“On a hot and dry October night in 1871, a cow kicked over a lantern in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn, starting a blaze that rose up from her modest Near Southwest Side home, leapt the Chicago River and burned down a large portion of the nascent prairie metropolis.
“Or so goes the legend of the Great Chicago Fire, popularized in a version of the song, ‘A Hot Time in the Old Town.’ The City Council officially exonerated Mrs. O’Leary and her cow in 1997, and the true cause may never be known. But the conflagration itself was far more devastating than the oft-sung camp ditty led generations of schoolchildren to believe.
“The Great Chicago Fire wiped out a third of the bustling young city in two days of raging flames, destroying nearly every building in its downtown. Then, in a part of the story that never made it into song, Chicago immediately began rebuilding, laying the foundation for the great world city it would become.
‘They rebuilt the downtown within two years, which is miraculous,’ said Carl Smith, a Northwestern University professor and expert on the Great Chicago Fire.
“The Great Rebuilding is often cited as a testament to the indomitable spirit of Chicago. It may also shed some light on the way forward, 150 years after the fire, as the city looks to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left the future of its downtown in doubt once again.
“Founded in 1833, Chicago rapidly evolved from a small frontier trading post along Lake Michigan into a growing center of agriculture, manufacturing and transportation, linking the East and West coasts by rail and creating the first quintessentially American-made city. By 1870, Chicago was the fifth-largest city in the U.S., with nearly 300,000 residents and a booming, diversified economy.” (Channick, Chicago Tribune, 9/27/21)
Read the full extensive story with photos at Chicago Tribune
Chicago built back from the Great Fire in just two years. Now, 150 years later, the city finds itself at another crossroads, Robert Channick, Chicago Tribune, 9/27/21