History museum

Chicago History Museum remembers the Great Fire of 1871 | Chicago News

Friday, October 8 marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Great Chicago Fire, which began on a Sunday evening in O’Leary’s barn on the south side.

The fire burned until Tuesday morning as far north as Lincoln Park. A new exhibition offers a new look at the calamity that ravaged the city in 1871, a century and a half ago.


Marc Vitali: Recently commissioned works of art depict the fire and the reactions of the townspeople. Short films from Chicago’s famed animation collective Manual Cinema use Chinese shadows to represent the fire and share eyewitness accounts of survivors.

The new family exhibit at the Chicago History Museum features a child’s collection of marble – melted down, a charred hymn book – the only Chicago Historical Society book to survive the blaze, and a piece of wood from the ‘O’Leary the family barn.

Julius L. Jones, Curator, Chicago History Museum: First of all, you will see what the city that caught fire in 1871 looked like. It was a wooden city. It had been built quickly and cheaply because it was the fastest growing city in the world, and from there you are going to learn how this building, largely through wood, created the conditions for the fire.

It’s a flammable city. There has been a drought, higher than normal temperatures and strong winds are blowing.

But you’re also going to learn about the social climate, how the city was divided in so many ways and that sets the context for what happened after the fire, especially as it relates to the myth. of Mrs. O’Leary and her cow. We introduce you to Catherine O’Leary, her husband Patrick, and the idea that she is in many ways a scapegoat, a replacement for a group of people – immigrants, non-English speakers, Catholics – who are blamed for a whole series. of social ills in Chicago at the time.

(WTTW News)

Vitali: Outside the museum, a lava-like relic from the fire kicks off the new historic trail at the corner of Clark and LaSalle. Inside, we take a closer look at efforts to contain the blaze – and the traumatic effect of the blaze on residents.

Jones: We are talking about how people deal with a disaster of this magnitude. It was hard for people to understand, and still is in many ways, how destroyed everything was. You’re talking about 17,500 buildings, 100,000 people are left homeless, so we’re talking about how people accept even a disaster of this magnitude. And then we can get into the recovery and how, in an age where there is no FEMA, there is no emergency response: How do you handle a recovery of this magnitude?

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

Vitali: One way was outside help. A surge of support from around the world brought much needed relief to the besieged city.

Jones: The fire literally cleans out the central business district, what we now call the Loop, and makes it available for new construction. So this clearance of space allows us to build taller buildings and literally allows the city to grow in terms of skyscrapers and steel frame construction. This all happens after the fire and now, obviously, skyscrapers and taller buildings define life in Chicago.

In many ways, the city has come together around its identity and its conceptualization of self. There was an old nickname for the city that has fallen into disuse, but it was the city of the phoenix, right? Like that mythical bird, it had burned itself and rose from its own ashes, and that was deeply ingrained in how the people of Chicago viewed themselves.

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Visit the Chicago History Museum website for more information on the exhibition and WTTW’s Great Chicago Fire website for additional stories about the fire and its aftermath.


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