Urban Politics: The Great Chicago Fire
The Great Chicago Fire was a tragedy that occurred in Chicago for three days. The tragedy began on October 8 and was put under control on October 10 in the year 1871. The fire caused damage both to property and human beings (Branch 23). Approximately a total area of 9 km2 of land was affected by the fire. The tragedy killed 300 people and left other 100,000 homeless. The specific location where the fire happened was Illinois, Chicago.
The Source of the Fire
The fire tragedy is believed to have started at around 9 p.m. in the evening from a small barn owned by O’Leary family. This small barn was next to an alley and it was located behind Dekovean Street. Next to the barn was a shed and this was the first building to get totally burnt to the ground. What caused the fire has always remained a mystery since city officials were not able to determine the actual cause of the fire. There have been several stories and tales behind the exact cause of the fire over the years. One of the theories states that a cow that belonged to Mrs. O’Leary that is believed to have knocked over a kerosene lamp starting the fire (Cleland 65).
In addition to that, there is also another theory suggesting that some men were gambling in the barn and ended up in an argument that made them knock over a lantern that led to the spread of the fire (Cromie 46). Moreover, others also believe that the fire was associated with other fires that were happening in the Midwest on the same day. The exact cause of the fire as stated earlier still remains a mystery since these are just theories given by different sources.
The spread of the fire
The design of the buildings facilitated the rapid spread of the fire. During those times, the city buildings were built on wood as their major material component. The buildings at that time were built with a famous style known as the balloon frame. In addition to that, before the start of the fire, there was a prolonged period of drought and the wooden structures and buildings were completely dry. Consequently, this facilitated the fast spread of the fire (DePastino 98). In Chicago, more than three-quarters of the buildings were made of wood during that time.
It is also worth noting that the structures and buildings were also roofed with tar and shingle roofs, which are highly flammable. The entire city was made of wood including the city sidewalks and roads. The severe drought conditions that had hit Chicago for the last four months before the fire tragedy happened had dried up all structures and trees around the city and thus the fire was able to spread with ease (Kogan and Cromie 123).
At that time, the Chicago fire department had a total of 185 firefighters who operated 17 steam engines that were horse-drawn. The fire department also faced some challenges in their response to the fire. To begin with, an error was made by Matthias Schaffer who was a watchman. He directed the firefighters to the wrong place and before the firefighters could trace the right location the fire had already spread all over (Miller 179).
Upon the arrival of the firefighters at Dekoven Street, the fire had already spread to other buildings and was now approaching the central business district. Previously, a fire outbreak had burnt the southern part of Chicago River and the firefighters were hoping that this would act as a natural firebreak. Coal yards, warehouses, and lumberyards were located across the river and due to the southwest wind that was carrying burning debris from the fire lit up the structures located across the river (Miller et al. 65).
The fire spread to an extent that it reached the South Side Gas Works. On reaching these gas works the fire turned into explosions. Moreover, the fire was further intensified by a fire whirl, which is a meteorological phenomenon. This phenomenon occurs when the hot air from the fire rises displacing the cold air causing airwaves like a tornado. The fire whirls threw fire debris all over lighting up various locations and buildings.
The city firefighters continued to fight the fire but their efforts were paralyzed when the fire reached the city’s waterworks. The city waterworks was destroyed and the water mains of the city dried. As a result, the city was left with no aid to deal with the fire and it continued to burn building after building (Miller et al. 79). The fire lasted for three days and on 9th it started raining helping to put out the fire. Moreover, the fire had already started dying off.
The Tragedy Aftermath
The fire tragedy finally ended but the damage caused was huge. The city officials attempted to evaluate the damage with no progress since the remains from the burnt structures were still very hot. After two days the city officials managed to conduct the survey and came up with the statistics on the damage caused by the fire (Murphy 56). Statistics revealed that the fire had destroyed a total area of 2,000 acres.
There was also destruction of 117 km of roads, 17,500 buildings, 190 km of sidewalks, and a total of $222 million worth of property. In addition to that, the city had 300,000 inhabitants of which 100,000 were left homeless. There were several casualties and the death count was as high as 300. The death count from the survey was not accurate because it was based only on the bodies recovered. Other bodies were completely burnt beyond recognition and it was difficult to differentiate between body remains and the remains of structures and buildings (Murphy et al. 70).
Following the tragedy that had befallen Chicago, donations of clothing, food, finances and other goods started. These donations were from different parties such as private individuals, government, and non-government corporations as well as international bodies. Since the transport network in the city was destroyed, aid was brought to the city by use of railway transport (Nobleman 123). A body known as Chicago Relief and Aid Society was given the responsibility of offering relief channeled to the city.
City officials alongside other leaders met in the First Congregational Church in an attempt to recover the old Chicago. The first step they undertook was to lower the prices of necessities such as food and water. In addition to that, public buildings were converted to refugee settlements. The homeless settled temporarily in those public buildings and survived on the relief sent both from other cities and across boundaries.
The Great Rebuilding
The great rebuilding of Chicago was an effort to revive the city and avoid such a tragedy from recurring. These efforts were geared towards the construction of a new urban center, the creation of innovative buildings with new architectural styles (Smith 56). In the past, buildings in the city were only fitted with one single layer of fireproof material with the roofing being done using shingles. The structure of the buildings was wooden. This factor was one of the major factors that facilitated the rapid spread of the fire and paralyzing the firefighter efforts during the tragedy.
