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Hot Time in Old Town Tonight
A blanket of darkness surrounded the city after a day filled with people routinely bustling around. This slumbering city was rudely awakened when someone shouted "Fire!" Sheer mania enveloped this town as it struggled, to no avail, to extinguish a fire that raged with the vengeance of a roaring lion. Little did the people know what the inferno would do. This great fire can best be illustrated by describing the short time of prosperity, rapid destruction, and the slow rebuilding process of Chicago.
Chicago was a flourishing city in the 1860's to 1870's until a catastrophic event changed it all. Chicago was growing quickly, and people divided Chicago into three sections, by the mighty Chicago River. The first section was the North Division. The North was very wealthy, and had more privileges than others. The poor people were worthless in their sight, and they the only reason they were in poverty was because they did not work hard enough. Their houses were mansions or large homes. The second section was the West Division. The West Division was middle class, but most of them were living in great poverty. The lots were middle size. The last section was the South Division. The homes of poverty were here. The people were all different races; few white English men lived there. Their housings were smaller than a regular lot, with little space
for a house (Chicago Internet). Chicago was very diverse when it came to the North, West, and South Division.
In 1871, Chicago was rapidly growing with ten railroads that went coast to coast, seventeen-grain elevators, eleven hundred factories, over three million head of livestock at the Union Stockyards. There were also commercial exchanges, where people buy, sell, and trade for a profit, such as the Board of Trade (Chicago Fire Internet). There were two major landmarks in Chicago. First, there was the courthouse. The courthouse, located in the middle of the South division's business district, along with City Hall, were most of the county offices, records, and Chicago's jail. The most important landmark in the North Division was the limestone Gothic Water Tower and Water works (Chicago Fire 278).
In eighteen seventy-one Chicago's fire department was one of the best in the nation with a fire alarm system. In each neighborhood there was a firehouse with a watchman, who would signal the firehouse if there were any flames or smoke in the immediate neighborhood. Another watchman, watched the entire city from the courthouse cupola one hundred feet high. That watchman would signal the firehouse nearest to the fire, and ring the courthouse bell. At night, the Insurance Patrol, comprised of volunteer firemen who marched around the city, would turn on alarm boxes in stores to report big fires. They carried chemicals on their backs to extinguish small fires.
Many factors caused the great fire to spread so rapidly. In the first place, from July to October in 1871, there was a drought taking place that resulted in one and a half inches of rain. Chicago averaged six fires a day, though they were usually small and controllable. Secondly, the fire spread quickly because of stacks of dry wood in lumber yards by the river. Thirdly, there was a surplus of wood products in Chicago, fifty-seven miles of wooden streets, and five hundred and sixty one miles of wooden sidewalks. Furthermore, there were tens of thousands of wood or wooden trimmed structures, two-thirds of the 59,500 buildings made of wood, and basically all buildings had flammable roofs (Chicago Fire 278). Finally, the fire spread when a strong wind from the Southwest forced this inferno to spread to the center of the city.
In addition to natural factors contributing to the fire spreading, Chicago's alarm system also had its faults. First, Bruno Goll, owner of Goll's Drugstore, would not give the key to open the alarm box. The alarm box was locked so there would be no false alarms. When there was a fire nearby someone would open it up with the key and sound the alarm. Then, Bruno claimed the alarm was signaled twice after he saw the fire was real, but the signal never reached the firehouse. In addition, there was a huge fire the night before that took many hours to get controlled. The old fire from Saturday was right in front of where the great fire was, confusing the watchman. The watchman signaled the wrong alarm, firemen responded to the wrong signals, and they were five to ten minutes late upon arrival at the scene.
The fire was long and hard struggle for many people. The fire started on October the eighth, eighteen seventy-one, at about nine o'clock at night. The O'Learys were asleep at the time. The fire supposedly started at the O'Leary's barn. The O'Learys were a family of seven, Patrick, Catherine, and five children, living in a small wooden cottage, on a plot of land in the West Division of Chicago. Mrs. O'Leary performed her neighborhood milk business in the barn next door. Even though the exact location of the fire is unknown, people say Mrs. O'Leary left the lantern in the barn, and the cow kicked it over, starting the chaotic fire (Chicago Internet). No more details are known about the start of the fire.
There were too few firefighters helping and firetrucks also. The fire was so large they needed at least three times the amount of people available. Five steamers, three hose carts, and a hook and ladder wagon was just not enough. In addition to their problems, their strategies all failed. One strategy, was to make a circle of engines around the fire and spray water to put out the flames. Another suggested taking gunpowder to blow up a few houses, removing excess fuel from the fire.
When all failed, the only choice left was to let the fire burn the city. Some of the people were calm, but some panicked and swam in the river, then drowned. The fire burned out of control until around eleven o'clock when a drizzle started. After a few hours the storm, that followed the drizzle, extinguished the fire. The people all rejoiced, because the fire was now gone.
