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Curious City

Tensions and torches after the Great Chicago Fire

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The Great Chicago Fire has been a key part of Chicago’s identity since the fateful dry, windy night of October 8, 1871, when the O’Leary barn caught on fire. The blaze is represented by one of the stars on the city’s flag. It’s cited as the reason Chicago became a beacon of innovative architecture. And, it’s often referenced with pride as an example of Chicago’s indomitable, can-do spirit.

But University of Chicago history major Angela Lee asked us to skip all that. Instead, she asked us this question, which gets to a less-commonly discussed aspect of the disaster — how it affected residents’ relationships with each other.

How did the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 affect where Chicago’s wealthy and poor lived?

Significant gaps in the historical record create problems answering this question with much precision, but there is a lot to learn. Among other things: Chicagoans at the time were uneasy when it came to the mixing of the social classes. And months after the fire, social tensions were stoked by — of all things — the type of materials available to rebuild.

Before the blaze

In 1870 Chicago was home to 298,977 people. Lacking modern zoning and planning sensibilities, the city was also a hodgepodge; homes, businesses, and even small manufacturing establishments were located near each other. According to Anne Durkin Keating, professor of history at North Central College, Chicago’s working class and poorer areas tended to be near the river, on undesirable polluted land and close to jobs. The neighborhood where the fire began on the South Side, for example, was packed with small, wooden homes of immigrants according to Karen Sawislak, the author of Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871-1874.

The wealthy were also spread out, often near the emerging central business district, Keating says. One wealthy enclave was north of the river, centered around Washington Square Park on the Near North side. Large homes in that area were owned by families with familiar names like McCormick, Ogden, and Kinzie. Another wealthy enclave that was not affected by the fire was Prairie Avenue between 18th and 20th Streets.

During this era Chicago also had a large immigrant population, many of whom were homeowners. “Rates of immigrant home ownership from 1850 to 1920 were incredibly high,” says Elaine Lewinnek, the author of The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl. In some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods (as well as some areas just beyond its border), she says, home ownership rates among the working class neared 95 percent. “It was really this immigrant-led American dream. It trickled up.”

In contrast, renting was common among wealthy people with deeper roots in the country. “Native-born Americans weren’t so interested in owning homes. There was more prestige in some renting areas,” Lewinnek says.

After the fire, an ‘awful democracy of the hour’

Many accounts concerning the fire have been preserved in personal letters. Mrs. Aurelia R. King penned a note to friends that reads:

“The wind was like a tornado, and I held fast to my little ones, fearing they would be lifted from my sight. I could only think of Sodom or Pompeii, and truly I thought the day of judgement had come. It seemed as if the whole world were running like ourselves, fire all around us, and where should we go? … Yet we are so thankful that if we were to be afflicted, it is only by the loss of property. Our dear ones are all alive and well, and we are happy.”

During chaos of the fire, people from all walks of life fled their homes with a few treasured possessions and valuables. They waited for the fire to pass wherever they could: in the lake, on the prairie, in parks and in tunnels. People even sought shelter in abandoned graves. Bodies had been removed from City Cemetery years earlier, but the actual graves had not yet been filled in. These empty graves made a convenient, if creepy, place to seek shelter.

The usual divisions between groups of people vanished as Chicagoans endured this epic fire together. In fact, this jumble of different types of people was an element of why the fire was so distressing to some. “This is the Victorian age. It was a time when people wanted their spatial separations to be clear. It wasn’t clear right after the fire, part of the pressure in rebuilding is to make things clearer,” Lewinnek says.

Reverend E. P. Roe later recalled the tunnel under the Chicago River at LaSalle Street: “There jostled the refined and delicate lady, who, in the awful democracy of the hour, brushed against thief and harlot. … Altogether it was a strange, incongruous, writhing mass of humanity, such as the world had never looked upon, pouring into what might seem in its horrors, the mouth of hell.”

When the fire finally stopped, rumors swirled about more potential trouble. Survivor Ebon Matthews recalled “one who was not an eyewitness can hardly imagine the fears of incendiarism, looting, etc., which prevailed. Stories of all kinds were afoot concerning thefts, murders, and the like.”

