A definitive chronicle of the 1871 Chicago Fire as remembered by those who experienced it—from the author of Chicago and the American Literary Imagination.
Over three days in October, 1871, much of Chicago, Illinois, was destroyed by one of the most legendary urban fires in history. Incorporated as a city in 1837, Chicago had grown at a breathtaking pace in the intervening decades—and much of the hastily-built city was made of wood. Starting in Catherine and Patrick O’Leary’s barn, the Fire quickly grew out of control, twice jumping branches of the Chicago River on its relentless path through the city’s three divisions. While the death toll was miraculously low, nearly a third of Chicago residents were left homeless and more were instantly unemployed.
This popular history of the Great Chicago Fire approaches the subject through the memories of those who experienced it. Chicago historian Carl Smith builds the story around memorable characters, both known to history and unknown, including the likes of General Philip Sheridan and Robert Todd Lincoln. Smith chronicles the city’s rapid growth and its place in America’s post-Civil War expansion. The dramatic story of the fire—revealing human nature in all its guises—became one of equally remarkable renewal, as Chicago quickly rose back up from the ashes thanks to local determination and the world’s generosity.
As we approach the fire’s 150th anniversary, Carl Smith’s compelling narrative at last gives this epic event its full and proper place in our national chronicle.
“The best book ever written about the fire, a work of deep scholarship by Carl Smith that reads with the forceful narrative of a fine novel. It puts the fire and its aftermath in historical, political and social context. It’s a revelatory pleasure to read.” —Chicago Tribune