A bird’s-eye view of a city ablaze, ropy flames crackling against the night sky from every window and doorway.
That’s the image many have of the Great Chicago Fire — that, and a clumsy cow knocking over a lantern in Mrs. O’Leary’s shed.
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The Chicago History Museum’s “City on Fire: Chicago 1871,” opening Friday, offers the wide-angle images of a blaze that destroyed some 18,000 buildings, but it also encourages a closer, more personal look on the 150th anniversary.
“Dear Chum ...,” begins a letter written in fountain pen by 12-year-old Justin Butterfield, describing, apparently to a friend, his family’s frantic escape from the blaze.
Butterfield describes evacuating and loading up what they can — two trunks — into a wheelbarrow.
“We got [along] very well until the Peshtigo Lumber yard caught on fire. Then it was all we could do to breathe,” he wrote. “Mother caught on fire once, but we put it out.”
The exhibit, taking up some 4,000 square feet, includes cases displaying stacks of coins fused together from the intense heat, three blackened cookies and a dozen or so keys that no longer serve a purpose,
“Imagine losing your home or your business; It’s gone but you still have the key. What would you do?” said Julius L. Jones, the exhibit’s curator.
The exhibit also seeks to kill off for good some of the myths surrounding the fire, including that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow started it and that the city wasn’t prepared for it.
“Chicago was prepared for the fire. All the preparations failed. That’s a somewhat different thing than being unprepared,” Jones said.
The city had one of the most “elaborate alarm systems, the latest technology in the world,” Jones said. One of the elegant 1871 alarms is part of the display.
“They had a professional fire department, a steam engine pumper ... but the fatigue and destruction of equipment that comes from fighting multiple fires every day in Chicago really led to the conditions that caused the fire to have the time to grow and have a life of its own,” Jones said.
The museum is planning for the exhibit to remain open at least through August 2025. The fire exhibit is included in the price of general admission: $19 for adults, $17 for seniors and students and free for children who are Illinois residents and under 18.