Chicago was a tinderbox. In 1871, the city was packed with wood-frame houses, wooden sidewalks, and hay-filled barns, nestled alongside lumber processing mills, paper factories, wood-frame churches, and saloons. Thirty-four years since its municipal incorporation, Chicago was now home to over 300,000 people, roughly half of them immigrants who journeyed to the city seeking work in its booming lumber and construction industries. Given the limited means that immigrants came with, they often resided in these densely packed neighborhoods. Between October 2 and October 7 alone, the fire department had been dispatched to twenty-eight fires, and the frequency of fires made fire-watching a local spectator sport. Each time the Cook County Courthouse bell rang to alert the fire department of the fire’s location, firefighters would show up and find not just a blaze, but a crowd of onlookers taking in the scene, cheering on the action, and occasionally picking up a hose if the department needed an extra hand. Regularity can make even the most visceral, violent events feel deceptively familiar, and this was the case with fires in Chicago.
But the fire that began in Kate O’Leary’s barn on the night of October 7 was different. As Scott W. Berg narrates in The Burning of the World: The Great Chicago Fire and the War for a City’s Soul, a blend of fire department fatigue from a massive fire just the night before, faulty location alerts, relentless winds, and, of course, all of the wood, created a roaring fire that moved quickly. Beginning on 137 W DeKoven Street—halfway between the neighborhoods known today as South Loop and Little Italy—the fire jumped east over the south branch of the Chicago River, crawled up the city, jumped the north branch of the river, and ultimately burned an area approximately four miles long before fizzling out the next day. Berg follows the blaze in cinematic detail, weaving first-person accounts of the fire, with a history of the city and its notable personalities based on the fire’s path. But despite the wreckage, as Berg demonstrates, the greatest struggle that emerged from the Great Chicago Fire was not that of physically rebuilding the city. Rather, the political battle between the city’s elites and working classes, and the ultimate question of who the city is supposed to serve would be the greatest legacy the fire left behind.
Before the fire, Chicago was a neoliberal’s dream. Most municipal decisions were made by and for a handful of industry tycoons who felt little responsibility to the workers and residents of the city; they cared more about “Chicago” as a brand that could attract investment capital from east coast banks. Cheap labor was widely available and unregulated, and the government provided few social or civic services. Yet, the city’s fast-paced growth attracted workers from far and wide who, despite cutthroat working conditions, were eager for opportunity and took their fortunes into their own hands. But the scale of the devastation now facing its residents ushered in an opportunity to rethink the social contract that governed the city.
News of the fire spread quickly, and donations from other cities all around the country began pouring in. In response, Charles C.P. Holden, president of the Chicago Common Council, directed a city-run centralized collection and distribution center to pass out food, clothing, and other supplies to residents who’d lost everything in their fire. Holden’s initiative was the first semblance of a vision of government that saw responding to its residents’ material needs in times of distress as one of its primary responsibilities. And just one day after its formation, a coalition of wealthy industrialists and business owners tried to stop it, wrestle away the donations, and take control over deciding which residents were “worthy” of receiving help.
This cycle continued in the months and years following the fire. As the city’s working and immigrant classes began to rebuild their lives, they became more aware of how their misfortunes were being exploited by the wealthy; and as the wealthy became aware of the scope of the destruction and its impact on their ability to attract investment capital, they mobilized to create a new political party and pass legislation to consolidate power in the mayor they elected, and to use the newspapers—which many of them owned—to put forth their vision of the city. But the elites’ policy agenda made their disdain for the immigrant and working classes particularly overt: proposed fire-limit policies would effectively price-out thousands of people from their homes, austerity measures and attacks on welfare were coupled with anti-immigrant rhetoric, and, as a tipping point of sorts, a temperance ordinance briefly passed which prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays—the one day that many workers had off from work, and when they’d gather at local saloons. Such measures made possible a new wave of political solidarity among various working-class immigrant groups never before seen in Chicago, followed up by political rallies, the storming of a city hall meeting, and mass-demonstrations in protest.
Berg’s account of the events following the Great Chicago Fire is not only a political and social history of the moment, but of a people deeply aware of the historical moment they were living in and how they tried to bend it in their favor. The question of how history is made and whose history survives underlies the book. Newspapers were owned by powerful men like Joseph Medill, the majority owner and editor-in-chief of the Chicago Tribune, who also served as the city’s mayor in the years following the fire. Hence, newspapers were often vehicles and platforms for the powerful to espouse their views unfiltered. Berg relies heavily on newspaper archives, but also makes plain the biases and political agendas they came with. While the city’s poor and immigrant classes weren’t afforded the same platforms to articulate their perspectives and experiences, their political demonstrations offer insight into their struggles and what they were fighting for. Berg’s history shines light on the narratives floating around after the fire, and the corresponding political visions those narratives were designed to support. The question of who speaks for Chicago, whose voice gets heard, and whose voices are recognized by the government characterized the essential struggle during this time.
In addition to the political history, Berg also brings in figures whose names are still recognizable in Chicago today, such as the retail magnate Marshall Field, real-estate and hospitality mogul Palmer Potter (whose Palmer House hotel is still operating in the city), and William Ogden, the first mayor of Chicago, among many others. He also devotes space to the story of Kate O’Leary, in whose barn the fire started, and how a myth around her formed and traveled throughout the city. In all, The Burning of the World is a vivid, character driven history that illuminates the political machinations of the time, along with the spirit and culture of the city and how it viewed itself in this era.
Ultimately, the Chicago that emerged from the Great Fire of 1871 was a fundamentally different city than before. The clashing views of the future of Chicago—and the political demonstrations of people willing to fight for the city they believed in—gave rise to a Chicago of ground-up multi-ethnic coalitions. As Berg writes, “Chicago went from a frontier outpost in which a small group of men made a lot of money while making most of the decisions, to, two years later, a hothouse of populist democracy, a locus of political power and ambition for a much wider swath of the citizenry than had ever been imagined before. In this manner […] Chicago became a modern American city.”
The Burning of the World: The Great Chicago Fire and the War for a City’s Soul
by Scott W. Berg
Published September 26th, 2023
Farooq Chaudhry is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He currently serves as a Daily Editor for the Chicago Review of Books. You can find him on Twitter at @spilledchai_.