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Great Chicago Fire

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Autor:  tomy  11 June 2010
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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. However, Chicagoans did not wait around to feel pity for themselves they simply got back up after being knocked down and went to work. Not only did the city itself unite towards the common goal of building itself back up, but the entire country shared the same desire for the city. Relief was sent in the direction of the city in forms of money, supplies, and any other aid that was necessary to put Chicago back on the map of the great Western cities. I believe the reason the response was so strong from the rest of the country was because of how the rest of the country viewed Chicago. It was viewed as new and futuristic. It was what the rest of the cities of the country wanted to be. They wanted to be in the center of all trade, new businesses, and other amazing opportunities for happiness and wealth. If this city fell and never rose out of the ashes then what would happen to the rest of the cities who dreamed of being just like Chicago? Initially, the effort was to get the city back to where it was before the fire struck, but while they were at it they made it one of the best cities in the world.

The rebuilding process was not simple and involved the use of many recent innovations such as the telephone, railroads, and skyscrapers. The telephone was used to talk from city to city to determine what was needed and how to get it there. The other cities got materials to Chicago by the use of the railroads. Then, Chicago came back into focus after it became one of the first skyscraper cities in the entire world. So, the Chicago Fire aided the implantation of all of these recent innovations to everyday society by showing how useful they can be in the time of need.

An interesting thought about the fire and the people involved would be how the fire affected the later generations of a family. Did they act differently knowing how their ancestors perished in the flames? Did they act differently knowing that their ancestors played a part in rebuilding the city one of the very finest? I would be led to believe that these ideas would play a large role in the lives of the children of the Chicago Fire participants. They could look at their lives and be motivated to act based on the fact that you never know what can happen from one day to the next, like a great city burning down in a matter of days. Also, they could act with the thought that anything is possible, like rebuilding a great city from its ashes to a product that is even better.

The next and most important thought, in my opinion, on the Great Chicago Fire is whether or not the fire should be deemed a complete disaster or should it be looked at as a success? It is a terrible thing to say that the death of 300 people could possibly be a success, but once you can get past that point and look at the outcome of the event and what became of the city afterwards you can really get to the core of the question. If one looks at disasters in this way, it is much easy for it to be rationalized. How do people who do not believe in a God and its plan for everyone deal with the fact that so many people perished from one act? There is no good reason for mass amounts of people to die, but if something greater comes from it regarding the well-being of many more people it makes it more bearable.

If a person were to say that the fire was not a success for the city, they would have an approach that focuses only on what happened in the present and not about what is going to happen in the future. This can be looked at in many modern day references such as getting fired from a job, changing living locations, losing a loved one, or something as simple as not having that last piece of cake. All of these aforementioned events have impacts that can be bad right when they occur, but once given time they can turn into outcomes that if you were told beforehand would happen you would not hesitate to have that bad event happen to you. For example, say a person got fired from their job. Initially, there would be a great amount of despair over the loss of security and anxiety about how the cards would fall. What if during that time in which you did not have a job you were able to find yourself and realize that you are not heading down the life path that you had wanted since you were young. You would have a chance to go ahead and change your life and your happiness simply because you got canned. Obviously, if you did not get fired you would not have had that chance to sit back and realize your life is sliding away in the wrong direction. Indeed, that is a very extreme example of how this question would apply to everyday life, but it works with those events of the simplest nature too.

If one looks at disasters in this way, it is much easy for it to be rationalized. How do people who do not believe in a God and its plan for everyone deal with the fact that so many people perished from one act. There is no good reason for mass amounts of people to die, but if something greater comes from it regarding the well-being of many more people it makes it more bearable.

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