Jim Murphy, The Great Fire Grade 6 Originally published in New York: Scholastic Inc., 1995. Learning Objective

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Homework (an optional writing/thinking activity)

Elias Colbert and Everett Chamberlin in their article referred to the people in the crowded neighborhood where the fire started as “human rats”. However, another article in The Tribune described the same neighborhood in the following way:

They were nearly all poor people, the savings of whose lifetime were represented in the little mass of furniture which blocked the streets, and impeded the firemen. They were principally laborers, most of them Germans or Scandinavians. Though the gaunt phantom of starvation and homelessness, for the night, at least, passed over them, it was singular to observe the cheerfulness, not to say merriment, that prevailed. Though mothers hugged their little ones to their breasts and shivered with alarm, yet, strange to say, they talked freely and laughed as if realizing the utter uselessness of expressing more dolefully their consciousness of ruin.
Why might people describe the same neighborhood in such different ways? Which point of view does Murphy (our author) agree with?
(Note: The full text of both these articles are included in Appendix B.)

Argumentative Writing Assignment: Directions for Teachers and Students / Guidance for Teachers

Today, cities have taken a number of actions to prevent fires, including city codes. Building codes require that anyone building a structure use materials that won’t catch on fire easily, leave space between buildings, have roofs that can withstand having sparks land on them without catching fire and include “fire walls” built of something that won’t burn inside large buildings so that if a fire breaks out in one part, it won’t travel to other parts.
Take a few moments to brainstorm the benefits of requiring people who are building to use stronger, more durable building materials (beyond the obvious advantage of having buildings that do not catch fire as easily). How do these laws make life more difficult for some people? Who might dislike the government making rules about how houses and businesses have to be built? How would more rules have negatively affected the O’Learys?
Final Writing Prompt:

How would building codes have changed events in 1871? Could building codes have prevented the fire? How much responsibility should the government take to make sure that people are safe from disasters such as fire? Write an essay with a clear beginning, middle, and end in which you present your ideas. Use facts or quotes from the article or descriptions of the map to support your conclusions.

Guidance regarding an essay about the author’s point of view:

Students should recognize that government action in the form of building codes or laws would have mitigated the effects of the fire. The crowded buildings, wood streets and walks, and cheap houses all contributed to the fire spreading faster than the firefighters could handle. However, students should also see that the government could not have prevented the fire totally. A number of factors including the dry weather, heavy winds, and the lack of telephones at the time all made the fire worse, and building codes could not have prevented those items.

Students may have a variety of answers as to the responsibility of the government, but the objective is for students to recognize that the government has the difficult task of protecting people without making laws that are so restrictive that they make houses too expensive for people to buy.

Appendix A: Photograph of Chicago

Historic Photographs from Chicago: A Biography by Dominic A. Pacyga


The University of Chicago Press

Caption from website: Chicago Tribune Building, late 1850s. The Tribune evolved as an early supporter of the Republican Party. Notice the McVickers Theater to the left of the building. (Chicago Public Library, Special Collections and Preservation.)

Appendix B: Contemporary Articles

From the Chicago History Society and the Trustees of Northwestern University

The Losses by the Fire

From Elias Colbert and Everett Chamberlin, Chicago and the Great Conflagration (1871)

