Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Commemorating the Great Chicago Fire

One hundred and forty years ago this month, Chicago burned. An exceptionally dry autumn and steady, strong winds created a deadly opportunity. The orange glow could be seen from as far away as Naperville, twenty six miles west.

Guy Sabin, a student at Naperville's North Central College wrote about the event in his diary:

Monday, Oct. 9, 1871, 9:00 p.m.
They got a dispatch that a fire had been raging in Chicago since last night, at 9 o’clock. Reports
at dark said it was almost all burnt down, and the fire was still going. The light of the fire can be seen from here.

Tuesday, Oct. 10, 1871
Went in to Chicago at 8:20. Was no school. The Pres. and Professors all went. Most of the city lays in ruins. Amos got a horse and buggy at Salisbury and Mark Castle, Amos and I rode over the ruins. They think it was set afire.

Wednesday, October 11, 1871, 9:45:
Father went in to Chicago at 7. Came home at 6. Mary Rogers came with him. The fire is nearly all put out.

While the Mrs. O'Leary's cow story was later found to be made up by a creative reporter, the fire was determined to have started on DeKoven Street, which was named for John DeKoven. John's wife, Helen Hadduck, was the granddaughter of Dexter Graves who sailed with Joseph Naper from Ohio to start anew in Illinois.

In a largely wooden city, fires were common and both the city and its citizens probably under-reacted to the threat. In fact, the fire department was trying to recover from fighting a fire just the day before. By the time everyone realized how serious the fire was, controlling it was all but impossible.

Reports say more than 100,000 people lost their homes and the death toll was in the hundreds. The fire burned from Sunday until Tuesday, jumping across the river and destroying the water works that supplied water for the fire department. Finally, the winds died down, rain slowed the fire's spread, and the smouldering rubble burned itself out.

Another Great Fire of 1871

The greatest number of fire deaths in United States history occurred on October 8, 1871, but the fire didn't happen in Chicago.

A little to the north in Wisconsin, Peshtigo and surrounding communities also burned that day -- at the same time as the Great Chicago Fire. Estimates of between 1,000 and 2,500 people lost their lives and almost two square miles of homes, farmland and forest. Survivors reported seeing a tornado form from the immense heat and wind generated by the huge fire.

Approximately 300 unidentified victims wound up being buried in a mass grave. You can visit the grave site today, as well as the Peshtigo Fire Museum which is nearby. The museum has a collection of artifacts from the fire, although there wasn't much that remained once the flames finally subsided. Both contemporary accounts and recent publications are also available to learn more about this horrific event that was overshadowed by Chicago's story.

Where History Is Happening

Naper Settlement's All Hallows Eve
Friday and Saturday, October 21 & 22
6:30-10 p.m

Don't miss two of the scariest nights of the year during All Hallows Eve, a unique event based on the darkest literature and events of the 19th century. The usually calm and quaint 12-acre museum village is haunted by a diabolical menagerie of spirits, vampires, werewolves, witches and otherworldly creatures of the night. Joining them are some of the most sinister characters and criminals of the 19th century including Lizzie Borden, Count Dracula, Sweeny Todd and others who roam the grounds or take up residence in the historic houses and businesses.
$15/person. Discounted tickets available online until October 20.

Crime in Chicago Seminar
Wednesday, November 2
7:00 p.m.

Leigh Bienen, Senior Lecturer in the School of Law at Northwestern University is the Director of the Chicago Historical Homicide Project. Working with her research team, Ms. Bienen examined primary source documents and police and court reports to create a compelling database of Chicago murders spanning the Chicago Fire through the first decade of the 20th century. The lecture will focus on the nature of Chicago murder, cases both famous and forgotten, and will juxtapose historic patterns of homicide with the modern day.
Cost: $10, $8 members