Hot time in the old town again

City marked 1871 fire with a party in 1903 — and it’s gearing up for another fest next year

This article by Robert Loerzel was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on May 5, 2013.

In a city where the history books are filled with calamities, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is the most legendary catastrophe of all.

City officials recently announced plans to commemorate the disaster — and the remarkable urban rebirth that followed — with an October 2014 event called the Great Chicago Fire Festival. Created by the Redmoon group’s artists, the spectacle will reportedly include flaming floats on the Chicago River.

Remarkably, this isn’t the first time Chicago has transformed its famous fire into a festive occasion. In 1903, a time when survivors of the 1871 conflagration were still alive, Chicago used pyrotechnics to evoke memories of an inferno that destroyed more than 17,000 buildings and killed an estimated 300 people.

It was the highlight of Chicago’s centennial celebration in late September 1903. Actually, Chicago had incorporated as a city only 66 years earlier, but the original Fort Dearborn was built in 1803 — and that was enough of an excuse for Chicago to hold a party in 1903.

The original plans called for 500 tons of a pyrotechnic substance (which the Tribune called “Roman fire”) to burn for two hours on the roofs of downtown skyscrapers and big buildings across the area that was leveled by flames in 1871. “A long flight of bombs” would explode in the sky above the spot on the Near West Side where the fire originated — the O’Leary barn on DeKoven Street. Previewing the event, a Tribune head- line in July 1903 declared: “Chicago to ‘Burn’ Again for Fall Jubilee Crowd.”

But then, a few days before the spectacle, insurance underwriters threw cold water on the idea. And so, instead of setting blazes on top of all those roofs, the city burned pyrotechnic flames in iron pans at street corners around the Loop on Sept. 26. Two firefighters were stationed at each intersection, just in case anything went awry.
Rain fell in torrents that night, but the fires glowed, spooking horses and casting a red hue on the dark clouds above. Some people watched from their homes in the city’s neighborhoods, gazing toward downtown. “To them the effect was if the heart of the city were wrapped in fire and mantled luridly with smoke,” the Tribune reported.

Others witnessed it up close on downtown streets, turning up their coat collars and huddling under umbrellas. When loud fireworks went off outside City Hall, a bunch of pigeons plummeted to the pavement, apparently stunned or injured by the blast.

A boy — described by the Tribune as a “street gamin” — looked at the fires and remarked, “Ain’t it fierce?” An old Irishman replied, “Shure, it’ll make Mrs. O’Leary’s cow turn in its grave tonight.”

A man visiting from France proclaimed, “O, great, wonderful, magnifique! You people of Chicago are so clever, so — whatyoucallit?— up to date, but you make one big mistake — you should have had ze reproduction in 1871 and ze great fire tonight — the devil himself could not burn Chicago tonight.”

Indeed, Chicago did not burn down that night. The flames mesmerized spectators rather than destroying anything — which is just what the creators of next year’s festival have in mind.

To read more about 2014’s ill-fated Great Chicago Fire Festival, see my story for Belt magazine.