The Great Chicago Recovery: The Story of the Rebirth of a Great American City | Podcast

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Most Americans know the story of the Great Chicago Fire. Few know the story of the city's remarkable recovery. It's a story worth telling on the day in history—October 8, 1871—that nearly one-third of Chicago burned to the ground.

Experts agree on where the fire started: how it was started is a different matter. Urban mythology says it was a cow. Some say it was vandals. No one knows for certain.

"The one thing you can say for sure is that the fire started in the cow barn behind the O'Leary home on De Koven Street," said Tim Samuelson, a Chicago city historian.

Nearly everyone agrees on the subject of why the fire spread. And spread fast. It's because Chicago was growing. And growing fast.

Only thirty years earlier, in 1840, Chicago had a mere 4,470 residents, and ranked 92nd in population. That number grew to nearly 30,000 by 1850, and cracked the 100,000 mark by 1860. By 1870, Chicago was closing in on 300,000 residents, a remarkable 7400 percent increase in three decades.

It was the fifth-biggest city in the America, and the fastest-growing city, too.

What led to that meteoric growth? As the saying in real estate goes: location, location, location.

"Chicago was near the center of the country, and near where the waterways and railways met," Samuelson said. "It was a perfect place for anything and anyone to get anywhere."

Timing had a lot to do with Chicago's growth, too. America was going through a transformation from a rural to an industrial power.

But how did all of that growth—all of that life—lead to a near-death experience for the city?

"Chicago had to build and build quickly, and so they built it out of wood," explained Sarah Marcus of the Chicago History Museum. "It was quick, it was easy, and it was cheap."

Mother Nature played her part in the disaster, too. "It was an exceedingly dry summer and fall," meteorologist Tom Skilling said. "Months without rain had parched the city, and a major fire the previous night had exhausted firefighters and damaged equipment."

To make matters worse, winter was approaching, and all of those wood houses were filled with firewood to heat them. The houses were, in fact, loaded up with fuel.

All of those elements converged and made the Great Chicago Fire—in retrospect—not just predictable, but nearly inevitable.

Great Chicago Fire
The Chicago fire. Original Publication: Illustrated London News, 1871. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The fire started on the city's West Side, near the barn of Patrick and Catherine O'Leary. Within minutes, the blaze roared out of control. A steady wind carried the flames and blazing debris from block to block, pushing the fire to the banks of the Chicago River, which had served as a effective barrier for fire protection.

But not on this night.

"The Chicago River itself caught fire from the grease and the pollutants on the water," Samuelson explained. "It was really quite a fire when the river itself starts burning."

After jumping the Chicago River, a firestorm tore through Chicago's business district. "In areas of extreme heat, the air is rising away from the fire and air rushes in with great force, and essentially you get rotary whirlwinds of fire, which look like tornadoes," said Skilling.

The sky filled with flames. To survive, people tried to outrun the inferno. There was tremendous panic. Even the animals were terrified. No one knew where to run.

By 2:30 a.m., the wind sent embers to the North District and the city's only water pumping station. The wooden roof ignited and soon collapsed, knocking out Chicago's water supply. By 3:30 a.m., all hope of saving large parts of the city was gone.

Nearly 30 hours later, the fire finally died. Some say it was the light rain from a cold front. Others believe the fire ran out of fuel: there was nothing left to burn.

The fire claimed nearly 300 lives, destroyed over 17,000 buildings covering almost 3.5 square miles, and caused over $200 million in damage. Roughly a third of the city lay in ruins, and nearly 100,000 people were homeless.

Most of the law offices, hotels, and department stores were destroyed, as were the banks.

Things were looking bleak for Chicagoans. But what happened next revealed the character of the city. And the era. There was, it turns out, no Federal Emergency Management Agency back in 1870. No Illinois Emergency Management, either. There was no one to blame. No time to complain. And little appetite for victimhood.

Even before the bricks stopped smoking, the leaders of Chicago vowed to come back bigger and better than before.

"We have not lost, first, our geography," Rev. Robert Collyer told his big congregation shortly after the fire. "Nature called the lakes, the forests, the prairies together in convention long before we were born, and they decided that on this spot a great city would be built."

The fire destroyed much of the city, but not its spirit.

Luckily for Chicago, the fire left the stockyards and the meatpacking plants unscathed. Most of the lumberyards and mills survived, too, and the grain elevators.

The industries surrounding agriculture and trade kept the city's finances stable and continued to employ thousands of people. And the majority of railroad tracks weren't damaged. This allowed shipments of building materials to arrive from across the country.

Within 48 hours, 12 of the 29 banks that had been burned to the ground were operating in makeshift facilities to get money to its customers. Bankers also got busy raising capital to rebuild the city. One banker sent letters to investment bankers all over the globe urging them to invest in the people of his city.

Private relief poured into the city, too. Even from Chicago's arch trade rivals, St. Louis and Cincinnati.

The city was rebuilt at an unimaginable pace. By 1880, Chicago's population reached a half million. A flood of talented architects were attracted to the city by the post-fire construction opportunities. Many stayed on in the 1880s to design a new generation of buildings. The advent of structural steel allowed them to build taller and more beautiful towers, ushering in what is now known as the "Chicago School" of architecture.

By 1890, two decades after the fire, Chicago passed the one-million mark in population, becoming the second-biggest city in America. The population had tripled since the Windy City's worst night.

It's quite a story. And the people of Chicago did it all without the help of the state or federal government.

What made it possible? American optimism, grit, character, a deep seated midwestern belief in self-reliance—and capitalism itself.

One international writer who wrote about the recovery summarized things beautifully. "We expected to find traces of ugliness and deformity everywhere, crippled buildings, and lame, limping streets running along a forlorn, crooked condition, waiting for a time to restore their vigor and build up their beauty anew," wrote British novelist and journalist Mary Anne Hardy. "But Phoenix-like, the city has risen from the ashes, grander and statelier than ever."

Chicago Fire
State Street in Chicago, after the Great Chicago Fire, 1871. Otto Herschan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images