The central business district was completely destroyed but the South Side was left untouched. The stockyards and the new packing plants in the south were also left untouched. Lumberyards, mills, and wharfs that were located along Chicago River were not damaged. In addition to that, two-thirds of the grain elevators in the west were also not damaged and they sourced the city with food (Branch 132).
Agricultural industries that survived as well as trade created employment opportunities to the city dwellers and ensured that the city finances were maintained in a stable state. Moreover, in as much as the transport network was damaged by the tragedy the railway network still remained intact. The railway tracks were used to ferry shipments and relief sourced from different parts of the country (Cleland 57). Through the railway network, Chicago was able to get book donations from England. These books were used to make the first public library in Chicago. Chicago Fire Academy was then built in 1956 where barn owned by Mrs. O’Leary was before the tragedy struck the city. The school is a training college for firefighters up to date.
The First Phase of the Reconstruction
Immediately after the fire tragedy, the construction of new structures and buildings commenced. Engineers and architects focused on designing buildings that were better than the previous ones in terms of durability and their fire prove capacity. After the tragedy, the city officials in association with the city architects and engineers passed new laws. These laws required the new buildings to be constructed with materials that were fireproof (Miller et al. 154).
The new buildings were constructed using materials such as stones, concrete bricks, limestone and marble. Most of the city dwellers were used to the simple wooden buildings and found it hard to switch to the new buildings since the new building materials were expensive than the previous ones (Miller et al. 173). The building materials were held together using mortar and concrete and this ensured that the buildings were strong and durable as compared to those constructed using wood.
The mortar construction technique was known as masonry and the construction workers were known as masons. The skilled masons were expensive to hire. Moreover, the fireproof material that was passed by law to be used was also expensive for the locals. As a result, small businesses could not afford and were thus crowded out of the city. The small businesses could also not afford insurance policies for the expensive buildings (Miller et al. 184).
The Terra Cotta Phase of Reconstruction
The first phase of reconstruction was halted by two events that came up. The first event was the failure of the main bank in Chicago in 1873. The failure of the bank led the country to a great depression that affected the reconstruction efforts. This depression forced the population to halt the construction of buildings. The other event that unfolded and affected the reconstruction efforts was another fire tragedy that happened in July 1874. The tragedy was a small fire that destroyed more than 800 buildings covering a total area of over 60 acres. After this second tragedy, the laws on construction with fire proof materials were enforced more (Nobleman 78). Based on the expensive nature of the building materials only the big banks and the big businesses dominated the central business district.
Following the expensiveness of the building materials, Terra-cotta clay emerged and became another cheaper alternative of building fireproof structures. In the 1880s, most of the buildings in Chicago were built with the material and by then the city was ranked as the most fireproof cities in the world.
Palmer House was one of the luxury hotels on Monroe Street that was renovated using Terra Cotta. The building had been constructed 13 days before the great fire happened and the architect of the building happened to have buried the blueprints in a hole in the basement of the building and covered them with sand and clay (Miller et al. 68).
After the Great Chicago Fire tragedy, the architects were able to recover the blueprints undamaged. That is when the architects concluded that sand and clay could make a good fireproof material. Clay and sand are the main components used to make terra cotta. The material was used in roofing the new Palmer House (Kogan and Cromie 165). The rest of the building was made of iron and brick and in the big hotel chains, Palmer house advertised itself as the world’s most fireproof hotel.
Moreover, Terra cotta had also been used in the construction of Montauk Block located on Monroe Street. The building was the first high-rise building that had 150 offices in it and it was 10 stories tall. During the second fire tragedy that happened, the clay tiles protected the iron frame of the building from melting by creating an insulation. Terra cotta material was also used to construct buildings during winter since the Montauk building construction proceeded even during winter.
Building of the Chicago School
Following the reconstruction of Chicago, the services of architects were in high demand. In order to meet the needs and demands of the people, the school was constructed to equip architects with essential skills to construct buildings. Most businesspersons in Chicago demanded plain looking buildings as a way of minimizing the construction costs (Miller 89). The technique of designing such buildings that were in demand was taught in this school and was known as the style of Chicago school architects.
One of the works of Chicago school architects was in the construction of the Home Insurance Building. The New York Home Insurance company relocated to Chicago and it challenged the architects to develop a building design that would bring natural light to all parts of the building. Baron Jenney devised a solution and also suggested the use of steel in the upper floors of the building (DePastino 124).
The steel frame allowed the construction of large windows on the sides of the building while maintaining the strength of the building. Steel is much lighter, stronger than iron and through the steel cages created on the top floors natural light could enter the tall buildings, and other architects in the city adopted his design. It is also worth noting that the partitioning of offices was done using brick and tiles made of terra cotta. The building was considered as the first skyscraper in the world (DePastino 137).
The Great Chicago Fire remains a mystery on how it started but it is one of the world’s most tragic events ever. The fire was one of the tragic events that were uncontrollable and where only nature itself dictated the control of the tragedy. As discussed above the efforts of the firefighters were unable to control the fire due to the city construction and other natural factors that facilitated the spreading of the fire.
The tragedy created problems as well as the destruction of property in Chicago and left many people homeless. The fire as discussed affected the operations of the city and the country at large as it hit the central business district which was the core of all business activities. In as much as the tragedy had its demerits, to some extent, it helped the Chicago architects to evolve and design safer buildings. The Chicago architects evolved from using wood as their primary building material to using fireproof materials such as stones, bricks, and limestone. This later evolved to the use of terra cotta, which was a cheaper fireproof material, made of sand and clay. Using these techniques Chicago has been ranked as one of the most fireproof cities in the world.
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