Witnesses recounted avoiding the flames for two days. Image: Scene on the Prairie, Monday night. Alfred R. Waud, Pencil, Chalk, and Paint Drawing, 1871 (Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum)

According to Sawislak, there was an undercurrent of uncertainty about what could happen next. Yet, she says, after the first couple of days passed things were orderly. “After reading through records of contemporaneous accounts, you sense this huge fear of disorder, further explosion and disruption in the aftermath, but really everyone who was charged with public safety is kind of constantly saying: ‘You know? It’s really quiet. People are going about their business and being very helpful.’”

Military presence

Nevertheless, a feeling of unease remained. “Very quickly business leaders in the city basically prevailed upon the mayor to cede civic authority over peacekeeping in the aftermath of the fire, and give it to the army. It became a military operation commanded by General Philip Sheridan,” Sawislak says.

According to an account in historian Carl Smith’s Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymarket Bomb, and the Model Town of Pullman, former Lieutenant Governor William Bross recalled “Never did deeper emotions of joy overcome me. Thank God, those most dear to me and the city as well are safe.” Bross said without Sheridan’s “prompt, bold and patriotic action, … what was left of the city would have been nearly if not quite entirely destroyed by the cutthroats and vagabonds who flocked here like vultures from every point of the compass.”

This brief period of defacto martial law was controversial. “His soldiers mostly were stationed to patrol the ruins of the banks and the hotels and the big commercial structures and safeguard what they thought was wealth that was sort of buried in the rubble. But they didn’t go to work handing out food or helping people clean up the damage or building structures for temporary shelter. That was not considered to be part of their job,” Sawislak says. “They’re not really there to help. They’re there to guard, and that’s a whole different project.”

In 1872 Elijah Haines, a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, spoke to that body about the brief military presence in Chicago. “They are men with bayonets, bringing complete military armament. For what purpose? For war?” he said.

Smith does note that General Sheridan “requisitioned relief rations and supplies from St. Louis.”

He also describes an incident that may have hastened the end of this period of military involvement. “Theodore Treat, a twenty-year-old college student on volunteer curfew duty, shot Thomas W. Grosvenor, who died the next morning. Grosvenor was a former Civil War officer and successful lawyer” Smith writes. He continues, “Grosvenor may in fact have been a victim of the false reports of rampant criminality that put Treat fatally on edge.”  Three days later, on October 23rd, 1871, General Sheridan resigned from his temporary post overseeing Chicago’s security.

The class and ethnic divide

As Chicago emerged from this tense environment, the city discussed how to rebuild the burnt district. Foremost on some people’s minds: preventing a similar disaster to the one they had just endured. This school of thought proposed new building rules, the most strident being that, for safety’s sake, only brick and stone would be allowed for construction within the city limits. The problem with this idea? Wood was cheap. For the immigrant homeowners on the North Side, maintaining their homes trumped even fire safety.

“People were furious,” Lewinnek says, “especially the German and Irish immigrants who lived on the North Side who had been most burned out by the fire, were furious they might not be able to rebuild.” They tended not to have reliable insurance and felt they wouldn’t be able to afford to keep their land if wood construction was not allowed. “They’d say things like: ‘We don’t care if the city burns again, we need our own houses,’” Lewinnek says. Populations affected included those of German, Irish and Scandinavian background.

Karen Sawislak says, circling this debate was a hard question: Who’s a good American? “It was the immigrant community, specifically Germans, Scandinavians, who pushed hard to not have the fire limits extended over their neighborhoods, because effectively that would have meant that some very large percentage wouldn’t have been able to rebuild any time soon or possibly at all, because of the expense of construction with stone or brick,” she says. She adds that it became a political fight over “the right to better yourself in your new country through this hard work and investment you’ve made versus the need to protect a bigger, more abstract public from another possible disaster.”

This conflict came to a dramatic head on Monday night, January 15, 1872. Immigrants gathered and marched by torch light to City Hall. Reports vary between the local English language newspapers and the foreign language papers, but Lewinnek says between 2,000 and 10,000 people marched to city hall. They carried signs with slogans like, “No Fire Limitz [sic] at the North Site,” and “Leave a House for the Laborur.” Again, reports vary about what happened when they arrived at City Hall. The German-language Staats-Zeitung wrote that six windows were broken, while the Chicago Times declared “ALL THE WINDOWS BROKEN,” and called the event “the most disgraceful riot which ever visited Chicago.”

