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The World's Greatest Fire

A Conspiracy Theory

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The Chicago Historical Society recently held an essay contest in which grammar school students were invited to write "What I Saw at the Great Chicago Fire." About 1,000 submissions were received. All were read. Some were put on display. The following was found in the garbage behind the building.

Historians tell us that we'll never know who really started the Great Chicago Fire. But there are mountains of circumstantial evidence proving inconclusively and within a shadow of a doubt that our city fathers did it, led by two malefactors from--where else?--the Chicago Tribune. It was the greatest arson job of all time.

William Bross and Joseph Medill, the principal proprietors of the then-fledgling Tribune, burned down Chicago to ensure its rise to major metropolitan status, a necessary precondition in a well-thought-out plan to grow their newspaper into the major media conglomerate it is today. Recognizing the need to bury the midwestern competition in the race to become what one 19th-century booster called "the junction of eastern means and western opportunity," these men of vision quarterbacked an urban-renewal endeavor that cleared out blocks of dilapidated downtown shacks in one politically unassailable swoop.

For years, the central city had amounted to no more than four east-west streets immediately south of the Chicago River--a tiny business district penned in on three sides by tacky immigrant shanties. After the Great Fire burned a four-mile swath through these slums, relocating some 100,000 low-income residents, new investment poured into parcels downtown and on the outskirts, sparking a boom that the local real estate industry would fondly recall as "the great speculation years."

"The Chicago Fire did much more than stimulate the redevelopment of structures and infrastructures," Christine Rosen wrote in The Limits of Power: Great Fires and the Process of City Growth in America. "In addition, it caused a permanent reorganization of residential, commercial and industrial land use patterns that turned an old-fashioned walking city into a comparatively modern 19th century metropolis in less than two years time."

Bross, the son of an eastern lumber dealer, came west to Chicago in 1848. He sold books and a Christian newspaper before founding the Chicago Democratic Press, where he became the city's first financial writer and a darling among east-coast and European money men. Evidently he hatched his urban-renewal scheme early on, for in 1853 he brashly predicted that Chicago had to wait "but a few short years for the sure development of her manifest destiny."

Medill, editor of the Cleveland Morning Leader, came west in 1855 to assume the editorial reins of Chicago's Daily Tribune. As he stepped off the train he carried with him a copy of his favorite Chicago paper--Bross's Democratic Press. This telling fact is reported in Chicago Tribune, an official history of the world's greatest newspaper by Lloyd Wendt. Wendt doesn't say if Bross met Medill at the station to apprise him of his bold plan, but we do know that shortly before his arrival Medill wrote: "Compared with Cleveland, Chicago is a quagmire on the lake, but it is clear this prairie metropolis will become a great city" (emphasis added).

Bross and Medill officially joined forces in 1858, when the Daily Tribune and the Democratic Press merged. The ostensible reason for the alliance (the one given in the partners' official statement) was "to put an end to the expensive rivalry which has heretofore been kept up; to lay the foundations deep and strong of a public journal, which will become one of the established institutions of Chicago; to enable us to combat more powerfully, and, we trust, more successfully, public abuses; to give us a wider influence in public affairs" (emphasis added).

The new paper's first order of business was to install a puppet in the White House to preclude federal interference with the fire plans. Lincoln was inaugurated in 1861, and in that very year the Tribune Company incorporated. One of its main goals, according to the corporate charter, was to make Chicago more flammable: the charter stated that the company might "manufacture in the city of Chicago or elsewhere, paper and other such articles as they may use in the business of printing, publishing and binding." It also contained telling language that surely would have tipped off a more vigilant federal apparatus: " . . . and shall have power to purchase and hold so much real estate and water power as may be necessary" (emphasis added).

In 1869, just 18 months before the great fire, the Tribune prepared for the conflagration to come, moving to a new headquarters building at Dearborn and Madison constructed, as the paper boasted, of "fireproof" materials (Joliet marble). This part of the plan went somewhat awry; the new building burned down despite the valiant efforts of many people who tried to save it, including the greatly surprised Bross and Medill themselves, and the company hadn't taken out fire insurance on it. Nevertheless the Tribune was the first newspaper to print an edition after the disaster, including an upbeat editorial beseeching Chicagoans to "cheer up." In subsequent days, the Tribune could hardly hide its excitement. Medill's rhetoric became the mantra for civic hope, noting for example that Chicago "must rise again, and not only must she rise, but rise to stand, as long as the world revolves."

