The Silver Lining of the Cloud

The main article on the fire in Harper's Weekly of October 28, titled "Chicago in Ashes" told the world, "The catalogue of individual ruin is the Directory of Chicago," and went on to describe the horrific destruction and "reign of terror" in the city. But the same issue included this far more upbeat discussion of the world's sympathy and Chicago's resilience.

The silver lining of the black Chicago cloud is evident. It is the response of this country and of England to the catastrophe that has befallen the great and prosperous city. While the fire was yet burning, meetings of sympathizing crowds assembled in the largest cities and little towns, and every railroad in the country was bearing succor to the suffering, and the lightning of the telegraph could not speak swiftly enough the promises of aid. If the calamity is unprecedented, the spirit it evokes is ennobling. There was but one feeling. It was not a Western city that was stricken, nor certain interests that were threatened, but it was friends and brothers who were suffering. That was the universal emotion. The grief of Chicago is the sorrow of the country, and private citizens and public bodies are rivals in generosity. All the admiration and wonder and pride which the busy and thriving city--the miracle of the West--awakened were as poor, compared with the spontaneous sympathy which followed its destruction, as the ashes and the ruins measured with the beautiful and stately buildings of the city.

The skill to deal with the first aspect of the emergency, that of physical relief, will not be wanting; and that of reorganizing industry and rebuilding the city is sure. Fire nor flood can quench the indomitable spirit that made Chicago, and will remake it greater than before. Already the same genius and energy which looked at its site thirty and forty years ago, and foresaw the city that we knew, is undoubtedly studying the wilderness of ruin now and calmly forecasting the future. Moreover, that so immense a destruction of actual wealth does not more seriously cripple the activity or affect the courage of the country, is an inspiring proof both of its sound condition and of its cheerful confidence. The cloud is indeed black and terrible: since the war no event has so startled and saddened the nation. But the dark brightened even in the very first moment of our consciousness of it, and almost instantly the brightness had conquered the gloom.

What practical lessons we shall learn from calamity in regard to security of building, we have yet to ascertain. That a city of brick and stone upon the edge of a lake should be destroyed by fire, seems to accuse our mechanical skill. Some engineer will resolve that it shall not happen again, and he will keep his resolution. The city that raised itself from the prairie, that turned a river backward, and although almost below the level of the lake, drained itself thoroughly, that drew to itself with fabulous skills the clearest water, that made highways under its river, and that sought new impossibilities to smile them away, is not a city that calamity can daunt or fire twice destroy. But it is not the future of Chicago that now appeals to us; it is its homeless, suffering people. We may imagine the utmost wretchedness, and yet fail to picture the simple truth. Indeed, this is the moment for the hand, as well as the heart. The land is answering the young man's question, "Who is my neighbor?" as the Master himself answered it; and no American had ever more right to be proud of his country than at the moment when it is soothing the suffering of Chicago and correcting the corruption of New York.