The City that Would Not Die
Country’s fourth largest city devastated by fire! Stories filled newspapers across the country, the week of October 8, 1871, reporting a fire destroyed the city of Chicago. Chicago, a regional mercantile center had recently passed St. Louis as the United States fourth largest city. The tremendous amount of wood used to build the city of Chicago, combined with an extremely dry year; providing the conditions to fuel the devastating fire that left thousands homeless and cost hundreds their lives. Extensive historical and genealogical records were lost as city, county, and church records were consumed by the inferno. The fire was able to take their homes and livelihoods from Chicagoans, but the fire could not take away the stories, which were handed down from generation to generation; stories about how these people survived and how they rebuilt their lives and their city.
The population of Chicago in 1871 was more than 330,000 inhabitants, a population made up mostly of Yankee elites and European immigrants. My ancestors were some of the many German immigrants who chose to make Chicago their home. At the turn of the century, Chicago was only a trading post on the Chicago River. By 1871, Chicago had ascertained status as a regional mercantile and was nearing status as an industrial metropolis, with international standing. Chicago was a city that had everything going for it and was growing daily.
The city of Chicago contained a vast amount of wood. Because of the availability of wood, the city was built almost entirely of wood. Buildings were built in close proximity to one another, going up quickly and haphazardly, due to the rapid growth of the city. Fifty-seven miles of Chicago streets and 561miles sidewalks were made with wood. Lumber and wood products were stacked in lumberyards along the river. The area was experiencing high winds and drought conditions, with little rain falling since early summer.
There have been many theories as to the causes of the Chicago Fire. The favorite theory is that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over the lantern in the barn. One part of this theory was found to be true, the fire did start in the vicinity of the O’Leary’s barn, but what actually stated the fire, we will probably never know. The amount of wood, the dry conditions and the high winds contributed to the fierceness of the fire. The fire, with its destructive and deadly force, lasted three days. Before the fire was extinguished by rainfall, it had claimed 2,124 acres; destroyed 17,450 buildings; left 98,500 people homeless and cost nearly 300 Chicagoans their lives. The estimated property loss was $200 million.
While growing up in the Chicago area, I learned about the Chicago Fire through my Social Studies and History classes. To me, the Chicago fire was something that happened a long time ago and at that time was of little importance to me. It wasn’t until t started focusing on my father’s paternal line while doing my family history; I realized what had really been lost. It wasn’t just the loss of the buildings and lives, but also the loss of history. With the destruction of much of Chicago, many records were lost. As my genealogical endeavors progressed, I found that my roots were planted very deep in Chicago’s history. I have five ancestral lines (the Blickhahn, Keller, Seidelmann, Fiedler, and Laplanch families), who were living in Chicago at the time of the Chicago Fire. My ancestors were businessmen and business owners. They were furniture makers, cigar makers, and saloon keepers. All of them lost not only their businesses, but also their homes. My great-great-grandmother, Barbra Maria Kunigunda Keller, almost lost her life. She was home alone with her infant son when her home caught fire. She carried her young son to safety and returned to her home, which was engulfed in flames to save one of her most prized possessions, her feather bed.
The city of Chicago was nearly a total loss, but Chicago and her people were strong. The thousands of immigrants who called Chicago their home rebuilt the city and their lives. Rebuilding their lives was nothing new to the hardy immigrants who were left homeless; immigrants who chose to rebuild their lives in Chicago after leaving their homelands. These immigrants did rebuild their lives and Chicago as well. The rebuilding of Chicago was mostly of brick. The buildings were built of brick, the sidewalks and streets were made with brick. By 1875, Chicago had become a city that had ascertained status as an industrial metropolis, a city with international standing. Chicago was a city that refused to die. In four years, Chicago was rebuilt with little evidence of the devastation from the fire. The new Chicago emerged bigger and better.