Archive for the 'CHICAGO HISTORY HAPPENED HERE' Category

The Other Chicago Fire

You already know about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. On the evening of October 8, a barn on DeKoven Street caught fire. Pushed on by strong southwest winds, the flames roared into the business district, jumped the river, and swept through the North Side, before burning out a day later near Fullerton Avenue. More than 17,000 buildings were destroyed in an area covering 2100 acres. About 300 people were killed.

The 1871 fire was notorious enough to rate a star on Chicago’s official flag. Yet another, smaller fire a few years later also had a lasting impact on the city’s history.

The “other” Chicago Fire began on the afternoon of July 14, 1874. Around 4:30 the city fire department received an alarm from a box at Clark and 12th Streets. Arriving at the scene shortly afterward, the firefighters realized the blaze was already burning out of control. Chicago had been enduring hot, dry, windy weather for some days—just like in October 1871.

Chicago Tribune—July 15, 1874

The fire marshal called out every available man and piece of equipment. This area directly south of downtown, called Little Cheyenne, had been untouched by the 1871 fire. The blocks here were crammed tight with wooden shacks that fed the flames. The fire continued moving north. All attempts to contain it failed.

Meanwhile, people downtown could see the approaching flames. They could feel the heat. Once again, they began packing their belongings onto wagons and pulling out.

Night fell, and the fire had reached as far north as Van Buren Street. Then the firefighters caught a break. The wind shifted, turning the flames toward the east. And at Van Buren, the fire came up against the solidly-built, flame-resistant brick structures that had gone up in the aftermath of the 1871 blaze. By midnight the new fire had burned itself out along the lakefront.

The 1874 fire had destroyed 812 structures in an area of 47 acres. Twenty people had died. The total property damage was pegged at $1,067,260—about $22,000,000 in today’s money. Soon afterward, Chicago newspapers began referring to this blaze as “the little big fire.”  

Unlike the Great Fire of 1871, the origin of the 1874 fire has never been determined. The most common story is that it started in a barn next to an oil works on Clark Street. Nathan Isaacson, the owner of the barn, was arrested on a charge of arson. He was later acquitted in court, and most historians conclude that he was simply a victim of anti-Semitic hysteria.

The 1871 fire had spurred the city council into enacting Fire Limits. The idea was to protect the central business district from another catastrophe. No new wood buildings would be permitted in the area bounded by the Chicago River, Halsted Street, 22nd Street, and Lake Michigan, though existing wood buildings would be allowed to remain.

Problem solved? Not quite. As one historian put in, “Then caution gave way to indiscretion.”

Contemporary print highlighting the area burned in the 1874 fire

A proposal to extend the Fire Limits to include the entire city was defeated. The council also began allowing temporary wood structures within the boundaries, until permanent brick or stone structures could be erected. Nothing was said about how long those “temporary” buildings might stay in place.

But the second big fire in less than three years forced some real action. Disgusted with the dithering of Chicago politicians, the eastern insurance companies threatened to stop writing fire policies in the city. Meanwhile, a group of concerned residents formed the Citizens’ Association of Chicago to put pressure on officials. The Association brought in General Alexander Shaler, war hero and head of the New York City Fire Department, to study local conditions and make recommendations for improvement.

The 1874 fire cleared out many of the grandfathered wood buildings just south of downtown. Now the Fire Limits were extended to cover the entire city. The fire department was reorganized. An executive department to inspect buildings was established. The city’s single pumping station was joined by five new ones. Other safety laws were enacted, including a requirement that non-residential buildings have outside metal fire escapes. These are some of the lasting legacies of Chicago’s forgotten fire.

This is one of the stories in my latest book, UNKNOWN CHICAGO TALES.  Available at bookstores or on Amazon.