Monday, June 14, 2010

A Fiery Passion

FYI, my book and I were featured in the Chicago History Journal last week:

A Fiery Passion

I like people of passion, particularly when it is manifested in a study of Chicago's history. I am passionate about what I do on my sites; I make no money from them, accept no advertising and no one is making me do it. The only other explanation is that I'm nuts! When I stumbled on a Facebook page dedicated to a novel about the Great Chicago Fire and written by a first time author and self proclaimed "dork," I had to know why. (The author sounded like someone I should know.) At the present time the book is only available as an ebook (Kindle; Nook, etc.)and that added more fuel to my curiosity (ya, I'm going to say it) fire. Since I do not own an ebook reader I really can't comment on the book's merits, but that really isn't what this post is about. We are talking about enthusiasm, ardor, and zeal for a topic. It takes a lot of work to write a book, dedication, and perseverance. We are talking passion.

Why the Chicago Fire Still Matters To Me

By Peter J. Spalding

I get a lot of questions about my book, 1871: A Novel of the Great Chicago Fire, and the most common one is why I wrote it in the first place. After all, there are already a lot of books about the Great Chicago Fire, so there wouldn't seem to be much left to say about it. And writing a book is such a huge commitment-- of all the things I could do, why should I spend so much time and energy on this?

My honest answer to that question is that I can't help myself. The fire is such a key moment in history, and it's so chock-full full of human drama, that it's catnip for a writer like me. And it's such a rich subject that there are still plenty of new things to say about it.

On the surface, the fire is one of those iconic events that everybody seems to know. We've all seen the pictures of the city in flames, and we've all heard the stories that have sprung up around it. (For the record, Mrs. O'Leary's cow didn't start the fire; that story was debunked while the ashes were still hot, but the legend has lived on ever since.)

Beyond that, though, very few people know much about the fire. In fact, it has been so mythologized that's easy to forget that it really happened. The city rarely commemorates it, and aside from the Water Tower, there are few visible signs of it left. But beneath the surface, its influence is all over Chicago; for better or worse, it turned the city into what it is today.

Most histories of the fire are pretty simplistic. Some people see it as a cautionary tale of carelessness, hubris, and ambition run amok. To others, it's an inspirational story of how Americans can overcome the odds, make a good situation of a horrible disaster, and generally triumph in the face of adversity. There's some truth to both points of view, but the reality is much more complicated. The fire did show humanity at its most foolish, but it also showed humanity at its most courageous. It taught America lessons in both what to do, and what not to do, in the face of disaster.

The fire's most important lesson was that catastrophes do happen. That may sound obvious today, but it wasn't obvious to people at the time. In fact, in those days the U.S. had never seen such a thing. Its biggest natural disasters up to that point had been the New Madrid Earthquakes, which had struck beyond the frontier and affected only a handful of people. The most destructive fires in memory were the so-called Great New York Fire of 1835, and the Civil War burnings of Atlanta and Richmond. The Great Chicago Fire dwarfed them all.

Since then, of course, we've seen plenty of other disasters-- most notably the Galveston Hurricane, the San Francisco Earthquake, and Hurricane Katrina-- so our perspective is very different. But 1871 Chicago was a product of its time. The city was built quickly and cheaply because its people thought that was the smart thing to do. In the Victorian era, Americans saw "progress" as inevitable, so they tended to look on the bright side of things and ignore naysayers. Hindsight is 20/20 of course, so it's easy for us to wag our fingers and call them foolhardy. But if we'd been in their shoes, we'd probably have done the same thing.

Having said that, Chicago's recovery was nothing short of incredible. To this day, it's the only U.S. city that has bounced back from disaster so well. Most of its rebuilding was finished within two years (in contrast to New Orleans, which is still struggling nearly five years post-Katrina). A decade after the fire, Chicago was booming even more wildly than before. In 1893, the city was chosen to represent America to the world by hosting the World's Columbian Exposition. Chicago has been the Midwest's biggest and most important city ever since. Compare that to Galveston, which lay crippled after its hurricane and never regained its former glory. Even San Francisco has its share of scars; it used to be the biggest and most important city on the West Coast, but after its earthquake, it took a back seat to Los Angeles and has stayed there ever since.

