Fire Day

October 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 started on October 8, 1871 and burned until midnight on October 10. The coincidence of a long dry spell, an exhausted and embittered fire department, and stiff winds allowed a small barn fire to spread to its west side neighborhood, and then to jump the Chicago River and begin burning the Loop. Speculative development in timber, cast iron and stone left the city vulnerable, and by the end there was virtually nothing left of downtown or the north side–although timber buildings less than a block upwind of the fire’s origin were left unscathed. Of the two downtown buildings that survived, one of them offered lessons for future construction. The Nixon, still under construction but nearing completion, was built with a new system of heavy plastering around its iron beams and columns and this, along with the fact that the building was empty and thus free of potentially flammable contents, meant that it survived where other structures perished.
Standard histories suggest that the city learned its lesson and immediately began building other fireproof structures. But the reality was that re-construction was so quick that the city did not have time to study or implement any new codes. It would take another fire, in 1874, for Chicago to begin legislating fire-resistant construction.
The rapid re-building did, however, lead to the importation and invention of new fireproofing techniques. New York architect P. B. Wight gave up his practice to come to Chicago, where he began a second career as a fireproofing consultant and entrepreneur, while Chicago builder E. V. Johnson began selling patented terra cotta protection for metal construction.
The site of the O’Leary barn, where the fire began, is now the site of the Chicago Fire Academy on Canal Street just southwest of the Loop–a nice twist.

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