It’s a Sunday in 1871, the morning of October 8, and Chicago has started to burn. It started near a small barn in an alleyway by 137 DeKoven Street. It’s unknown how exactly the fire began. Though Michael Ahem — a reporter for the Chicago Republican — famously wrote that the fire started when a cow kicked over a lantern, he later admitted that the account was fiction and he simply thought it would be a good story. It was, of course, a good story, but the fallout of the blaze told its own tale: having spread easily among Chicago’s wooden buildings (a then-overused material in the Windy City), the fire continued until Tuesday, October 10, destroying much of the city, killing more than 300, and leaving more than 100,000 people without homes. All in all, roughly 34 blocks of Chicago were completely destroyed.
The damages totaled roughly $222 million in property, which then amounted to roughly one-third of the city’s worth — so how could the Great Chicago Fire possibly be a benefit to the city in the long run? For one thing, the disaster spurred a re-evaluation and reform of Chicago’s fire standards, which led to the Windy City boasting one of the country’s most formidable fire-fighting forces a short time later.
Perhaps the greatest benefits to Chicago were economic though. The destruction spurred not only an outpouring of donations to the beleaguered city, but also necessitated tremendous amounts of construction for rebuilding efforts. It wasn’t long before the affected area was rebuilt and Chicago was once again one of the country’s crown jewels, hosting the World’s Columbian Exposition and the more than 21 million visitors it entailed only 22 years after the blaze.
In 1956, the Chicago Fire Academy was constructed near the start of the fire, at 558 DeKoven Street. There are four structures that survived the fire and continue to stand: St Michael’s Church in Old Town, the Chicago Water Tower, the Chicago Avenue Pumping Station, and St. Ignatius College Prep. To this day, the Great Chicago Fire remains a prominent event in the city’s history, and this is reflected by the fact that many Chicago-area sports teams boast fire-related names (such as the UIC Flames and the Chicago Fire). The Windy City is nothing if not a Phoenix, as the 1871 disaster has proven.
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