The Ruined City

It was the completeness of the wreck; the total desolation which met the eye on every hand; the utter blankness of what had a few hours before been so full of life, of associations, of aspirations, of all things which kept the mind of a Chicagoan so contantly driven.

Elias Colbert and Everett Chamberlin, Chicago and the Great Conflagration, 1871

Devastated Chicago remained so forbiddingly hot that it took a day or two before it was possible even to begin a comprehensive survey of the losses. According to the papers, in some instances when anxious businessmen opened their safes amidst the rubble of what was once their offices, valuable contents that had survived the inferno suddenly burst into flame on exposure to the air.

Shortly after the fire, Stephen L. Robinson, a North Division resident whose home was not burned, set out to take a look for himself through his part of the city, marking what was still standing by annotating a map he carried with him. Among the few scattered surviving structures he encountered were the mansion of Mahlon Ogden (brother of Chicago's first mayor, William Ogden) on Lafayette (now Walton) Street by Washington Square Park, and the much more modest home on Hudson Street of police officer Richard Bellinger.  Both structures were saved by a combination of wetting them down and good luck. Had Robinson made it to the South Division, he would have seen the Lind Block standing a forlorn watch over the downtown. Had he then crossed the Randolph Street Bridge to the West Division, turned left on Jefferson Street, and paced another mile to DeKoven Street, he would have found the O'Leary cottage safe and sound in front of the ashes of the barn.

The so-called "Burnt District," a map of which appeared in virtually every account of the fire, encompassed an area four miles long and an average of three-quarters of a mile wide, including over 28 miles of streets, 120 miles of sidewalks, and over 2,000 lampposts, along with countless trees, shrubs, and flowering plants in a place that liked to call itself "the Garden City of the West." Gone were some 18,000 buildings and $200 million in property, about a third of the valuation of the entire city. Around half of this was insured, but the failure of numerous companies cut the actual payments in half again. One hundred thousand Chicagoans lost their homes, an uncounted number their places of work. 

Map Showing the Burnt District in Chicago, 3rd Edition; R. P. Studley Company, 1871 (ichi-02870)

The North Division was the hardest hit. By Colbert and Chamberlin's count, 13,300 of 13,800 buildings in this portion of the city were destroyed, leaving almost 75,000 people homeless. Virtually the entire German community in the North Division was burned out. The fire also destroyed the genteel neighborhood of the Old Settlers. Gone was I. N. Arnold's art collection, library, and Lincoln memorabilia. Gone also were his lilacs, elms, barn, and greenhouse.  William Ogden lost to "the besom of destruction" not only his Chicago home and businesses but also his vast lumber holdings in Wisconsin, which fell before the great fire in Peshtigo, near Green Bay, the same night.

But these men and their families were among the more fortunate victims, since they had money in the bank, stocks and bonds, solid insurance, and a substantial network of family and friends. The less well-to-do suffered more severely. It was likely that the fire consumed everything they owned and at least temporarily deprived them of work. If they had insurance at all, it was likely with one of the local companies that failed in the fire. In one of the infrequent sympathetic mentions of the poor in contemporary published accounts of the fire, Colbert and Chamberlin spoke of those "who had no twenty dollars to give to a cartman" and "no sympathizing friends down the avenue to give them shelter and other comforts."  Estimates of the fatalities, which mostly range between two and three hundred (by contrast, the fire in rural Peshtigo was the worst in American history in terms of loss of life, with some 1500 killed), seem surprisingly low.

View of the Union Depot after the Fire of 1871; Jex Bardwell, Photograph, 1871 (ichi-59804)

Without losing sight of all the loss and suffering, it is important to remember how much of the city did not burn. Most heavy industries, including the Union Stock Yard (then in the adjoining town of Lake), were located west or south of the burnt district, out of harm's way. The downtown railroad depots were leveled, but not the far more critical rail infrastructure. What the fire could not touch at all was Chicago's most important feature, its location, which made it so splendily accessible to the nation's resources and markets.

Post Office and Custom House after the Fire; P. B. Greene, Stereograph, 1871 (ichi-64153)

But for the moment--and it turned out to be a brief moment--the devastation caused by the fire was inescapable.  After the first shock wore off, the post-holocaust cityscape quickly came to possess a double fascination, both in itself and because of its association with what it suggested about the past and future of Chicago. The blocks and blocks of ruins were a riveting subject for photographers, illustrators, and their audiences. "The town is beginning to fill with aesthetic sight-seers," the New York Tribune reported three days after the fire went out. "The artists of the illustrated papers are seated at every coign of vantage, sketching for dear life against the closing of the mail." The scale and aesthetic appeal of the ruins seemed to some to endow the young city with a place in history. "No city can equal now the ruins of Chicago, not even Pompeii, much less Paris," E. J. Goodspeed bragged in his history of the fire.

Another contemporary chronicle, James W. Sheahan's and George T. Upton's The Great Conflagration, contained a six-page meditation on on the surreal cityscape. Titled "Chicago by Moonlight," it brimmed with mythological allusions and historical references. To Goodspeed, writing in a similarly purple passage, the fire seemed to defy the usual restrictions of time, with which Chicago's spirit always had so little patience. This city with no past now "in the compass of a single night" had ruins equal to those of great and ancient civilizations. "Here all time is reproduced in a moment," he wrote, conveniently overlooking the fact that it was the city's hasty and careless expansion that had put its future at risk in the first place.