Chicago’s Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City
by Carl Smith
“From an acclaimed historian, the full and authoritative story of one of the most iconic disasters in American history, told through the vivid memories of those who experienced it.
“Between October 8–10, 1871, much of the city of Chicago was destroyed by one of the most legendary urban fires in history. Incorporated as a city in 1837, Chicago had grown at a breathtaking pace in barely three decades, from just over 4,000 in 1840 to greater than 330,000 at the time of the fire. Built hastily, the city was largely made of wood. Once it began in the barn of Catherine and Patrick O’Leary, the Fire quickly grew out of control, twice jumping branches of the Chicago River on its relentless northeastward path through the city’s three divisions. Close to one of every three Chicago residents was left homeless and more were instantly unemployed, though the death toll was miraculously low.
“Remarkably, no carefully researched popular history of the Great Chicago Fire has been written until now, despite it being one of the most cataclysmic disasters in US history. Building the story around memorable characters, both known to history and unknown, including the likes of General Philip Sheridan and Robert Todd Lincoln, eminent Chicago historian Carl Smith chronicles the city’s rapid growth and place in America’s post-Civil War expansion. The dramatic story of the fire—revealing human nature in all its guises—became one of equally remarkable renewal, as Chicago quickly rose back up from the ashes thanks to local determination and the world’s generosity and faith in Chicago’s future.
“As we approach the fire’s 150th anniversary, Carl Smith’s compelling narrative at last gives this epic event its full and proper place in our national chronicle.”
Praise for Chicago’s Great Fire:
“A wonderfully thoughtful and concise retelling of the tragedy and its aftermath. More important, the book reminds the reader that many of the issues battled over today—the place of immigrants, the nature of poverty, the efficiency and reliability of a democratic government—have cycled through American affairs for more than a century and a half . . . Chicago’s Great Fire goes beyond the disaster and its causes to recount the remarkable way the city sprang back.”—Richard Babcock, Wall Street Journal
“Simply put, the best book ever written about the fire, a work of deep scholarship by Carl Smith that reads with the forceful narrative of a fine novel. It puts the fire and its aftermath in historical, political, and social context. It’s a revelatory pleasure to read.”—Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune
“An important book of Chicago history, highly readable, and deeply researched . . . Smith’s gripping account of the blaze, itself, however, is only the beginning . . . A thoroughgoing look at the fire, its aftermath, and its meaning . . . A crackerjack history that is rousing, thought-provoking, and a necessary addition to the city’s historical bookshelf.” —Third Coast Review
Think you know everything about the Great Chicago Fire? Think again: In a new book, historian Carl Smith rekindles the untold stories of our city’s most famous disaster, Review by Robert Loerzel in Chicago Magazine.