Best 140th anniversary to celebrate along with the Reader's 40th | Best of Chicago 2011 | City Life | Chicago Reader

Best 140th anniversary to celebrate along with the Reader's 40th

The Great Chicago Fire

The Chicago Reader started publishing a week before the centennial of the Great Chicago Fire, but if it had been around a century earlier, it would surely have found an offbeat way to cover the 36-hour conflagration that killed an estimated 300 people, left 100,000 homeless (about a third of the population), destroyed 17,450 buildings, and caused about $200 million (in 1871 dollars) in damages. Hell, the Reader's then-iteration of Mick Dumke might even have managed to debunk the theory that Mrs. O'Leary's cow sparked the fire by kicking over a lantern long before newsman Michael Ahern, in 1893, admitted making it up. Or perhaps the Ben Joravsky of the day would have turned his critical eye on the city's official investigation and the testimony of 50 witnesses culminating in a December 12, 1871, report. Or maybe an early Deanna Isaacs would have spotlighted how the cultural scene rebounded after the blaze. And maybe, just maybe, the Reader would have examined the three other major fires along the shores of Lake Michigan the very same day, among them the Peshtigo, Wisconsin, fire that charred roughly 1.5 million acres and killed 1,200 to 2,500 people, making it the deadliest fire in American history—and one of the least noticed at the time or after. —Anne Spiselman

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