In the end, the North Side immigrants won the right to re-build with wood on their existing property. Areas north of Chicago Avenue and west of Wells Street and Lincoln Avenue were outside the new fire limits. After another significant fire in 1874, the fire limits were finally extended to the city, according to Elaine Lewinnek.

By that time, most of the North Side immigrants had managed to rebuild their homes, and so their wooden homes were “grandfathered in” according to Lewinnek.

In terms of how the fire changed the layout of Chicago, existing trends quickened. In general, property owners and even wealthy renters tended to remain where they were before the fire. Suburbs continued to grow. Distinct districts — residential, manufacturing, and the downtown area — developed. Downtown land prices rose.

Also after the fire, Chicago’s population changed. The Relief and Aid Society had given out free rail passes to people who wanted to leave town after the fire. Some left, while new residents arrived. “Immediately after the fire 30,000 people moved to Chicago to help rebuild it. So you don’t actually have the exact same population,” Lewinnek says. Many of these newcomers rented or lived in suburbs. The city’s population grew from just under 300,000 in 1870 before the fire to 503,185 in 1880. (As of the most recent census, in 2010, Chicago’s population numbered 2,695,598. Chicago’s highest census number was recorded in 1950, with 3,620,962 residents.)

Telling silence, shared memory

Since the fire, of course, this era has been remembered as a triumphant moment in the city’s history. In 1872 Frank Luzerne published a work titled The Lost City! Drama of the Fire-Fiend! or Chicago, As It Was, and As It Is! and its Glorious Future!. Citing nearly 5,000 newly-issued building permits, Luzerne wrote “there will be no interruption in the work of rebuilding until the new Chicago arises from the ashes of the old, in more substantial grandeur, rehabilitated, immeasurably improved, and all the better for her thorough purification.”

Before the fire wood construction was common but afterwards it was proscribed in much of the city. Image: The Rebuilding of the Marine Building; Glass Lantern Slide, ca. 1873. ichi-02845 (Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum)

Sawislak takes issue with this narrative. “Basically, I think that the Chicago fire is this very proud moment in the city’s history, but it’s a very heavily mythologized history,” she says. “In many ways the disaster very much reinforced existing barriers between classes, between ethnicities.”

Events surrounding the fire were extensively documented, but significant segments of the population were not included in that process and therefore their experiences were lost to history, Sawislak says. There are a wealth of first-person accounts of the fire, but says they were written only by people of means. “We have very few records from working class people that are contemporaneous accounts of the fire,” she says. “It’s actually rather hard to find a record of how most Chicagoans experienced this signature event in the history of the city.”

This imbalance, Sawislak argues, extends even to the estimated three hundred people who died in the fire. “Even the fact that it’s always an estimate tells you something,” she says. “Most victims — virtually all — were working class, immigrants, in very densely packed immigrant neighborhoods that were most impacted by the early stages of the fire on the South Side.” Even following years of research, Sawislak says she’s never discovered a comprehensive list of names of the deceased.

Combine this, she says, with the fact that the working poor left behind so few written accounts of the fire, and you’re struck with an uncomfortable truth.

“The silences are really kind of what’s telling.” she says.

(Photo courtesy Angela Lee)
Now we have an answer. Who asked the question?

Angela Lee thinks a lot about cities, history, and demographics. She’s originally from New York City. “I've only lived in cities," she says. "I've always been curious about why certain neighborhoods are located where they are, and why the divisions can be so extreme sometimes.”

Her interest in where people live is long-standing. She began paying attention to real estate when she was just ten years old, she says. Now she’s a fourth-year student at the University of Chicago, majoring in history. Thinking about the London fire of 1666 made her wonder, “They had to completely rebuild the city, I thought something similar might have happened in Chicago.”

Special help for this story comes from Carl Smith, author of Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymarket Bomb, and the Model Town of Pullman. He also curates The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory.

Katie Klocksin is an independent producer. Follow her on twitter @KatieKlocksin.

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