Chicago

The Chicago conflagration has been given the title "the Great Chicago Fire," just as San Francisco's 1906 earthquake has been labeled "the Great San Francisco Earthquake," thus putting all others on a lower plane. The 1871 fire struck what one post-fire newspaper report called "the city of everlasting pine, shingles, shams, veneers, stucco and putty" on October 8, a Sunday night, as number 31 in series of fire alarms starting the previous week that had called out the exhausted and understaffed fire department. It was actually the second major blaze in two days. The blaze quickly grew out of control, leaped the Chicago River, and was still going strong on Monday morning, October 9. People were driven into the streets, where they joined existing mobs either seeking safety or looting whatever they could carry off. The fire finally burned itself out Monday night, leaving a three-and-a-half-square-mile section of the business district a smoking ruin. In addition to the known dead, there were 98,500 left homeless and 17,450 buildings wiped out of existence. With property damage soaring above $200 million, it was by far the costliest fire of the 19th century.

Ten days later the citizens had rolled up their sleeves and gotten busy rebuilding, bigger and better than ever, while the city's business life resumed in temporary structures. The disaster caused the city to invest in better fire protection, but it also drew the doomsayers out of the woodwork, as often happens after such events. Preachers and self-proclaimed prophets such as the Reverend Granville Moody of Cincinnati pronounced it the wrath of God visited upon Sodom on the shores (of Lake Michigan). If so, God's wrath quickly cooled because the city was soon back in business and rising phoenixlike from the ashes.

A different type of mythology that grew up about the Great Fire wove together fact and fancy about the single most famous urban disaster of the 19th century. Where the historic record was silent or incomplete, the public's imagination took over, creating two enduring legends: one, that the fire was started when Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern; two, that at the height of the blaze the mayor ordered the city's jails thrown open to allow the prisoners to flee for safety. Neither story has borne up to the harsh scrutiny of historians, but they illustrate one of the characteristics of great disasters: that people create stories of heroism and fantastic occurrences.

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