(800 words)
Amid such a general wreck, the attempt to gather correct statistics of the losses entailed by the great conflagration, may well seem a hopeless one. So many records were destroyed; so many people driven from the city, who could alone give accurate information on some essential point; such a universal scattering and destruction among those who remained, that it is practically impossible to cover every item in the immense aggregate of loss.
We essay the task with diffidence, notwithstanding the fact that we have taken all possible pains in the investigation of loss. The following statements are probably very near the truth in the aggregate--made up of details obtained by personal inquiry from many hundreds of the parties most interested in the sad exhibit . . .
In the West Division about 194 acres were burned over, including 16 acres swept by the fire of the previous evening. This district contained several lumber-yards and planing-mills, the Union Depot of the St. Louis and Pittsburg & Fort Wayne Railroads, with a few minor hotels and factories, several boarding-houses, and a host of saloons. The buildings burned--about 500 in number--were nearly all frame structures, and not of much value, but were closely packed together. About 2250 persons were rendered homeless in this division.
In the South Division the burned area comprised about 460 acres. The southern boundary line was a diagonal, running from the corner of Michigan Avenue and Congress Street, west-south-west to the intersection of Fifth Avenue (Wells) and Polk Street. On the other three sides the bounding lines were the lake and the river--only one block (the Lind) being left in all that area. This district contained the great majority of the most expensive structures in the city, all the wholesale stores, all the newspaper offices, all the principal banks, and insurance and law offices, many coal-yards, nearly all the hotels, and many factories, the Court-house, Custom-house, Chamber of Commerce, etc.--as stated more at length in our chapter descriptive of Chicago in 1871. The number of buildings destroyed in this division was about 3650, which included 1600 stores, 28 hotels, and 60 manufacturing establishments. About 21,800 persons were rendered homeless, very many of whom were residents in the upper stories of the palatial structures devoted, below, to commerce. There were, however, many poor families, and a great many human rats, resident in the western part of this territory.
In the North Division the devastation was the most wide-spread, fully 1470 acres being burned over, out of the 2533 acres in that division. And even this statement fails to convey an idea of the wholesale destruction wrought there, because the territory unburned was unoccupied. Had there been any except widely-scattered structures in the unburned portion, they, too, would have been destroyed as the fire licked up all in its path, and paused only when there was no more food whereon to whet its insatiable appetite. Of the 13,800 buildings in that division, not more than 500 were left standing, leaving 13,300 in ruins, and rendering 74,450 persons homeless. The buildings burned included more than 600 stores and 100 manufacturing establishments, the latter being principally grouped in the south-western part of this division. That part next to the lake, as far north as Chicago Avenue, was occupied by first-class residences, of which only one was left standing--that of Mahlon D. Ogden. Next north of these was the Water-works, and this was the initial point of a line of breweries that stretched out almost to the cemetery. The river banks were piled high with lumber and coal, which was all destroyed, except a portion near the bend of the river, at Kinzie Street. The space between the burned district and the river, to the westward, contained but little improved property. Lincoln Park lay to the northward, on the lake-shore. The fire burned up the southern part of this park--the old City Cemetery--but left the improved part untouched, except a portion of the fencing. One of the saddest among the many sad scenes that met the eye after the conflagration had done its work, was that in the old cemetery--the flames had even made havoc among the dead, burning down the wooden monuments, and shattering stone vaults to fragments, leaving exposed many scores of the remnants of mortality that had smoldered for years in oblivion.
The total area burned over in the city, including streets, was 2124 acres, or very nearly 3 1/3 square miles. The number of buildings destroyed was 17,450; of persons rendered homeless, 98,500. Of the latter, more than 250 paid the last debt of nature amid the carnage--fell victims to the Moloch of our modern civilization.

