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Lessons Learned …. Or Not?

Lessons Learned …. Or Not?

A Historical Vignette
by Tom Parquette

Lesson One of Four – Burnable Chicago

 Part One, Lesson One – This story has to start somewhere so Part One, Lesson One seems reasonable. But, the chapters and the lessons began far earlier than what will be presented to you here.

Most of us, in or out of the fire service, have grown up with at the very least, anecdotal references to the "Great Chicago Fire" which began October 8, 1871. It seems that Mrs. O'Leary's cow carried the blame for this historic event for something over 128 years, when an investigation by the Chicago City Council in 1999 absolved the cow and Mrs. O'Leary from blame but couldn't come to any conclusion as to who or whom were to blame. There are two other people 'of interest' but that is another story for another day. Not this one.

History seems to agree that Chicago's great fire of 1871 was largely a conflagration for two primary reasons which had nothing really to do with an old lady's barn burning down, or whoever struck the match. Chicago was a city of over 300,000 population on that date and had been built largely of primary fuel for a fire. Wood and shingles combined with wood heating and unsafe heating appliances were a primary factor. A 25-to-40 MPH wind that evening aided the fire. And, to the city and it's planners discredit, a system of, well, Mickey Mouse alarm bells and a severely underequipped and understaffed fire service all fed the success of the Great Chicago Fire.

If there was a more revealing set of post fire scene conditions available to city planners, government agencies and, yes, the fire service as an educational tool of what not to do, Chicago must have been high on the list. $200 million (1871 dollars) in damage, thousands of structures lost, 125 bodies recovered though safe estimates float around 300 likely dead, and of those statistics, interestingly, there were no fire fighters lost, of record. Although several succumbed later to injuries received in the fire. An incontrovertible fact, regardless of the statistical data available, the anecdotal 'evidence' available, or the often twisted lore which collects over some 141 years since this tragedy is that it was, it had to be, it surely presented, a lesson. But then, maybe not!

That said of the Great Chicago Fire, we fast forward to 1889, a mere 24 years following the end of the Civil War and 18 years past the aforementioned fire. National interest was high in celebrating the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus. What better way than to create and theme a World's Fair Exposition as the Columbian Exposition and start it on the Columbus anniversary? St. Louis, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., all threw their collective civic hats in the ring and started jockeying for their cities to be the hosts. Money was a major motivating factor, of course. The competition and the discourse became so heated between these cities that the U.S. Congress was going to have to make the decision. One of the representatives of the New York contingent was so outspoken against Chicago that he continually referred to the Chicago backers and their offers in negotiation as 'the windy offers from out west'. Hence, we have Chicago, the Windy City.

It really came down to New York vs. Chicago. The Big Apple's J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt and William Waldorf Astor threw in a $15 million dollar pledge thinking Chicago hicks couldn't meet that price. But Chicago's Marshall Field, Phillip Armour, Gustavus Swift and Cyrus McCormick matched it and added significant city and state pledges of support as well. Congress was finally convinced to give it to Chicago when Chicago banker Lyman Gage coughed up an additional $5 million within 24 hours to top New York's offer.

 Tomorrow, Part One Lesson Two – The Construction of the Exposition Begins

(Part One Lesson Two is HERE)

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