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The Great Chicago Fire

Back in the days before stringent fire codes and modern fire fighting technology, catastrophic urban fires were not uncommon. That's perhaps how Mark Twain, in his 1883 memoir Life on the Mississippi, could get away with this flip remark, commenting on the quality of the architecture of New Orleans:

New Orleans, I believe, has had the good luck--and in a sense the bad luck-- to have had no great fire in late years. It must be so. If the opposite had been the case, I think one would be able to tell the 'burnt district' by the radical improvement in its architecture over the old forms. One can do this in Boston and Chicago.

 

It's difficult to find any immediate "good luck" coming out of the devastation seen in this multiple image panorama taken after Chicago’s Great Fire in 1871. The hard facts of the fire are these: roughly 300 people died, 100,000 people—a third of the city's population—were left homeless, and four square miles, including the entire central business district, were leveled. Yet just as the flames died off, resolve and energy replaced grief and despair. This photograph was made about one month after the fire and you can see that makeshift homes, businesses, telegraph poles, and street car tracks are already in place, even before the rubble from the old city was pushed into the lake. Perhaps most indicative of the ‘life goes on’ spirit, a beer hall is seen in the foreground of the picture.

The building of this "second city" (the origin of Chicago's famous moniker) resulted in a boom that would eclipse the first city's boom by leaps and bounds. And certainly, opportunities to rebuild Chicago attracted many people to the city, including the architect Louis Sullivan. In just three years, Chicago would regain its position as the premier city of the Midwest. By the end of the century, New York City would be its only rival for the title of preeminent U.S. city.

Interestingly, there are no known photographs made during the Great Fire. The ferocity and speed of the firestorm, combined with the cumbersome photographic processes of the time, were too much even for the resourceful George Barnard, the assumed photographer of this panorama. He ended up in Lake Michigan, holding aloft a few precious photographic instruments as the city burned in front of him. However, Barnard quickly recovered his business and became one of the photographers who documented the aftermath and rebuilding of the city after the Fire. We do know that this panorama was probably made from one of the very few buildings in the fire's path to have survived. Lind Block, a five story building, stood at the corner of Market (today's Wacker Drive) and Randolph Streets until the 1960s.

—Jim I., Departmental Specialist, Photography