Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Same Story, Different Chapter—The Great Chicago Fire

(By Currier and Ives - Chicago Historical Society (ICHi-23436), Public Domain/Wikipedia)
We continue our "Same Story, Different Chapter" series showcasing the Great Chicago which started the same day as the Phestigo fire on October 8, 1871. Regardless of how the fire started (the rumor of a cow), the Great Chicago fire would become one of the most devastating and famous fires in U.S. history. So much so that few would ever hear about the Phestigo fire with nearly three times the loss of life.

  • Fire burned from October 8th to 10th
  • Killed an estimated 300 people 
  • Left nearly 100,000 homeless
  • Destroyed over 17,000 structures
  • Resulted in $200,000,000 in damages

  • Rapid expansion and inadequate building codes contributed to quick construction.
  • Kindling-type housing in the impoverished south areas of the city.
  • Grand homes in the north areas had water delivery system.
  • West division where fire started lacked water system. 
  • Modern fire department, but small than needed for the growing size of Chicago
  • The alarm system failed.
  • Dry weather, and abundance of wooden buildings, wood chipped streets and wooden sidewalks contributed fuel for the fire.
  • A fire early Sunday morning resulted in exhausted firefighters and out-of-service equipment.
  • Human error and miscommunication about fire location delayed response time.
  • "Fire-proof" constructed buildings were consumed.
  • Burning brands were spread by winds.
  • Congested roads and burned bridges compromised egress.
Following the fire:
  • Insurance companies were unable to fulfill their responsibilities
  • Population doubled
  • Building codes were established
  • Insurance practices were revised
  • Fire prevention became a priority
  • A resilient people rebuilt their city
by John Greenleaf Whittier

Men said at vespers: "All is well!" 
In one wild night the city fell; 
Fell shrines of prayer and marts of gain 
Before the fiery hurricane. 

On threescore spires had sunset shone, 
Where ghastly sunrise looked on none. 
Men clasped each other's hands, and said: 
"The City of the West is dead!" 

Brave hearts who fought, in slow retreat, 
The fiends of fire from street to street, 
Turned, powerless, to the blinding glare, 
The dumb defiance of despair. 

A sudden impulse thrilled each wire 
That signalled round that sea of fire; 
Swift words of cheer, warm heart-throbs came; 
In tears of pity died the flame! 

From East, from West, from South and North, 
The messages of hope shot forth, 
And, underneath the severing wave, 
The world, full-handed, reached to save. 

Fair seemed the old; but fairer still 
The new, the dreary void shall fill 
With dearer homes that those o'erthrown, 
For love shall lay each corner-stone. 

Rise, stricken city! from thee throw 
The ashen sackcloth of thy woe; 
And build, as to Amphion's strain, 
To songs of cheer thy walls again! 

How shrivelled in thy hot distress 
The primal sin of selfishness! 
How instant rose, to take thy part, 
The angel in the human heart! 

Ah! not in vain the flames that tossed 
Above thy dreadful holocaust; 
The Christ again has preached through thee 
The Gospel of Humanity! 

The lift once ore thy towers on high, 
And fret with spires the western sky, 
To tell that God is yet with us, 
And love is still miraculous!

Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge - Digging a Little Deeper
  • What lesson(s) can you pull from the Great Chicago fire?
  • What similarities do you see playing out today?

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