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Feature Stories

Stunning 1871 Chicago 'Great Fire' matched only by the will to rebuild

Working in their 80s

A tinder-dry city of 300,000 is ravaged by a three-day, wind-whipped blaze destroying four square miles, including downtown. Three hundred are dead, 100,000 homeless, and stunned people wander about. What to do?

Some who endured the Oct. 8-Oct. 10, 1871, Chicago fire, never hesitated. They started over. The Chicago Tribune ran a one-sentence editorial. "CHEER UP! In the midst of a calamity without parallel in the world's history, looking upon the ashes of thirty years' accumulations, the people of this once beautiful city have resolved that CHICAGO SHALL RISE AGAIN."

Rev. Robert Collyer told Unitarian Church members outside their gutted building, "We have not lost our geography. Nature called the lakes, the forests, the prairies together long before we were born, and they decided on this spot a great city would be built!" A new church opened in 1872.

Commerce undeterred
The first retail business to sprout in the ruined downtown was just a table stocked with cigars, tobacco, grapes, apples, and cider sold at "old prices."

A day after the fire burned out under a drizzling rain, real estate veteran William D. Kerfoot reopened. Written on his shack were his name, new location, and: "All gone but WIFE, CHILDREN, and ENERGY."

Chicago railroad tracks were mostly intact. Relief and rebuilding materials poured in. Swift help came from all over America, notably New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. They had heavy business and insurance interests in Chicago.   

The rapid response fully awakened Chicago's "can-do" determination. Furious rebuilding on a grand scale began. The telegraph played a pivotal role. Mayor Roswell Mason wired other cities for help as flames still raged. An engrossed nation followed telegraphed news. The city soon rose again – but this time, built of stone and brick