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This week in history: City commemorates 25 years since Great Chicago Fire

As the city approaches the 150th anniversary of the 1871 fire, here’s a look back at how Chicagoans celebrated the 25th anniversary.

The Water Tower was among the few structures to survive the Great Chicago Fire.
The Water Tower was among the few structures to survive the Great Chicago Fire.
J. Paul Getty Museum

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

In 1896, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 would have been a still-fresh memory for many residents in the same way the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks still felt raw for many on the 20th anniversary last month.

But on the 25th anniversary of the fire that year, the city decided to go all out to celebrate its comeback and “unparalleled triumph,” according to the Oct. 9 edition of the Chicago Daily News, with a parade of over 100,000 marchers led by Gen. Joseph Stockton.

Chicago’s rise from the ashes of the destructive fire, which began on Oct. 8, 1871 and burned until Oct. 10, astounded many. Over 300 people died in the fire, and another 100,000 were left homeless. The fire destroyed more than 17,000 buildings and 1.5 million acres of the city. Recovery, however, moved swiftly despite other setbacks (including more city fires), and by 1896, residents felt ready to celebrate.

“When the parade commenced to move from the lakefront at 10:12 o'clock this morning, the downtown portion of the city was crowded with struggling but good-natured humanity,” a Daily News reporter observed. “Business had been for the greater part suspended in order to bring into line the army of employees and employers of downtown business houses. Everyone who could get away had hastened to the central thoroughfares to watch the progress of this procession that was to be 13 miles long.”

The parade started at the Art Institute on Michigan Avenue, the paper reported. People watched from the balconies of the hotels along the avenue, the report said, as the procession turned onto Van Buren Street and passed the unfinished L tracks, on which “such a mass of people that a spectator could not have told whether their perch was an L road or a reviewing stand.” From there, the parade wound its way around downtown.

Unlike other parades, this one had no military members marching or “flash of steel to dazzle the eyes of onlookers.” Instead, marshals on horseback dressed in civilian attire, the reporter noted, as a sign of solidarity with all citizens. Members of nearly every trade in the city also walked in the procession. One trade had over 10,000 members in attendance.

Business owners marched alongside their employees. “Rank on rank, these men, who never marched before,” the reporter said, “pressed on behind a score of bands, all playing different tunes. ... These businessmen wore their everyday clothes, covered with badges and decorations.”

“These men who rode side by side or marched shoulder to shoulder were celebrating the victory of peace, the growth of a mighty fortress of commerce, and they were for the most part the habiliments of everyday life in which the grandest civic triumph of the century had been accomplished,” the reporter said.

While the colors red, white and blue could be seen all over the parade, yellow — the color of gold — could be seen just as prominently. At the time, the national monetary standard debate between gold versus bimetallism (which would make both gold and silver standards legal) was the most important issue of the upcoming U.S. presidential election between William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan. In Chicago, parade marchers supported the gold standard and wore yellow ribbons to make their enthusiasm clear.

Almost all the people in the parade marched, “otherwise the line of march would have been so long that it would have been impossible to handle it,” the reporter said. The one exception? Civil War veterans. As they road along, men inside the carriages would send up “a feeble cheer, which was no sooner heard than it was taken up and swelled to a mighty roar of tribute to the grizzled defenders of the nation.”