In Crain’s, Joe Cahill asks: “Why the heck are we celebrating the Great Chicago Fire, anyway?”
[W]hy stop with the Chicago Fire? If we’re going to turn tragedies into street fairs, let’s capitalize fully on Chicago’s disaster-studded history. We could re-enact the Eastland disaster of 1915, which killed even more than the fire — 844 passengers and crew died when the ship capsized in the river. Or if fires are our thing, let’s celebrate the worst theater fire in American history, the Iroquois Theater blaze that killed more than 600 back in 1903.
[W]hy is it called the “Great Chicago Fire Festival?” Seems to me an event about “grit and determination” ought to be described that way in its title. But I guess the “Grit and Determination Festival” might not draw much of a crowd.
In this case, the answer is actually pretty simple: we have always celebrated the Great Chicago Fire, pretty much from the get-go.
Ross Miller, author of one of my favorite books about Chicago (Here’s the Deal, about the slow-motion real estate disaster of Block 37), explores the civic history around the fire in his book American Apocalypse. While the ruins were still hot, the city began producing what Miller calls Boosterature, “a kind of anti-art":
The city managed to insinuate itself into a larger narrative, consciously exploiting its own tragedy as an archetype of the modern struggle against adversity. Within hours of the disaster, journalists, politicians, and a young, elite commercial class were cobbling together language that would reshape events positively. Genuine invention represented by local on-the-scene reporting and documentary photography was mixed with unapologetic cannibalizing of images like the phoenix, appropriated from post-Civil War Atlanta. Why was Chicago so successful in its self-conscious legendizing—a process that still continues?
Like the Tribune’s editorial on October 11, 1871, the day after the fire was extinguished.
Perhaps the purest expression of this came not from Chicago, but the legendary Congregationalist preacher Henry Ward Beecher, in his “Lessons From the Great Chicago Fire,” delivered on October 15, 1871 (bold emphasis mine):
Again, the spectacle of heroic conduct which we have presented in all forms in this panorama of fire, gives to the world, I think, to-day, a benefit which is greater than all the loss of the ruined riches. We mourn and wonder at this disaster; but I tell you, when you strike the balance on every side, you shall find that it has not been a disaster. We are richer to-day with Chicago burned, than we were last month with Chicago unburned.
How glorious a spectacle, also, is presented, of the reinvigoration of enterprise—of the rekindling of hope. Men are digging through the fire, to-day, to lay hot foundations. There may be despair in individual instances; but hope is the characteristic of that community. Manhood rises triumphant in Chicago to-day…. I think that when men who were rich and strong, finding themselves as poor as poverty itself, rose elated, and began to build again, the manhood which they manifested was better than the streets, though paved with gold…. And the spectacle of manhood which is thus being presented, is making the whole nation richer.
The next year, Chicago and the Great Confligration, an epic history of the recent disaster, described how the unprecedented tragedy gratefully saved Chicago from devolving into a softbatch urbanites like… those people back east: “the people of Chicago were, before the fire, fast lapsing into luxury—not as yet to any such degree as the people of New York—but still more than was for their good. The fire roused them from this tendency, and made them the same strong men and women, of the same simple, industrious, self-denying habits, which built up Chicago….”
Further, the fire did… this. I don’t know what it means, and I don’t think I want to think about what it means, but whatever. Progress!
He will find her changed from the Chicago of yesterday in such manner as the wild and wanton girl, of luxurious beauty, and generous, free ways, is changed when, becoming a wife, a great bereavement, or the pangs and burdens of maternity overtake her, robbing her cheek of its rich flush, but at the same time ripening her beauty, elevating, deepening, expanding her character, and imbuing her with a susceptibility of feeling, a consciousness of strength, and an earnestness of purpose which she knew not before.
If you’re sick of the phoenix imagery, it’s a damn sight less weird than comparing the Great Fire to childbirth.