From the Chicago History Society and the Trustees of Northwestern University

The Tribune Reports to Chicago on Its Own Destruction

From the Chicago Tribune, October 11, 1871

(1400 words)
During Sunday night, Monday, and Tuesday, this city has been swept by a conflagration which has no parallel in the annals of history, for the quantity of property destroyed, and the utter and almost irremediable ruin which it wrought. A fire in a barn on the West Side was the insignificant cause of a conflagration which has swept out of existence hundreds of millions of property, has reduced to poverty thousands who, the day before, were in a state of opulence, has covered the prairies, now swept by the cold southwest wind, with thousands of homeless unfortunates, which has stripped 2,600 acres of buildings, which has destroyed public improvements that it has taken years of patient labor to build up, and which has set back for years the progress of the city, diminished her population, and crushed her resources. But to a blow, no matter how terrible, Chicago will not succumb. Late as it is in the season, general as the ruin is, the spirit of her citizens has not given way, and before the smoke has cleared away, and the ruins are cold, they are beginning to plan for the future. Though so many have been deprived of homes and sustenance, aid in money and provisions is flowing in from all quarters, and much of the present distress will be alleviated before another day has gone by.
It is at this moment impossible to give a full account of the losses by the fire, or to state the number of fatal accidents which have occurred. So much confusion prevails, and people are so widely scattered, that we are unable for a day to give absolutely accurate information concerning them. We have, however, given a full account of the fire, from the time of its beginning, reserving for a future day a detailed statement of losses. We would be exceedingly obliged if all persons having any knowledge of accidents, or the names of persons who died during the fire, would report them at this office. We also hope that all will leave with, or at No. 15 South Canal Street, a memorandum of their losses and their insurance, giving the names of the companies.

At 9:30 a small cow barn attached to a house on the corner of DeKoven and Jefferson streets, one block north of Twelfth street, emitted a bright light, followed by a blaze, and in a moment the building was hopelessly on fire. Before any aid could be extended the fire had communicated to a number of adjoining sheds, barns and dwellings, and was rapidly carried north and east, despite the efforts of the firemen. The fire seemed to leap over the engines, and commence far beyond them, and, working to the east and west, either surrounded the apparatus or compelled it to move away. In less than ten minutes the fire embraced the area between Jefferson and Clinton for two blocks north, and rapidly pushed eastward to Canal street.

When the fire first engulfed the two blocks, and the efforts of the undaunted engineers became palpably abortive to quench a single building, an effort was made to head it off from the north, but so great was the area that it already covered at 10:30 o'clock, and so rapidly did it march forward, that by the time the engines were at work the flames were ahead of them, and again they moved on north. From the west side of Jefferson street, as far as the eye could reach, in an easterly direction--and that space was bounded by the river--a perfect sea of leaping flames covered the ground. The wind increased in fierceness as the flames rose, and the flames wailed more hungrily for their prey as the angry gusts impelled them onward. Successively the wooden buildings on Taylor, Forquer, Ewing, and Polk streets became the northern boundary, and then fell back to the second place. Meanwhile, the people in the more southern localities bent all their energies to the recovery of such property as they could. With ample time to move all that was movable, and with a foreboding of what was coming, in their neighborhood at least, they were out and in safety long before the flames reached their dwellings. They were nearly all poor people, the savings of whose lifetime were represented in the little mass of furniture which blocked the streets, and impeded the firemen. They were principally laborers, most of them Germans or Scandinavians. Though the gaunt phantom of starvation and homelessness, for the night, at least, passed over them, it was singular to observe the cheerfulness, not to say merriment, that prevailed. Though mothers hugged their little ones to their breasts and shivered with alarm, yet, strange to say, they talked freely and laughed as if realizing the utter uselessness of expressing more dolefully their consciousness of ruin. There were many owners of the building who gave themselves up to the consolation of insurance. But even that appeared to weaken as the flames spread, and they gave themselves up to their fate. Many of the victims were stowed away in the houses on the west side of Jefferson street, while there on Clinton, caught between two fires, had rushed away, losing all but their lives and little ones. How many of these latter ones were abandoned, either from terror or in the confusion, it is impossible to guess, but every now and then a woman wild with grief would run in and out among the alleys and cry aloud her loss.
The firemen were working with extraordinary perseverance. When it seemed impossible for a man to stand without suffocation they carried their hose, sprinkling the houses opposite and endeavoring to stop its spread in a westerly direction. But it was evident by midnight that human ingenuity could not stem that fiery tide. At the same time, so burdened were the minds of the citizens with the conflagration that the question of where it would end never entered their minds. Engine No. 14, which had retreated gradually north on Canal Street to Foes' lumber yard, or rather where that yard had been two days before, was suddenly surrounded in a belt of flame, and abandoned to its fate . . .
But, while it seemed as if the demon of flame had reached a desert and needs must die, a new danger appeared to threaten the city. From the South Side, in the neighborhood of Adams street, whereabouts no one on the West Side could guess with any degree of certainty, rose a column of fire, not large, but horribly suggestive. Such engines as could be moved were called from the West to protect the South Side property, and the flames left to die of inanition.

