The Great Chicago Fire

Awhile back, I stumbled across the 1976 TV movie Time Travelers.  Originally intended as a series pilot, it did not sell and was broadcast as a stand alone movie with a story developed by Rod Serling in what was one of his last writing credits.  The plot involved two scientists going back in time to 1871 on the eve of the Great Chicago Fire to track down a doctor who mysteriously had been able to cure a fatal disease.  For a TV sci-fi movie, it had a solid plot but as one would expect, the special effects do not hold up well after four decades.  Still, it got me thinking how different history could be taught now as compared to the pre-internet era when I originally saw the movie while I was in grade school.  Also, if sci-fi can inspire students to study science, why not history as well?

Back in the 1970’s, studying history was basically a static exercise reading a history book.  With the internet, many historical archives are at your fingertips and can make history a more interactive subject.  Going back to the movie, when the scientists arrive in 1871 Chicago, one mentions they must have arrived in the Summer and not in October as it was too hot.  His partner replies that Chicago endured a heat wave in October, 1871.  Is that right?  President Grant established the National Weather Service the same year, so daily records are a bit sparse, but the answer can be found online.

What you’ll discover is that the temperature in Chicago on the day of the fire soared to a summer-like 79 degrees with winds gusting from the Southwest at 22 mph.  Also, precipitation the month leading up to the fire had been sparse, making the conditions ripe for the disaster.  So, the movie was spot on about the weather conditions that day.  By delving into old newspaper archives, we can find out more.

Back in the day, if you wanted to look at historical newspaper accounts, you went to the library and headed towards the microfilm machines.  Today, many newspapers have digitized their archives.  In the case of the New York Times, the online archive goes back to 1851.  Looking into the Times account of the fire, I found a few surprises.

On October 7th, there had been a sizable six block fire in Chicago that served as a prelude to the main event.  That fire raged until the morning of October 8th and was reported in the Times as the worst fire in Chicago history up to that point.

Credit: New York Times

On October 8th came in a report of a second fire now raging in Chicago even greater than the first.  The progression of events in this article is not unlike the What’s Happened So Far features you now see in online formats today.

Credit: New York Times

October 10th would bring full front page coverage of the fire including a map of Chicago where the damaged occurred.  The graphic is very unusual for papers of that era.  The article, titled A City in Ruins, would go on to describe the damage as 12,000 buildings lost and 100,000 homeless, and remember, there was no FEMA back then.  The cause was still being investigated.  In fact, the Times made no mention of the infamous O’Leary cow until November 29th.  A Chicago reporter later admitted making up the story, saying it made better copy.  Unfortunately, fake news is nothing new.  When O’Leary died in 1895, the obituary in the Times still repeated the fake story.

Credit: New York Times

The Times even repeated the story for O’Leary’s son’s obituary in 1925.  This, despite the Times publishing an article four years earlier exonerating O’Leary’s cow, proving the stubborn power of a false myth.

Credit: New York Times

The fire did start near the O’Leary residence at 137 De Koven St.  You can locate this spot using Google Maps but you’ll need the current address of 558 W. De Koven St.  What you’ll find there is, not by coincidence, the Chicago Fire Training Academy.  Switching to 3-D gives this overview:

558 W. DeKoven St lower left. The Chicago river to the east failed to act as a fire break as hoped when flames moved across river bridges towards downtown. Credit: Google Maps.

As noted before, there was a strong wind from the SW the day of the fire and you can see from the image how that would have swept the flames into the heart of downtown Chicago inflicting maximum damage on the city’s residents.  The fire had economic effects beyond Chicago.  The price of stocks dropped 10% the days after the fire.  This was a prelude to the economic crisis of 1873 which prompted a depression lasting until 1879.  Chicago, then and now, is the United States’s largest railroad center and the fire had a disruptive effect throughout the nation.  And that is probably what led to my biggest surprise on this project.

The Chicago fire was not the most deadly fire in the United States that day.  The drought conditions that led to the Chicago fire sparked forest fires throughout the Upper Midwest.  The worst of which was north of Green Bay and engulfed the town of Pishtego, WI killing over 1,200, four times more than in Chicago.  The first and only article on this event appeared in the Times on October 15th and soon faded into obscurity.

Credit: New York Times

I hate to admit it, but this was the first time I had heard of the Pishtego fire.  It deserves a more prominent place in grade school history books and provides a greater understanding of the Chicago fire as part of an overall regional disaster.

I would be remiss in pointing out that as great as it is to have these internet resources at our fingertips, there are still some historical items not available online and it never hurts to check out your local library, especially the closed stacks, to see what might be there.  You’ll never know what surprises are in store.

Returning to the movie that started me on this topic, while travel back in time is allowed in general relativity, it is not remotely doable with current technology.  One solution is to have an infinitely long, rotating cylindrical tube that can drag and distort space-time to the point where you travel back in time.  Good luck finding one of those lying around.  Another solution allows for backward time travel but only until your time machine became operational.  In the case of the movie, you could only travel back in time to 1976, but not before.  However, the engineering involved would be much, much more advanced than what we now have at our disposal.  In fact, a civilization would require the ability to harness the energy of an entire galaxy to attempt this.

As long as you are careful to discern fact from fiction, time travel stories can be an entertaining way to explore history.  In the case of Time Travelers, other concepts besides the fire touched upon includes the traumatic impact of Civil War deaths on the civilian population, and the romantic idea of traveling to the past would be diminished greatly if you had to use the medical facilities at the time.  Unlike in 1976, when I first saw the movie, technical improvements today make it possible to examine historical documents of the Great Chicago Fire at home or in the classroom.  I must admit, I would jump at the opportunity to travel into the past, but I also realize there are lots of things about life in 2017 that are really great.

*Image atop post is a Currier & Ives lithograph of the Great Chicago Fire.

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