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Great Chicago Fire

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Great Chicago Fire

Great Chicago Fire

I have no passion or desire to write about a thunderous destruction of a city or the death of hundreds of people. Yes, I have no connection to this topic, besides my home being 30 minutes from downtown Chicago, but that does not mean that this fire does not pertain to me or anyone who lives in a completely different state for that matter. So, just because I have never experienced a disaster of this magnitude does not mean that my lips should stay shut regarding the topic of the Great Chicago Fire. What must be done is to look at events and, for that matter, life in a certain perspective that is not always one-sided. This one-sidedness can come from focusing on a particular outcome without realizing what else can come from that desired outcome.

The Great Chicago Fire occurred during October 8th and 9th of 1871. The weeks leading up to this disaster were spent with an extremely watchful eye on the city due to the lack of rain. So, one spark or one small fire could start an extremely large fire because of how much wood had been used to build the city. There were even warnings given in form of a building inspection department idea that would inform the city that the buildings were “shoddily constructed firetraps”, according to the Tribune at the time. However, the city did nothing about the proposed problem of a dangerous fire breakout and paid the price.

It came to the evening of October 8th, 1871 and the table had been set. It is still unclear how the fire had started because one newspaper claimed that a cow kicked over a lantern to start a barn on fire. However, that newspaper retracted their claims when charges of slander surfaced. The fact of the matter is, it started on the West Side of the city and in a short while had burned through a block of homes were burned down. As happens in all fires, the heat increased and elevated causing what William Ogden described as, “the fiercest Tornado of Win ever known to blow here.” (Public Broadcasting System). From there, a piece of debris was flown onto an oil tanker located across the river in the North Side. The North Side was ablaze. It was a terrible night for many of the residents of the city of Chicago and is one that will go down in infamy until the end of time. The final totals for the fire were at the minimum 300 deaths, 70,000 buildings burned to the ground, 100 thousand people forced to homelessness, 73 miles of street were incinerated, and 200 million dollars in damage.

There are many examples of struggle and despair during the fire, but there is one that I found very compelling. This excerpt from a letter written by a businessman from Chicago in 1871 brought into account the amount of people who came back and tried to save their precious belongings instead of focusing on getting out of town. The man in this example was able to sneak away with his life but faced some very close to death moments.

“…I therefore started on my return, but, besides having to walk over ground almost too heated to walk on, and through burning piles of merchandise, I presently encountered such a shower of cinders, dense smoke, and driven sand (every grain of which seemed to me impelled with a force sufficient to make it sink in the skin) that from sheer disagreeability, if not necessity, and fearing my clothes would take fire, I concluded to desist from any further effort to save the residue of my effects.”

Another example from the businessman’s letter shows what the effects of the fire were on the people who were in Chicago at that time. Keep in mind he originally thought he was in no harm, because of how frequent fires were in Chicago due to the use of wood throughout the city and the dryness of the city. Then, before he knew it he was directly in the grasp of the flames and suffered consequences similar to many other people.

“…I was so blackened that you might have taken me for a stoker; face, hands, hair, and clothes were covered with grit and soot; and my eyes literally bleeding, from the double effect of the sand sticking in them and the inflammation produced by the heat and the smoke. My wife, obtaining some milk, bathed my eyes. I have no doubt I looked and felt as you and some of your comrades may have done, after a heavy battle…”

The aftermath of the fire was extremely devastating as the remaining citizens of the city looked around at what was once a bustling, popular, and successful simply gone after two days of fire. I know if I was there and had just possibly lost my friends and family in the fire, I don’t know if I could live there longer or have any desire to rebuild the city.

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