The Chicago Fire: a declaration of Chicago's success as a city
At 7:00 pm on Sunday, October 8, 1871, Chicago was well on its way to becoming a thriving city. It had just passed St. Louis as the city with the fourth largest population in the country after existing only as small trading post at the beginning of the 1800s. Chicago was the city that, more than any other, embodied the booming industry of the country. In 1869, Chicago was connected to both the East and West coasts of the nation by the ten railroads that converged on the city. The city held over 1100 factories, and was home to commercial exchanges, wholesale houses, department stores, and the famous Union Stock Yards.
But when the fire started at approximately 9 pm in the O'Leary barn, one of the greatest calamities in United States history was under way. The fire, which quickly spread throughout the city, covered an area four miles long and about three-quarters of a mile wide. Approximately 18 thousand buildings were destroyed, worth two hundred million dollars. In other words, a third of the monetary value of the entire city was gone. 100,000 Chicagoans lost their homes, and 300 lost their lives.
But the "city of the big shoulders" went right to work and began to rebuild their home. Mayor Roswell B. Mason immediately instituted a plan of action and created various different committees to help rebuild different aspects of the city. There were mass meetings in Central Park and all over the city in order to help provide aid to the citizens of the city. The city rebuilt so quickly and effectively that the House of Representatives awarded Chicago the privilege of hosting the World's Fair in February of 1890. This was a sure sign of how far the city had come in just 20 years since the Fire.
With the attraction of the fair and the 200+ buildings that were erected for it, the city grew even more impressive. Chicago bounced back from the disaster so quickly and decisively that the Fire is almost better remembered for the improved city that it created rather than the damage it caused. One key aspect of the rebuilding efforts was the optimistic outlook of the citizens, who, through hard work and dedication, were able to build a city more impressive than the one they had lost. In Carl Sandburg's poems about the city of Chicago and the citizens that call it home, he repeatedly references the character of the people. This character is what helped the city recover so quickly from the disaster, and what helped make Chicago into the thriving city it is today.
The Chicago Fire has become a true declaration of Chicago's ability to bounce back from disaster, an explanation as to why it can keep the nickname "city of the big shoulders," and a statement about the nature of the citizens who live there. 1, 2, 3