When the Great Fire burst forth on the evening of Sunday, October 8, 1871, Chicago had only been incorporated for 34 years. But it was already an economic powerhouse and its population had reached 300,000, more than half of them immigrants, mostly from Ireland and Germany. The city’s elite—people like merchandiser Marshall Field, “a thin, trim, unfailingly dapper man,” and timber baron and railroad executive William Butler Ogden—hailed from the eastern establishment and were leery of immigrants and fearful of common people holding political power.
The Burning of the World: The Chicago Fire and the War for a City’s Soul, Scott W. Berg’s fascinating account of the disastrous fire, is detailed and often thrilling. In so many ways, the devastation could have been avoided but for a compounding of errors: a signal sending firefighters to the wrong location, firefighters exhausted and unprepared because of a large fire the day before and more. Berg describes the firefighting technologies of the day and the poor neighborhoods, shops and lumber yards that fueled the fire. Through brilliant miniature biographies of many involved—Field, newspaper editor and future mayor Joseph Medill, Army General Phil Sheridan, city alderman Charles C.P. Holden—he gives us a feel for the history and culture being consumed by the flames and the seeds of conflict that will flower after the flames are extinguished.
Berg, it turns out, is just as interested in the political firestorm that followed. In his telling, the Chicago business elite seized the opportunity to wrest control of the city from a popularly elected alderman. In an election immediately after the fire, a “reform” group tried to institute measures that harmed workers. They sought to enforce a ban on alcohol sales on Sundays, the only day off for most laborers. They took control of the flood of donations pouring into the city and doled out assistance only to people who could prove their moral worth. They tried to force everyone to rebuild in brick instead of wood, a sensible-seeming measure, except that such homes were well beyond the means of many.
In the following election, the elite-backed reformers were booted and the system of Chicago neighborhood politics was born. The Burning of the World is an absorbing story, and Berg, clearly a lover of rowdy Chicago, tells it well.