One brave man, persecuted for being drunk and starting the fire, was Daniel "Peg Leg" Sullivan. He was nicknamed this because one of his legs was missing and replaced by a peg. He was the first to warn the people that there was a fire. Peg Leg tried to save the O'Leary's animals. However, while escaping the flames, his peg leg got stuck in a board. As O'Leary's calf was running out, Peg Leg grabbed his neck. The calf saved him, and he escaped uninjured, just badly singed (Murphy 14).
One reporter, Joseph E. Chamberlin, from the Chicago Evening Post, sat under Randolph Bridge, an impoverished area of town, to watch the fire. He narrowly escaped the burning bridge as the fire came closer (Murphy 62). Joseph E. Chamberlin greatly disliked poverty and made a mockery of this as he gave details on the fire.
Stephen L. Robinson was one of the fortunate souls that did not lose his home. He went around the city and marked what was burnt. He called the map The "Burnt District" Map. The area he mapped was four miles long and three-fourths of a mile wide. The damage was far worse than that. Two thousand lampposts, many plants, eighteen thousand buildings, two hundred million dollars damage, and more properties were destroyed (Chicago Fire Internet). Despite all the destruction, the death toll was not very high. They found one hundred twenty bodies (Murphy 112). Three hundred or more probably died even though the records do not show. They may have been cremated in the fire or drowned in the river.
The rebuilding of Chicago was a long, grieving process in which many came together to accomplish. After the first shock of the ruins died, Chicago turned into a major tourist site. First, the sight of so many ruins attracted many. Secondly, the ruins suggested the past and future. The fire was now in the past. The future was shown by what might happen, with the new Chicago. People even started bragging about the number of ruins. There were artists at every corner sketching pictures. Many sights, photographers, and reporters showed up in just one night.
Chicago had to form a strong government to become the "new" Chicago. First, General Phillip Sheridan was in town during the fire with his troops. They distributed tents and emergency supplies; and fifty thousand tents were pitched the first night. He also enforced martial laws to keep the looters out and riots down (Murphy 107). Next, they made the Relief and Aid Society. They opened places connected by telegraphs to divide jobs, such as one building food and another clothes would communicate by telegraph. Though some people thought they had favoritism over races and poor. The rich and white people got more assistance through money.
Architects tried to rebuild as quickly as possible, so they did not draw plans. They ended up using all wood again. They even painted it to look like metal. In July of 1874, there was another big fire called Little Fire, which did almost as much damage as the great fire. Finally the architects took more time to draw plans, and started a slow journey to reconstruction. Instead of wood frames there were steel girders. The exteriors were also made of brick or granite. There was no longer specially carved designs in the wood.
Poor people were protesting because they did not have enough money to buy new supplies, and ended up getting wood again. Some of their strikes failed. Some of the other strikes succeeded for higher pay. Unemployed shouted outside of Relief Aid Society door, scaring the workers.
Chicago treated the poor with disrespect, and blamed them for the fire. Chicago Times called Mrs. O'Leary names, made fun of her, and accused her of wanting revenge over rich, by burning down the North Division. They also accused Peg Leg of drinking and lighting the barn on fire. They also called Patrick O'Leary names and said he was not educated so he lit the barn, even though he did not. The O'Learys moved in disgust with Chicago and were never seen again.
When they were prospering, Chicago was Queen of the West. In late spring of 1873, the city rejoiced in the new Chicago. Filled with new architecture and buildings. Some of the people were relieved, and said that the fire was the worst time for Chicago. Like Charles C.P. Holden said, "This city never was, and probably never will be again, watched with so many anxious eyes, as it was on that fearful Monday and the few succeeding days (Chicago Fire Internet)."
This cataclysmic disaster can best be exemplified by citing the rapidity of growth, the sudden obliteration, and the lethargic reconstruction of the city of Chicago. The devastation of this raging inferno damaged the city, destroyed the ecosystem, and cost a multitude of lives. A conflagration, or fire, of this magnitude would probably not happen today, due to the advanced technology in reporting and extinguishing fires. Despite man's greatest effort to thwart disasters of this paramount magnitude, plans can often go asunder. It is of utmost importance for cities to support their local fire department and educate the public on the devastation tragedies of this magnitude can generate.
"Fredrick Law Olmsted: The Chigago Fire." The Annals of America. 1976 ed.
The Great Chicago Fire. [Online] Available http://www.chicagohs.org/fire/intro/gcf-
index.html. October 29, 1999
Murphy, Jim. The Great Fire. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1995.
