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Great Chicago Fire moves Chicagoans Westward

The Great Chicago Fire began on the night of October 8, 1871, and raged through the next day, until rain on October 10 aided firefighting efforts. More than 17,000 structures were destroyed; Chicago merchants who lived in Oak Park were wiped out.

James B Herrick, a grandson of Kettlestrings described how “as soon after the fire as it was deemed safe, Oak Park citizens, especially the housewives, collected sandwiches, crackers, hard-boiled eggs, milk, coffee, and other suitable foods to send to the sufferers.” His grocer father and A.T. Hemmingway (Ernest’s grandfather) drove “through the still hot streets and to the sands of the lake shore on the North Side and distributed the food.”[i]

Edwin O Gale’s pharmacy business in the city was destroyed. Joseph Kettlestrings loaned Gale $10,000 to restart his business, and William Steiner, who owned a general store in Oak Park, offered Gale unlimited credit with no interest for a year, to restock.

Oak Park’s established rail transportation placed it favorably for people who wanted to move out of the city after the fire. In the Oak Ridge area land that sold for $1,000 an acre in 1871 had jumped to $3,000 by 1874, but could still be had for $700 an acre in Ridgeland.[ii] There was rapid commercial development in the first few years after the fire. As business and population boomed, the railroad station was moved to the new commercial center east of Harlem in 1872.

Ironically, with Chicago’s new fire resistant building codes, wood frame homes in some outlying areas could be built less expensively than brick homes in the city.[iii]

The Great Chicago Fire left an estimated 300 people dead and 100,000 others homeless. Damages were estimated at $200 million.

The same day the Great Chicago Fire began, a fire broke out in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, in which more than 1,000 people perished.[iv]


[i] Sokol, David M., Oak Park, the Evolution of A Village, The History Press, 2011

[ii] Sokol

[iii] Lewinnek, Elaine, “Domestic and Respectable”: Suburbanization and Social Control After the Great Chicago Fire, Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 3 (Fall 2003) Copyright © 2003 by the University of Iowa




From Sokol, Oak Park Evolution etc

Pop. OP/Ridgeland prob. ~500 about 1870

OP ers collected food, James B Herrick’s “…grocer father and A.T. Hemmingway (E’s grandfather) drve ‘through the still hot  streets and to the sands of the lake shore on the North Side and distributed the food.’”

Edwin O Gale, pharmacy business in the city destroyed

People who could afford moved to suburbs, incl. OP from displacement

Property @ $1.25/acre 1830s, 1,000/acre 1870, 3,000 1874 – Oak Ridge area

Rapid commercial devpt in the first few years after the fire

“Domestic and Respectable”: Suburbanization and Social Control After the Great Chicago Fire Elaine Lewinnek

Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 3 (Fall 2003) Copyright © 2003 by the University of Iowa

Chicago’s surrounding prairie had been crisscrossed by railroads since 1854, Chicago’s model suburb of Riverside was begun in 1868, and “park speculators” had made fortunes buying and selling land in Chicago’s outlying picturesque regions in the real estate boom of 1869. The Great Fire did not change this admiration for suburbia, but it did articulate and expedite it. After the fire, Chicago’s suburbanization accelerated so much that boosters bragged, “Chicago, for its size, is more given to suburbs than any other city in the world” (Our Suburbs 3).3 Visitors wrote: “The city stretches into suburbs, which themselves widen away and exhibit the outlines of new suburbs___Chicago will be the City of the Twentieth Century” (Butterworth 113).


Especially before 1820, American villages mixed home and work as well as rich and poor in houses built close together, no matter how much land was available. The American suburban dream did not develop until the middle of the nineteenth century and did not gain wide popularity until the late nineteenth century. It is worth resituating the American dream into its historic context of Victorian gender and class formations, a context we can see clearly in Chicago in 1871

“Numerous outlying blocks and many edifices of the better class in the more thinly-occupied [districts] have been spared” (“Devastated Chicago” 1). The fire, he implied, vindicated the wealthy who had chosen to live on larger lots further from the central city. The Chicago Times was explicit about this lesson: “There will be a very general demand for property in the numerous suburban villages that surround Chicago — This demand will be the natural result of the recent fire, which has shown the danger of building frame dwellings too close together” (“Real Estate” 1). People turned to suburbs for safety

The idea that suburbs fostered responsible, middle-class consumption led to a related hope that suburbs would create conservative citizens. In 1948 Levitt famously declared: “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do” (qtd. in Hayden, Redesigning the American Dream 8).12

We know about white flight, transportation technology, and government subsidies as linked causes of America’s suburbanization, but we rarely hear this: it was cheaper to build outside city limits. Chicago’s lower middle classes were pulled to the suburbs by relief cottages, but they were also pushed to the suburbs by municipal building codes, city taxes, and policies like Chicago’s fire limits. We see this in advertisements for subdivisions, such as S. E. Gross’s 1880s advertisement, which reads: “OUTSIDE FIRE LIMITS! You can Build Wooden Houses! NO CITY TAXES!” We see this, too, in a real estate journalist three years after the fire: The fire ordinance which followed the fire . . . drove beyond the limits named all persons who desired to build homes for themselves and who had not the means to put up a structure o f brick or other fireproof material. Hence a brisk demand for building just outside the city limits___Indeed, the feature o f the Chicago market for the past two years has been the suburban trade, in which many fortunes have been made. (Chamberlin 204)


Photo credit: Hannah Beye Fife, 1961, drawing in Little Old Oak Park by May Estelle Cook