Chicago in Ruins (1871)

The Chicago Fire of 1871 was hardly a singular event—it was one of many urban fires in its era. Still, it swiftly became one of the period’s biggest stories, even before the last flames were extinguished, and it continues to occupy a prominent place in the historical memory of the city. The fire’s persistence in Chicago’s mythology was in large part the result of the enormous media coverage of the event. As the city was quickly rebuilt, civic leaders, boosters, and planners regularly referred to Chicago’s post-fire resurgence as evidence that even a catastrophic fire could not deter it from its destiny to become one of the world’s great cities.

This view comes from an 1871 Chicago and the Great Conflagration, one of several histories hastily compiled and published in the immediate wake of the fire. The volume takes an episodic but comprehensive look at the city’s history, beginning with an explanation of its geographic situation and indigenous occupants. It depicts the city as the central character in a great drama: “Without a peer in her almost magical growth to what seemed to be an enduring prosperity, the city of Chicago experienced a catastrophe almost equally without a parallel in history,” the authors wrote.



Miller, Ross. American Apocalypse: The Great Fire and the Myth of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Sawislak, Karen. Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871–1874. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Smith, Carl. Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.



The Great Chicago Fire & the Web of Memory. Chicago History Museum.

“Chicago in Ruins,” from Chicago and the Great Conflagration by Elias Colbert and Everett Chamberlin (Cincinnati and New York: C.F. Vent; Chicago: J.S. Goodman, 1871), p. 264. The Newberry Library, Case F548.42 .C7 1871