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David Lissner
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Remembering the Chicago Fire: There’ll be a hot time in the old town…

Post-Chicago Fire editorial

The scene along the Chicago River in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1871.

The scene along the Chicago River in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1871.

Map of area destroyed by the Chicago fire

To those still bemoaning the Olympics, remember that the city has survived many far worse disasters — including one whose anniversary is this week. It was on Oct. 8, 1871, that a spark in DeKoven Street kindled one of the biggest urban conflagrations in American history and burned down much of Chicago. The Great Chicago Fire killed nearly 300 people and left another 100,000 homeless as it burnt over 17,400 structures across more than 2,000 acres for almost three days.

Only a few buildings survived the devastating blaze. (Among them were the Gold Coast carriage house now home to Table Fifty-Two restaurant, and the 1866 pumping station on Michigan Avenue that still supplies water to much of the North Side as well as housing Lookingglass Theatre.)

Yet so determined were Chicagoans to rebuild that, within a decade, the city had erected buildings worth three times the value of all those destroyed, and its population had nearly doubled. “Chicago was never so great and prosperous as to-day, and, although it is the anniversary of a calamity, all may take pride in their city,” wrote The New York Times on the 10th anniversary of the fire.

We are still in the centennial year of the Burnham Plan. This is no time to abandon bold plans. Even without the impetus of the Olympics for rebuilding our infrastructure and creating new jobs, Chicago needs to put some of its old “I Will” spirit back to work.

Chicago’s still hot!