Between October 8–10, 1871, much of the city of Chicago was destroyed by one of the most legendary urban fires in history. Incorporated as a city in 1837, Chicago had grown at a breathtaking pace in barely three decades, from just over 4,000 in 1840 to greater than 330,000 at the time of the fire. Built hastily, the city was largely made of wood. Once it began in the barn of Catherine and Patrick O’Leary, the Fire quickly grew out of control, twice jumping branches of the Chicago River on its relentless northeastward path through the city’s three divisions. Close to one of every three Chicago residents was left homeless and more were instantly unemployed, though the death toll was miraculously low.
Remarkably, no carefully researched popular history of the Great Chicago Fire has been written until now, despite it being one of the most cataclysmic disasters in US history. Building the story around memorable characters, both known to history and unknown, including the likes of General Philip Sheridan and Robert Todd Lincoln, eminent Chicago historian Carl Smith chronicles the city’s rapid growth and place in America’s post-Civil War expansion. The dramatic story of the fire—revealing human nature in all its guises—became one of equally remarkable renewal, as Chicago quickly rose back up from the ashes thanks to local determination and the world’s generosity and faith in Chicago’s future.
As we approach the fire’s 150th anniversary, Carl Smith’s compelling narrative at last gives this epic event its full and proper place in our national chronicle.
Disclaimer: Although I received a copy of the Uncorrected Proof of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, the words and opinions below are my own.
Don’t ask how I developed an interest in Chicago, its Great Fire, and the later World’s Fair, because I won’t have an answer for you. I’ve not even been to Chicago unless you count being at O’Hare Airport for flight transfers. I’ve only seen downtown from the air. It might’ve been the story of an infamous murderer doing his deeds during the 1893 World’s Fair that got me started. From there, I would’ve looked at the event, and then back to the Great Fire 22 years earlier. The Fair was a way to promote Chicago’s grandeur and rebuilding after the fire. It was a phoenix, rising from the ashes. The preface from this recent release about the fire goes as far as stating that, with hindsight, it was a good thing that the city burned. Continue reading