The Great Chicago Fire

On the evening of Sunday, October 8, 1871, a fire started in a barn owned by Chicago residents Patrick and Kate O’Leary. The fire became known as the Great Chicago Fire because of the destruction it caused. You may have heard the legend of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. According to the legend, the cow started the fire by kicking a lantern that Mrs. O’Leary left behind when she finished milking the cow. Yet Mrs. O’Leary claimed she was in bed when the barn caught fire, and even today no evidence exists to dispute her story. No matter how the fire started, in the nineteenth century the city of Chicago was almost destined to burn.

At the time, the city’s population was growing, and contractors built thousands of new buildings. They often put up wooden buildings, which were finished more quickly than those made of materials like stone. Unfortunately, wood also burned quickly—a fact that allowed the fire at the O’Leary barn to spread across the city.

To make matters worse, a fire watchman originally misidentified the fire’s location. Though he tried to correct the mistake, firefighters still went to the wrong place. By the time the firefighters arrived at the barn an hour and a half later, the fire was out of control. Though the fire started west of the Chicago River, winds sent burning debris flying over the river. The flames spread throughout the city.

When the roof of the city’s waterworks collapsed, the water supply was cut off and firefighters brought water in buckets from the river and Lake Michigan. Residents ran for their lives toward Lake Michigan or the prairie west of the city. Ten-year old Fannie Belle Becker remembered, “the heat was so intense that it drove us down to the water’s edge…we sat there until I was almost blind with the dirt and cinders that filled the air.”

Finally, on Monday night rain fell and by the next morning the fire finally stopped. Though grateful that the fire was over, residents who lived through the fire knew it would take time for the city to recover. Jonas Hutchinson, a lawyer, wrote to his mother: “We are in ruins. All the business portion of the city has fallen prey to the fiery fiend. Our magnificent streets for acres and acres lined with elegant structures are a heap of sightless rubbish.”

In addition to the destruction of buildings, the fire took the lives of about 300 people and left about 100,000 people homeless. Other cities sent food and clothing to the needy, though as one survivor noted, “the sufferers are so numerous it is hard to meet their wants.”

Yet the people of Chicago refused to give up on the city. They put up temporary shacks for shelter and set up soup kitchens with donations from other cities.

Chicago business owners like Marshall Field eventually replaced their destroyed buildings with grander and safer ones. Construction workers from across the country came to build new houses for residents. By the end of the century, Chicago hosted millions of visitors during the World’s Columbian Exposition, a celebration of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus.

Frederick Olmsted: Landscaping the World’s Columbian Exposition

The sandy area along Chicago’s lakeshore looked more like a deserted marsh than a site for the World’s Columbian Exposition. Frederick Law Olmsted, however, saw the area’s potential. As landscape architect for the project, he got the fair committee’s permission to use this site. His design called for lagoons and what Olmsted referred to as a wooded isle, but they had not been developed yet. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, however, would give Olmsted the opportunity to create his vision. After the fair was over and the buildings torn down, a park would remain for Chicagoans to enjoy. Today this park is known as Jackson Park.

Olmsted  saw the Exposition as an opportunity to showcase landscape architecture. The work involved in designing parks did not receive the same respect as designing a building. Olmsted put all of his energy into the Chicago World’s Fair’s landscaping in the hope that his profession would be recognized as an art. He wrote, “If people generally get to understand that our contribution to the undertaking is that of the planning of the scheme, rather than the disposition of flower beds and other matters of gardening decoration, it will be a great lift to the profession.”

As landscape architect, Olmsted was responsible for planning the basic land and water shape of the fairgrounds. After consulting with the building architects, Olmsted concluded that the marshy areas of Jackson Park could be converted into waterways. Low-lying parts of the park were deepened and turned into water basins. Workers dredged sand out of the marshes to make lagoons of different sizes and shapes. The sand dug up during this process was used to raise higher areas of the park on which the fair’s buildings would later be constructed.

In addition to waterways, the original landscaping plans for the fair included a secluded piece of land that Olmsted called the Wooded Isle. The plan stated that “near the middle of this lagoon system there should be an island, about fifteen acres in area, in which there would be clusters of the largest trees growing upon the site; that this island should be free from conspicious buildings.” Olmsted created a natural setting for the island. He ensured that the best trees already on the island were fertilized and between them water plants, bushes, and young trees were planted.

Olmsted intended the island to be a place where visitors could rest and enjoy nature away from the busyness of the fair. Fairgoers appreciated Olmsted’s efforts to make nature part of the Exposition. After viewing the island, one visitor wrote that “little arms of vegetation and of land reach out here and there between tiny coves and bays, and the general effect is so natural and real that it amazes one to hear that it is not so.”

Although only a small part of the fair was dedicated to nature, Olmsted wanted the flowers and plants throughout the grounds to appear natural. A trip to the site of the earlier World’s Fair in Paris convinced Olmsted that the Chicago fair needed more natural landscaping. He thought the landscaping in Paris “must have been extremely disquieting, gaudy and childish, if not savage and an injury to the Exposition.” As a result of his observations, most of the plants at the Chicago World’s Fair came from native lakes, rivers and swamps in Illinois and Wisconsin. Workers transplanted willows, waterside plants, cattails, rushes, irises, and pond lilies on the shores of the lagoons.

When the Exposition was completed, Olmsted was at the peak of his contemporary reputation. Garden and Forest magazine stated that “the sparkle of genius which has produced a single and consistent work of art…sprang from his brain.” As a result of his work on the Exposition, landscape architecture became recognized as an art.