Oct 8, 2021 - News

Chicago Fire: 150 years ago today

Painting of the city of fire.

Photo by: Picturenow/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Chicago Fire.

Why it matters: The fire burned our city to the ground in 1871. Much of how our city is designed and organized today is a direct result of this tragedy.

By the numbers: Nearly 300 people died, 17,500 buildings were destroyed and 90,000 Chicagaons were left homeless.

Driving the news: The Chicago History Museum is marking the anniversary with a physical exhibit but also an online project called Chicago 00: 1871 Great Chicago Fire. It's the digital version of a cyclorama first on display in 1892 that gives us a breathtaking look at Chicago in the throes of disaster.

  • Also displayed is a nearly seven-ton relic of the melted contents of a downtown hardware store that has been at the museum for decades, but off public display for almost 50 years.

Between the lines: The museum worked on this throughout another Chicago tragedy — the ongoing pandemic.

  • "It felt like we were developing a story of Chicago's greatest calamity, response, and recovery effort while living through another calamity and the response and recovery from COVID," John Russick, senior vice president at the Chicago History Museum tells Axios. "The pandemic was a strange sort of inspiration for this project."

Go Deeper: For a full account of the fire and how the newly-created telegraph helped make the devastation one of history's first global news stories, you can always pick up historian Carl Smith's book, "Chicago's Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City."

Green Door Tavern in River North is a good example of what buildings looked like at the time. Technically built in the months after the fire, the tavern is the same style of architecture that was mostly destroyed and eventually outlawed in the central business district.

The Green Door Tavern in Chicago.
Justin's son took this photo for a school project in 2020.

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