresh water to the city. Legend has it that this act made Schlitz "The beer that made Milwaukee Famous".
6.) The aftermath of the fire sparked an architectural boom in Chicago. Chicago and the Chicago School of Architecture created innovations that had national significance. The Chicago fire, in hindsight, was considered the best thing to happen to Chicago. Had it not been for the fire and the clean slate it produced, Chicago would never have grown exponentially.
7.) Several small homes were built from a kind of prefab plan to temporarily house people. Some of these small homes are still standing, most in the Old Town Neighborhood.
8.) Chicago was rebuilt due to the partnership between the commercial interests and politicians. They developed a united will and can do spirit to rebuild and rebuild it better. Their will and spirit was contagious.
9.) Methods of fireproofing buildings were developed in Chicago. These innovations were employed nationally in various fire codes.
10.) Chicago's position as a commercial, transportation, and trade hub had more to due with geography and topography than anything else. Chicago was able to capitalize on its unique geographic location. Chicago had to be rebuilt. There was too much to lose nationwide if the city was not up and running again.
Chicago grew faster in the twenty years after the fire than the thirty years preceding it. Chicago's phenomenal growth was renowned internationally.
One of the reasons Chicago was chosen for the 1893 Columbian Exposition was its rapid rebuilding, growth, and the knowledge and confidence the city could build a world class fair.
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