In 1871, less than 40 years after its incorporation, Chicago had mushroomed from a pioneer outpost to a thriving and ever-expanding urban hub. Its modern incarnation was already obvious: a central business district, distinct industrial areas, and neighborhoods segregated by ethnicity and class. The city’s preeminence as a transport center and processing site for resource extraction industries was established. Lured by the diverse economy, thousands arrived every year to see what opportunities Chicago might hold.
All this was interrupted the night of October 8. Fueled by a strong wind from the southwest, a fire that began in Catherine O’Leary’s barn near DeKoven Street spread out of control. Ravaging the wooden cottages of the O’Learys’ neighborhood, then feeding on the lumberyards on the South Branch of the river, the giant blaze moved steadily to the north. By the time the fire reached the central business district, it no longer needed wind or fresh fuel; the mile-wide holocaust had become a firestorm, propelling burning debris into the sky that began new blazes when it fell to earth. Commercial buildings touted as fireproof offered little more resistance than the wooden rookeries of the Irish ghetto. Bricks survived, but mortar dissolved, collapsing masonry walls. Through the city center, marble crumbled and iron melted. The main waterworks failed around 3:30 a.m.; the blaze leapt the main branch of the Chicago River soon after. For almost 20 hours more, the fire marched north, incinerating the homes of tens of thousands of German and Scandinavian immigrants. At the northern limits of the city, four and a half miles from the O’Leary barn, the Great Fire finally died.
The Great Fire has traditionally been understood as the turning point in Chicago’s early history, the moment when the city proved its greatness. The fire led to critical shifts in land use, new forms of investment and finance, and innovations in technology and architecture. Chicagoans did rebuild their city, at a pace that can only be described as heroic.
Yet, the postfire months of 1871 were times of great hardship and social conflict. The poorest victims turned to public relief, gaining some sustenance from the gifts that flowed into the city from around the world and confronting a civic elite that believed that “zealous and promiscuous giving” would “corrupt the poor.” A plan for a “fireproof ” city drew fierce opposition from those who could not afford to rebuild in brick or stone. Housing shortages raised rents; a labor market glutted by new residents depressed wages. The Great Fire thus forced Chicagoans to confront the meaning of their city’s social and economic fissures.
The Great Fire transformed the lives of Chicagoans and gave the city a lasting and special image as a place of renewal, progress, and great possibilities.