Between October 8–10, 1871, much of the city of Chicago 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 barely three decades, from just over 4,000 in 1840 to greater than 330,000 at the time of the fire. Built hastily, the city was largely made of wood. Once it began in the barn of Catherine and Patrick O’Leary, the Fire quickly grew out of control, twice jumping branches of the Chicago River on its relentless northeastward path through the city’s three divisions. Close to one of every three Chicago residents was left homeless and more were instantly unemployed, though the death toll was miraculously low.
Remarkably, no carefully researched popular history of the Great Chicago Fire has been written until now, despite it being one of the most cataclysmic disasters in US history. Building the story around memorable characters, both known to history and unknown, including the likes of General Philip Sheridan and Robert Todd Lincoln, eminent Chicago historian Carl Smith chronicles the city’s rapid growth and 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 and faith in Chicago’s future.
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.
Praise for Chicago’s Great Fire:
“A wonderfully thoughtful and concise retelling of the tragedy and its aftermath. More important, the book reminds the reader that many of the issues battled over today—the place of immigrants, the nature of poverty, the efficiency and reliability of a democratic government—have cycled through American affairs for more than a century and a half . . . Chicago’s Great Fire goes beyond the disaster and its causes to recount the remarkable way the city sprang back.”—Richard Babcock, Wall Street Journal
“Simply put, 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.”—Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune
“An important book of Chicago history, highly readable, and deeply researched . . . Smith’s gripping account of the blaze, itself, however, is only the beginning . . . A thoroughgoing look at the fire, its aftermath, and its meaning . . . A crackerjack history that is rousing, thought-provoking, and a necessary addition to the city’s historical bookshelf.”—Third Coast Review
“Smith’s description of the fire’s race through the city is gripping . . . His discussion of why Chicago was vulnerable to fire and how it rebounded so quickly are equally fascinating . . . A thought-provoking and lively account of the physical, political, and social impact of a disaster on a community.”—Shelf Awareness
“An exemplary historical retelling of an event that still looms large in the American imagination, and an exploration of how the response to it was shaped by the ideas and ideals of the time. It manages the difficult balance between these two modes expertly, with an eye towards both the interesting anecdotal narrative and the greater historical significance.”—Bookreporter
“Smith’s well-written narrative not only examines the fire itself, but also the rise of the city of Chicago and how it was forced to rebuild after the blaze tore through its neighborhoods. With accessible writing, Smith tells the story of the disaster through various individuals who lived in and around the city . . . Stunningly well-researched, this book fully examines a pivotal moment in Chicago’s history. Readers of Smiths other Chicago-based books will find this fascinating. Fans of Erik Larson, American history, and the triumph of the human spirit will also greatly enjoy.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“Smith drops readers right into the action, transforming us into virtual citizens caught up in the conflagration and its aftermath of raucous political debates, intense class and ethnic tensions, yellow journalism, and the incredible energy and drive that enabled Chicagoans to rebuild . . . Smith, professor emeritus at Northwestern University, the author of a plethora of books on urban development and crises, and a true master of his craft, sets the historical record straight in advance of the sesquicentennial anniversary of Chicago’s ‘great fire.’ An accessibly dramatic, even gritty factual account of a much-mythologized historic disaster.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Fast-moving . . . A vivid history revealing hidden aspects of supposedly well-known events.”—Kirkus Reviews
“A definitive retelling of one of America’s ‘most fabled disasters.’”—Publishers Weekly
“Chicago’s Great Fire is just that, great—a notable history, rich in detail, and powered by a narrative that moves at the speed of the galloping flames. It unravels the mystery of Mrs. O’Leary and her poor cow, and is also sadly relevant, in revealing the steps and missteps, the generosity and greed, the stupidity and invention that accompanied a great city’s recovery from near-total disaster.”—Scott Turow
“This is a bracing and impeccably written history by a true master of the craft. Smith captures beautifully Chicagoans’ hubris in building their great flammable city and their resilience as they survived the unthinkable.”—Daniel Immerwahr, author of How to Hide an Empire
“Carl Smith has written the definitive work on the Great Chicago Fire—the context, the stories, and the aftermath. He masterfully demonstrates how disaster can unveil forces at work in society.”—Gary T. Johnson, President, Chicago History Museum
“A gripping description of a modern urban catastrophe, filled with the recollections of men, women, and children who fled their homes as the fire advanced. Carl Smith is a master at taking well-known events and making them new.”—Ann Keating, author of Rising Up From Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth of Chicago