While Medill used the Tribune's pages to define the agenda for a new Chicago, Bross went to work lining up the capital. He was well suited to this task, connected as he was to big businessmen in Chicago (he was on the boards of a local bank and a local insurance company) and in the east. Moreover, he was a great orator (his campaigning for Lincoln had led to his 1864 election as Illinois lieutenant governor). Although impatient to secure the flow of dollars, "Governor" Bross didn't leave town until federal troops had arrived to secure the peace after the fire. "Thank God," Bross told the New York Tribune on October 14, seven days after the start of the conflagration that left three hundred dead and destroyed his own house, "those most dear to me, and the city as well, are safe; and I hurried away to the train" for a rendezvous with the eastern capitalists.

Bross told east-coast reporters that Chicago would house a million people by 1900. He banked his optimism on his knowledge of what was then called the Northwest "and the vast resources of its broad acres. I know that the location of Chicago makes her the centre of this wealthy region, and the market for all its products."

An ardent Presbyterian known by many as "Deacon," Bross proclaimed there had never been a better time to invest in Chicago. He huddled with the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company, one of Chicago's top creditors, and then made a presentation to the New York Chamber of Commerce's relief committee. In his widely publicized plea, Bross said Chicago's hopes hinged on east-coast capitalists placing "funds in the hands of the leading business men of Chicago to enable them to rebuild the city, to handle the products of the vast fertile country that is tributary to it, and to set all the laborers of the city to work."

Deacon Bross didn't just want other people's money; he also wanted their offspring. He encouraged the wealthy to send their sons west "to pursue a life of honorable execution" in a city of opportunity where local business was no longer concentrated among the relative few. Due to the fire, he claimed, almost all were starting even "in the race for fame and fortune."

Back on the home front, Medill was working on the keystone of the plan, an overhaul of fire ordinances and building codes ostensibly intended to fireproof the central city; of course it would have the additional benefit of preventing the immigrant masses from resettling in new shantytowns. The Tribune news columns began to read like an advertisement for the burgeoning brick industry. The paper reported, for example, that brick construction could reduce a household's fuel bills by 25 percent while eliminating the worry of fire and containing insurance costs.

Other papers joined this crusade, but after immigrant groups protested the others were forced to recognize that the poor couldn't afford to build with bricks. According to Christine Rosen, "Only the editors of the Tribune kept up the attack, refusing to admit that workers had a legitimate grievance against the comprehensive ordinance" and calling the other papers' stance "pure hypocrisy." When 1,000 workers marched on City Hall and threw bricks through the windows, Medill cried "conspiracy." This particular conspiracy, he believed, consisted of communistic and un-American rabble (though the Tribune dismissed the rumor that it was communists who had actually started the fire).

Medill worked 16-hour days until being "snatched away and thrust into the mayor's office much to my dislike and pecuniary loss." Elected mayor on the "fireproof" ticket shortly after the fire, he quit midterm, allegedly out of disgust for the city's unwillingness to go along with his plans to shut down the saloons. But we know now that his real work was done. He took his family to Europe for an extended vacation, then returned to become the principal owner of the Tribune.

Of course the urban-renewal plan succeeded spectacularly. Within five months the consensus of the city's numerous newspapers (none of which ever challenged the hegemony of the Tribune, by the way), was that the fire had actually been a blessing in disguise. The central business district doubled in size, pushing south beyond Madison toward Jackson and Van Buren and west past LaSalle toward Market Street and the south branch of the Chicago River. Moreover, the commercial areas became more homogeneous for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that manufacturing interests moved away, forming their own district in an open prairie between Ashland and Western avenues along the river. The fire spurred residential settlement in the collar townships of Lakeview, Jefferson, Cicero, Lake (now Englewood), and Hyde Park as well as subdivisions in Ravenswood and Austin. Newly incorporated suburbs included South Evanston, Rogers Park, Wilmette, Riverside, and Norwood Park.

Bross, who served as Tribune Company president until his death in 1890, published a book in 1876 called History of Chicago, an attempt to establish as history his own "eyewitness" version of the Great Fire. The deacon didn't say why the near-southwest-side alarm box closest to the O'Leary barn wasn't working that fateful night. The fire department's watchman saw the smoke from his perch atop the county building, but, since there was no alarm, he dispatched a fire wagon to a spot about two miles from the fire. "A combination of human error and mechanical breakdown let the fire get out of hand," University of Illinois-Chicago history professor Perry Duis told a journalist recently. "Within 45 minutes, when the first wagon arrived on the scene, a square block had already burnt down."

These mysterious circumstances were quickly overlooked as all attention zeroed in on a poor Irish immigrant woman who supposedly sparked the most important event in Chicago history while fingering the udder of her cow (a story the Trib discounted, incidentally). A more apt image would be that of capitalists fingering pocket watches, waiting to cash in on the bonanza.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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