150th anniversary of Great Chicago Fire marked by new museum exhibit, tours of city

By Mitch Dudek
A painting of The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that will be featured at the Chicago History Museum’s new exhibit “City on Fire ” that’s set to open Oct. 8 on the 150th anniversary of the fire. | Provided by the Chicago History Museum

Cellphone videos of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 would undoubtedly have blown up.

One viral clip might have shown a boy leading a goat through the flaming city while also somehow managing to push a wheelbarrow filled with precious possessions — only to pause for a moment to extinguish his mother, who caught fire.

Though the medium by which we absorb national tragedies wasn’t around, a letter the boy wrote describing the tale exists.

And it’s part of a new Chicago History Museum exhibit called “City on Fire: Chicago 1871” that’s set to open Oct. 8 on the 150th anniversary of the day the fire erupted in Catherine O’Leary’s barn.

The cow-kicking-a-lantern myth has been dispelled; no one really knows how it started, said Julius L. Jones, who oversaw the exhibit’s creation.

“Mrs. O’Leary was scapegoated,” Jones said. “She was part of a less privileged underclass who were blamed for all city’s social ills.”

A cowbell is included in the exhibit that was supposedly on the infamous O’Leary cow, though the item is a bit tongue-in-cheek because purveyors of fake O’Leary memorabilia were common after the fire.

There are plenty of other connections at the family-friendly exhibit.

A portion of the exhibit entitled “Will it burn?” confronts guests with an array of common household items from the era, some that survived the fire, and asks guests to ponder combustibility.

The porcelain head of a child’s doll? Will not burn. The doll’s cloth body? Will burn.

And then there’s the melted and fused stuff, like a beautiful multi-colored clump of children’s marbles, a mound of buttons that became fused in mortar and a keg of nails from a hardware store that fused together due to the fire’s intense heat.

A clump of blue and white pearl clothing buttons fused together with mortar during the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

“Kids really get a kick out of that,” Jones said.

A large-scale reproduction of a painting depicting the breadth of the fire’s path across the city is the pinnacle of the exhibition. It will be on display for the first time in generations. The original was a main attraction during the 1893 World’s Fair, standing nearly 50 feet high and 400 feet long. It occupied its own building on Michigan Avenue for spectators to gather and observe.

The fire burned more than 3 square miles of the city, raged for more than 24 hours, killed about 300 people, burned more than 17,000 structures and left nearly 100,000 people without a home.

The Chicago Fire Department’s training academy, at 558 W. DeKoven St., sits on the site where the O’Leary barn once stood. A 30-foot-tall bronze sculpture of flames winding toward the sky that commemorates the event can be found outside the building. It’s entitled “Pillar of Fire.”

The Chicago Architecture Center created new bus and architecture tours to mark the anniversary.

“We certainly talk about the fire on a number of our tours, but it hasn’t been the main focus,” said Adam Rubin, who serves as director of interpretation for the center.

One stop on the bus tour will be St. James Cathedral, 65 E. Huron St., where singe marks can still be seen on parts of the building.

The center will also seek to provide additional layers of history and context to the city’s rebuilding efforts, which have been mythologized because they fit into a great story of a world-class city that quickly rose from the ashes, Rubin said.

“We’ve been mythologizing the fire for 150 years,” he said. “It brought a lot of interest and investment and made Chicago seem really strong and tough and able to do anything, and it fit into this sense of manifest destiny, and people really still bought into that in a big way at the time in the United States.”

Visitors to the center’s headquarters at 111 E. Wacker Drive can view a model of the city and a simulation of the fire’s spread through the use of flickering lights.

One place that’s fitting for anyone seeking to commemorate the event: Church of the Holy Name at 1080 W. Roosevelt Road.

The Rev. Arnold Damen, who founded the church, was in New York City when the fire started and received a telegram notifying him the church — just blocks from where the fire broke out — was in danger.

Legend has it that Damen prayed all night and pledged that if the church and his parishioners were spared, he would create a shrine to Our Lady of Perpetual Help and keep seven candles forever lit at the shrine.

The vow has supposedly been kept, though the flicker of electric flames now light the candles, according to Ellen Skerrett, who’s writing a book about the church.


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