Twenty-five years later, the city marked the anniversary of the Great Fire with a parade: “four miles of brilliant floats and gayly decorated carriages swept in sinuous procession through the streets,” the Tribune reported, “in commemoration of the fearful night of flame and terror twenty-five years ago, when Chicago sank in ashes.”
That idea that Redmoon had for last weekend’s festival? Chicago’s Mardi Gras? That was the intent of the 25th annversary pageant:
The North Side Business-Men’s Association is the outcome of an organization of North Clark street business-men which was formed over a year ago. The success of their parade on last Chicago day encouraged the leading spirits of the association to extend the privileges of membership to the business-men of the entire North Side, with the idea of making the anniversary of the great fire a festival equal in magnitude to the Mardi Gras and similar gala occasions of other cities.
And it made the Great Chicago Fire Festival look like a requiem:
C.F. Gillman & Co.’s float was in the form of an immense seashell reposing on the rocks. Twelve young women, representing the twelve months, were grouped inside. They were dressed in the colors of the twelve birth gems, and sang appropriate verses, accompanied by a full orchestra. The driver of the float was dressed as Father Time.
An immense float in the shape of a bicycle, covered with footwear of all descriptions, was the display of G.O. Weyle.
Mourning? Chicago wasn’t in the mood. The Tribune put together an infographic-heavy explainer of how great things were so that readers wouldn’t be too distracted by memories of the calamity, “the horror of which still goes far to make people forget the good it brought.”
The great fire marked an epoch for Chicago, not merely on account of the losses of life and property, with their attendant sufferings, but also because it gave the city a chance to rebuild on a scale fitted to future wants…. [A] business district suited to the demands of the increasing trade was needed. The fire and consequent reconstruction gave Chicago in a few months what it would not have secured in the ordinary course of events in as many years. Looked at in this way Chicago is great today not in spite of the fire, but, perhaps to a great degree, on account of it.
The revived business district brought us not just more pigs but more creepy anthropomorphic 2x4s:
50 years on, the city marked the occasion by doing exactly what Redmoon did: “Seven thousand braved the brisk October winds last night to watch the mimic Chicago of fifty years ago, on the stage of the big amphitheater in Grant park, spring into flames.” Then there was a costume party! “Men and women in the garb of yesteryear made up a majority of the 600 who attended the Historical society meeting,” the Tribune reported. “There were women in chenille fringed, brocaded overskirts and plaited taupe taffeta underskirts with delicate cascade of point lace at the throat, a ‘waterfall,’ or dangling mass of curls, on the back of the head, heavy gold bracelets, earrings, and sandalwood fans.”
The Illinois State Journal gave the city a pat on the back, reprinted as the Tribune’s “Editorial of the Day":
Public improvements of every character received an impetus from the fire. With the business district wiped out, it was possible to establish new grades and to put in fire ordinances and laws which otherwise would have been years in coming.
The useless and indiscriminate destruction of property by fire cannot be justified or condoned, but the cause of civic advancement and of civilization itself has more than once been materially hastened by holocaust which showed men and women an opportunity and duty which they had not seen.
Remember, kids: you can’t burn down your own city, even if it seems like a good idea. But if it just happens to burn down, don’t let a crisis go to waste.
But Chicago saved the ultimate indignity for the 100th anniversary parade and its 50,000 attendees.
Say what you will about the Redmoon festival, there were no dudes crammed into zany cars dodging batons.
Is it a good idea to “celebrate” such a tragedy with a waterborne parade? I have no idea. But the Great Chicago Fire Festival is, if nothing else, historically accurate—if not with regards to the fire itself, certainly to the city’s history of self-promotion in the cause of business and politics. After all, it’s that, and not the winds that drove the fire, that give Chicago its most famous nickname.
Update: Robert Loerzel describes the 1903 Chicago Fire festival, which impressed a “street gamin” with its fierceness. His WBEZ Curious City piece on what Chicago would be like if the fire had never happened is a must-read.