Quentin Volunteer Fire Department. [Online] Available http://www.quentinvfc.com/firelore.htm. February 15, 2000
Grun, Bernard. The Timetables of History. New York: Simon " Schuster Inc., 1975.
time town tonight blanket darkness surrounded city after filled with people routinely bustling around this slumbering city rudely awakened when someone shouted fire sheer mania enveloped this town struggled avail extinguish fire that raged with vengeance roaring lion little people know what inferno would this great fire best illustrated describing short time prosperity rapid destruction slow rebuilding process chicago chicago flourishing city until catastrophic event changed chicago growing quickly people divided into three sections mighty river first section north division north very wealthy more privileges than others poor were worthless their sight they only reason they were poverty because they work hard enough their houses were mansions large homes second section west division west division middle class most them living great poverty lots middle size last section south homes poverty here different races white english lived there their housings smaller than regular with little space house internet very diverse when came north west south rapidly growing railroads that went coast coast seventeen grain elevators eleven hundred factories over three million head livestock union stockyards there also commercial exchanges where sell trade profit such board trade internet there major landmarks first courthouse courthouse located middle south business district along hall most county offices records jail most important landmark limestone gothic water tower water works eighteen seventy department best nation alarm system each neighborhood firehouse watchman would signal firehouse flames smoke immediate neighborhood another watchman watched entire from courthouse cupola hundred feet high that watchman would signal firehouse nearest ring bell night insurance patrol comprised volunteer firemen marched around turn alarm boxes stores report fires carried chemicals backs extinguish small fires many factors caused great spread rapidly first place from july october drought taking place resulted half inches rain averaged fires though usually small controllable secondly spread quickly because stacks wood lumber yards river thirdly surplus wood products fifty seven miles wooden streets five hundred sixty miles wooden sidewalks furthermore tens thousands wood wooden trimmed structures thirds buildings made basically buildings flammable roofs finally spread when strong wind from southwest forced inferno center addition natural factors contributing spreading alarm system also faults bruno goll owner goll drugstore give open locked false alarms nearby someone open sound then bruno claimed signaled twice after real signal never reached addition huge night before took many hours controlled saturday right front where confusing signaled wrong firemen responded wrong signals five minutes late upon arrival scene long hard struggle many started october eighth eighteen seventy about nine clock night learys asleep time supposedly started leary barn learys family seven patrick catherine five children living small cottage plot land leary performed neighborhood milk business barn next door even though exact location unknown leary left lantern barn kicked over starting chaotic internet more details known about start firefighters helping firetrucks also large needed least three times amount available steamers hose carts hook ladder wagon just enough addition problems strategies failed strategy make circle engines around spray water flames another suggested taking gunpowder blow houses removing excess fuel failed only choice left burn some calm some panicked swam river then drowned burned control until eleven clock drizzle started after hours storm followed drizzle extinguished rejoiced because gone brave persecuted being drunk starting daniel sullivan nicknamed legs missing replaced warn tried save animals however while escaping flames stuck board calf running grabbed neck calf saved escaped uninjured just badly singed murphy reporter joseph chamberlin evening post under randolph bridge impoverished area town watch narrowly escaped burning bridge came closer murphy joseph chamberlin greatly disliked made mockery gave details stephen robinson fortunate souls lose home went marked what burnt called burnt district area mapped four miles long fourths mile wide damage worse than thousand lampposts plants eighteen thousand buildings million dollars damage more properties destroyed despite destruction death toll very high found twenty bodies murphy probably died even though records show have been cremated drowned rebuilding long grieving process which came together accomplish shock ruins died turned into major tourist site sight ruins attracted secondly ruins suggested past future past future shown what might happen even bragging about number artists every corner sketching pictures sights photographers reporters showed just form strong government become general phillip sheridan during troops distributed tents emergency supplies fifty thousand tents pitched enforced martial laws keep looters riots down next made relief society opened places connected telegraphs divide jobs such building food another clothes communicate telegraph some thought favoritism over races poor rich white assistance through money architects tried rebuild quickly possible draw plans ended using again painted look like metal july called little which almost much damage finally architects took draw plans slow journey reconstruction instead frames steel girders exteriors brick granite longer specially carved designs poor protesting have enough money supplies ended getting again strikes failed other strikes succeeded higher unemployed shouted outside relief society door scaring workers treated disrespect blamed them times called names accused wanting revenge rich burning down accused drinking lighting patrick names said educated learys moved disgust never seen again prospering queen late spring rejoiced filled architecture relieved said worst like charles holden said never probably will watched anxious eyes fearful monday succeeding days cataclysmic disaster best exemplified citing rapidity growth sudden obliteration lethargic reconstruction devastation raging inferno damaged destroyed ecosystem cost multitude lives conflagration magnitude probably happen today advanced technology reporting extinguishing despite greatest effort thwart disasters paramount magnitude plans often asunder utmost importance cities support local department educate public devastation tragedies magnitude generate works cited fredrick olmsted chigago annals america online available http chicagohs intro index html october york scholastic quentin volunteer department online available http quentinvfc firelore february grun bernard timetables history york simon schuster
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