The incomplete story of the Great Chicago Fire

The story of the Great Fire of 1871, as popularly told, often loses its way when assigning credit and blame. This is no small matter for our own day.

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An artist’s conception of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.


The Great Fire of 1871 is Chicago’s creation myth, a heroic tale of the city’s rise from the ashes that civic boosters say best explains the past, present and — if we’ve still got the gumption, gosh darn it — future.

The story is largely true and remarkable, no mythologizing required.

One hundred and fifty years ago this weekend, on the night of Oct. 8, 1871, a fire in a barn on DeKoven Street really did swoop up in the wind and sweep across Chicago, leaping the river twice, for the next 36 hours. It really did gut the heart of our town, leveling some 18,000 buildings over 312 square miles. It really did bring death and sorrow, killing more than 300 people and leaving a third of the population homeless.

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And the fire really was followed — but here’s where the mythologizing also kicks in — by a grand and almost instant renewal, with Chicago in a handful of years becoming a stunningly more modern, beautiful and promising American city. For about 30 years after the fire, Chicago was the American city.

Cheap blame

Where the story of the Great Fire, as popularly told, has lost its way at times has been in the assigning of blame and credit, which is no small matter if we’re trying to understand the fire’s meaning for our own day.

It is not by chance that Catherine O’Leary, an Irish immigrant woman of modest means, was blamed for starting the fire, though that falsehood was dispelled at an official inquiry held soon afterward. You can read the original transcripts, with their perfect penmanship, in the research library of the Chicago History Museum.

In the years before the Great Fire, anti-immigrant sentiment was running hard among the “better classes” of Chicagoans who owned the city’s stores, ran the factories, ruled the stockyards and published the most influential newspapers. Just four years earlier, in 1867, supposed radicals demanding an eight-hour work day — including many immigrants — had led a strike that practically shut down the city’s economy for a week.

The “better classes” needed the working poor. Somebody had to do the life-draining and dangerous physical work. But they were sure that they, the captains of industry, really built this town.

Grabbing credit

It is not by chance, as well, that a prominent real estate developer, William D. Kerfoot, became the optimistic businessman face of Chicago’s rise from the ashes. Just days after the fire, the Chicago Tribune ran a photo of Kerfoot standing in front of a thrown-together shack in the burnt district — his temporary office — near a sign that declared “All gone but wife, children and energy.”

“Cheer up!” extolled the Trib.

In this skewed telling of Chicago’s history, spoon-fed to generations of school children through at least the 1950s, our whole city rose to the occasion after the fire, but it was the “great men,” above all others, who delivered us from ruin and built a mighty metropolis. Among the heroes in three-piece suits were Marshall Field, Potter Palmer, Cyrus McCormick, George Pullman and Philip Armour.

Give these men their due. They did impressive things. Field was a genius of retailing. Armour was a brilliant mass-production butcher of cows. McCormick was a pioneer of industrial farming.

But lost in this incomplete narrative was an inconvenient truth. It took the entire population of Chicago to rebuild after the Great Fire — to clean up the mess, put up the new skyscrapers, pave the roads and, for that matter, polish the floors in the new mansions of the super-rich who were hustling off to the comparative safety of Prairie Avenue.

And while Chicago’s “leading citizens,” as they flattered themselves, enjoyed unimaginable Gilded Age wealth, they fought all efforts to narrow a wide and growing gap of economic inequality. It was enough, they told themselves — just as many of their spiritual descendants tell themselves today — to give generously to charity.

A city in turmoil

What they got for their greed and inflated self-regard was a city that was often in turmoil. Ordinary Chicagoans wanted an eight-hour work day. They wanted safer working conditions. They wanted paychecks big enough to support a family. And so they rallied, marched and went out on strike, off and on, all through the 1870s, ’80s and ’90s.

The ferment culminated in the Great Strike of 1877, in which Chicago railroad workers played a leading role. And in the Haymarket Affair of 1886. And in the Pullman Strike of 1894.

A little more social justice might have brought a little more peace, just as it might today. Does anybody honestly believe Chicago’s current plague of violent crime has nothing to do with chronic poverty, third-rate schools and a pervading sense of hopelessness in so many neighborhoods?

Yet we are warned today, in our own Gilded Age, that we had better not raise taxes on the super-rich. Because that would be “socialism.” As if it makes perfect sense for one person to enjoy a net worth of $21 billion while other people, though they work every day, can’t pay the rent. We’re pretty sure this falls short of the capitalist credo of fairly rewarding merit.

A moral for today

Chicago rose from the ashes after the Great Fire, but only a relatively few Chicagoans soared on the thermals. And when the city’s labor unrest finally frightened the city’s elite too much, they persuaded the secretary of War in 1886 to create a military outpost, Fort Sheridan, to protect their businesses and homes.

If was a familiar substitute for justice, one we hide behind today: Call in the cops.

The real moral of the story of the Great Fire of 1871 is this: Chicago will always rise or fall together.

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