Chicago's rebuilding was certainly no picnic. The city's boomers and boosters tried to put a good face on things, and they pretended that the city was rising from its ashes like a phoenix. But that was a whitewash of the truth, and it didn't do justice to the fire's hundreds of fatalities, thousands of buildings leveled, and tens of thousands of families left homeless. The fire also bankrupted dozens of insurance companies; in the days before financial regulations, their collapses left most of their customers penniless.

To me, that made the survivors that much more courageous. There's no denying the energy, chutzpah, and downright heroism they showed in the weeks and months that followed. Chicago's leaders had grown up in pioneer days, so they were famously self-reliant; their generation had built much of the country from the ground up, prospected for gold out West, abolished slavery, and developed the first coast-to-coast railroads and telegraphs, among many other things. They were arguably the generation that turned the U.S. into a world power. Chicago was at the center of all that activity, so when the fire struck, it unleashed untold quantities of drive and ambition. W.D. Kerfoot set up the first temporary building within hours, and Chicagoans started planning the rebuilding while the ground was still hot.

All this happened with very little government help. There was no FEMA in those days, nor any real form of public assistance. The government just wasn't involved in its citizens' daily lives, aside from mail delivery and a handful of other services. So when disaster struck, Chicagoans didn’t assume that the authorities would bail them out. Instead, they collected private donations and distributed them through the nonprofit Relief and Aid Society. The government provided security through soldiers and police, but that was essentially it. That reinforced the survivors' determination, because it forced them to take their destinies into their own hands.

The results of all that can still be seen today. The Water Tower is just the tip of the iceberg; in fact, most of modern Chicago owes its existence to the blaze.

The city's architecture is the most obvious example. The rebuilding effort attracted groundbreaking architects like Louis Sullivan, who started experimenting with steel, concrete, and other new materials. Real estate prices soared in the burnt district, so businesses had to make do with small parcels of land. The result was a new building style, the skyscraper, which debuted with the Home Insurance Building. And neither Chicago's skyline, nor that of any other modern metropolis, would ever be the same.

The Chicago Tribune was also forged by the fire. The city's biggest paper used to be the Times; the Tribune was one of several smaller ones that are now mostly forgotten. The fire destroyed every newspaper office in town, but Tribune publisher Joseph Medill sought out temporary quarters right away. He had the Tribune back in business within forty-eight hours, long before any of his competitors. The Tribune became the only media outlet in a city starved for news, so it quickly became the city's paper of record. Medill became so powerful that he won the next election to become the city's mayor. His arch rival, the Times, struggled to regroup and eventually went out of business. (It bears no relation to the modern Sun-Times.)

A lesser-known fact is that the city's lakeshore also came out of this. Before the fire, Chicago was an industrial city without any major parks. The site of Lincoln Park was littered with graves, having recently served as a cemetery. The site of Grant Park was mostly underwater; the lakeshore ran along Michigan Avenue, and the Illinois and Michigan Railroad ran along a trestle offshore. After the fire, the city dumped its rubble into the water, which extended the shoreline outward. Many people wanted to develop that land for profit, but Montgomery Ward insisted that it be kept open for public use-- and the rest, as they say, is history.

The fire also left its imprint on the city's sporting life. Among other things, it destroyed the White Stockings' baseball field along with many of its players' homes. To rebuild, the team had to reorganize into a more professional outfit. That led to the founding of the National League and the birth of pro sports as we know it. The White Stockings later changed their name to the Cubs, and the White Sox were named in their honor.

The fire's biggest effect, though, was on the city's psyche. Chicagoans knew the magnitude of the ordeal they'd lived through, so they felt they could overcome anything. That can-do spirit had existed since the city's founding, but the fire hardened it like a piece of clay in a kiln. And the city was not shy about it; Easterners soon dubbed Chicago "the Windy City" because of its citizens' bragging and boasting.

So just think: anytime you stroll through Grant Park, take in a Cubs game, hear a Chicago politician bluster, or just look at the skyline, you're seeing the results of the fire. Other events have certainly shaped the city-- most notably Prohibition and the reigns of both Richard Daleys-- but they still pale in comparison. Chicagoans worked so hard and accomplished so much that we can never lose sight of their legacy.

So, getting back to the original question: I don't know of any juicier, more important, more dramatic, or a just plain more exciting subject to write about. If you know of anything, by all means let me know!

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