Burned but not broken: Chicago rebuilds after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871

Burned but not broken: Chicago rebuilds after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871

It is November 18, 1871, and Chicago and its population are in still in shock.

Their city is gone.

Rebuilding and aid have been on the way to Chicago’s distressed citizens, both from homegrown efforts, lead by the Chicago Relief and Aid Society and from generous donations from other US cities and even from overseas.

Two-thirds of the city of Chicago was burned to ashes from October 08 – 10, a swath of about four miles by one, south of the Chicago River and north of it.  Chicago was an inferno,  driven by a southwesterly wind and fueled by a city of wood made even more vulnerable by a drought. Over one hundred deaths were blamed on the fire, but the real tally is believed to be at least three hundred.  Nobody knows to this day, given that entire families were incinerated as they slept, never knowing what hit them, and some who escaped the horror left the city never to come back.

No sooner had the fire been extinguished by rain and lack of fuel and Chicago began its fight to come back.  Just days prior, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world, with a bright future as a center of commerce and transportation.  The city leaders vowed that it would return to its glory, despite its banks being destroyed, its city center with hotels and shops gone, and about 100,000 people now homeless, out of a population of 300,000.


The flames were still evident when Chicago Mayor Roswell B. Mason met with a group of civic leaders at the  First Congregational Church, on West Divison Street and gave orders of Martial Law and to consolidate the aid to the city under one organization.  The following is from an excellent website, called The Great Chicago Fire & the Web of Memory:

 On October 11 he officially entrusted the “preservation of the good order and peace of the city” to Lieutenant-General Philip Sheridan, the Civil War hero and Indian fighter who now lived in Chicago, from which he commanded the United States Army’s Division of the Missouri. Two days later Mason turned over the administration of the relief to the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, which had appealed to him to take this step. On the Society’s board sat some of the Old Settlers who had established the organization two decades earlier, but its driving spirit was a younger group of businessmen and professionals that included merchant Marshall Field, sleeping car manufacturer George Pullman, and attorney Wirt Dexter.

The Chicago Relief and Aid Society, a private group, was not without criticism of its handling of relief efforts, with the well-to-do north siders, some very rich, having their aid brought to them, while those in the central business district and on the poorer south-side had to wait long hours for food and for water and staples.  However, the Society finished its relief effort with over $600,000 in funds, which were saved for construction of a headquarters and for on-going “worthy” charitable endeavors.

Eventually, the Chicago Relief and Aid Society was folded into the United Charities of Chicago, in 1909.

Chicago’s story is a true one of a Pheonix rising out of the ashes to a better and stronger future. On this day, November 18, 1871, a few people doubted that Chicago would return to its glory, but more bet that it would and could.



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