The fire of Saturday burned the region in the West Division from Van Buren street northward to Adams, and all east on Clinton street to the river, Murry Nelson's elevator alone standing. The light from the burning remnants of these eighteen acres of ruins illuminated the heavens on Sunday evening. Precisely at half-past 9 o'clock the fire bells sounded an alarm, and a fresh light, distinct from the other only to those living west of the fire, sprung up. The wind at the time, as it had been for the preceding forty-eight hours, was strong from the southwest. This fire commenced on DeKoven Street, at the corner of Jefferson, and one block north of Twelfth Street. The wind carried this fire straight before it, through the block to the next block, and so on northward, until it reached Van Buren Street, where it struck the south line of the district burnt the night before. Here this fire ought to have stopped, and here, under ordinary circumstances, it would have stopped. But the wind though fierce and direct, carried the flames before it, cutting as clean and well defined a swath as does the reaper in the fold, the fire gradually but rapidly extended laterally, and in the very teeth of the wind, worked backward nearly to Twelfth Street, and thence extended east to the river. It worked against the wind along the west line of Jefferson Street to Van Buren. North of Twelfth street it cast its burning brands across the river, firing the tan yard of the Chicago Hide and Leather Company. As the fire widened at is base its direct line to the northeast was also widened, and thus many hours after the first sheet of flame had reached Van Buren street, other lines coming from the base would reach the same point . . .

The route of the fire was distinctly visible. In five minutes after the first flame had reached Van Buren Street from the southeast, we could see the incipient fire in the South Division as a point three blocks to the north. The blazing brands borne before it had fallen into the sheds and shanties near the Armory, and at once the blaze mounted high.... From the river to Market street, thence to Franklin and Wells, in a northeast direction, it made its way as if directed by an engineer, in an air line, striking Madison street east of Wells, and near LaSalle. But, preceeding the actual blaze was the shower of brands, falling upon roofs, breaking through windows, falling into yards, and each brand starting a new fire. The fire was in full blast in the rear of the Union Bank and Oriental Buildings, before the actual fire had reached Wells street, three blocks to the southwest. In like manner the Chamber of Commerce building was in flames, the roof of the Court House was ablaze, the old TRIBUNE office was half destroyed, as distinct conflagrations. For a long time the Sherman House resisted destruction, and before it was abandoned the fire had commenced in a dozen places on the North Division. Any one who will take a map will see that the line from the point where the fire began, to the Water Works, was the exact line of the southwest wind. The fire was not continuous. Standing to the windward we could see the fire raging at various points along this line at the same time. The intervening gaps were rapidly overwhelmed by the flames, and shortly after Lill's brewery and the Water Works were ablaze . . . No obstacle seemed to interrupt the progress of the fire. Stone walls crumbled before it. It reached the highest roofs, and swept the earth of everything combustible. The gale was intense in its severity. Having reached the lake, we on the west had high hopes that the destructive work would be confined to the distinct path thus mown through the very heart of the city . . .
The hope that, as the fire had extended to the lake at Chicago avenue, and the wind was blowing fiercely from the west and south, that part of the North Division westward of the line of the fire would escape, was an idle one. Gradually all Clark Street was included, and thence to the west until the coal beds at the river were reached. The scene about daylight was terrific. The entire North Division, from the river to the lake, and as far north as North Avenue, was one seething mass of blaze. The roar of this fire was appalling . . . Just before daylight there was one continuous sheet of flame . . . making a semicircle the inner line of which was about seven miles long. All east of this was a perfect ocean of blaze.

This work was supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation             

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