As mentioned in a post last week, I spent four days in Chicago with my daughter and son-in-law. Have you ever wondered why it is that Chicago has so many nicknames? The Windy City, The City of the Big Shoulders (from a Carl Sandburg poem), Second City, Chitown, That Toddlin’ Town, My Kind of Town, just to name a few. Perhaps it’s because it is THE major city of the Midwest and has played such a role in the history of this country?
We’ve been back a couple of times since moving from Evanston in 1981, but this was our longest visit. What impressed us the most is the cleanliness and neatness of the downtown area, the amazing architecture (old, new and under construction), the ease of getting around, and the incredible number of things to see and do. Hard to squash everything into 3 ½ days.
We ate our way across the city, but more of that later. I’d like to talk a little about the architecture, which is a favorite subject of mine and which I hope has come through in my books via the interests of The Brewster. Much of the amazing architectural history began with Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, which knocked over a lantern and supposedly caused a fire that leveled the city.
The fire started at about 11:30 P.M, October 8 1871,but according to the Chicago Republican reporter who wrote the O’Leary account, he had made it up as colorful copy. The official report could not find the exact cause but there has been speculation suggesting the fire was caused by a person, instead of a cow.
The fire’s spread was aided by the city’s use of wood as the predominant building material, the highly flammable tar or shingle roofs, sidewalks and roads made of wood, strong southwest winds that carried flying embers toward the heart of the city, and last but not least, the fact that Chicago had only received an inch of rain from July 4 to October 9.
In 1871, the Chicago Fire Department had 185 firefighters with just 17 horse-drawn steam engines to protect the entire city. The initial response was quick, but the firefighters were sent to the wrong place, allowing the fire to grow unchecked. The fire destroyed roughly 3.3 square miles, including much of the city’s business district, and left more than 100,000 residents homeless. Damages were estimated at $200 million.
Reconstruction efforts began quickly and spurred great economic development and population growth, so literally from the ashes of old Chicago grew the city we now know.
Today, the Chicago Fire Department training academy is located on the site of the O’Leary property where the Great Chicago Fire started. In 1997, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution exonerating Catherine O’Leary, an Irish immigrant who died in 1895, and her cow.
In my next post on Chicago, I’ll have pictures of some of the old and new architecture that makes Chicago so amazing.