On This Day In History: 1874 Chicago Fire Follows Eerily Similar Path to Great Chicago Fire

On This Day In History: 1874 Chicago Fire Follows Eerily Similar Path to Great Chicago Fire

The Chicago Fire of 1874 had eerily similar origins to the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 albeit on a smaller scale hence it’s sometimes referred to as the “Little Chicago Fire” or the “Second Great Fire.” Wooden buildings, dry conditions, 90°-degree temperatures, and a vicious southwest wind combined to create a disaster that killed 20 people while enveloping 812 structures and approximately 47 acres on July 14.

It was almost predictable. In a Chicago Tribune article about the 1874 fire, the following was reported: “Nature said to us, ‘Beware of the repetition of 1871;’ but man, so cautioned just after a fire, is brutally heedless when its memory has faded away. Even the insurance men, of all others most sensitive to the approach of such a calamity, seemed to have no forebodings that there was no special vigilance, no particular care, against possible disaster.”

As a result of the Great Chicago Fire, many massive safety and code changes were adopted including the use of fire-resistant construction materials such as brick, stone, marble, and limestone. But, of course, buildings south of the Chicago core that had escaped the conflagration three years prior were grandfathered in and therefore sat unprotected and prone to the dangers of a runaway fire.

A clumsy bovine was not involved this time. Instead, it was reported that the fire started in a small wooden barn located next to an oil factory at approximately 4:30 p.m. in mid-July. The exact cause of the fire was never discovered, but it was alleged that Nathan Isaacson, owner of the shanty, had intentionally set the fire that blazed through the southern part of Chicago’s downtown.

A Chicago Tribune article offered a lively description of the area: “The fire commenced in that portion of the city known as Cheyenne, between Taylor and Twelfth and Clark Street, and Fourth Avenue (now Federal). This part of the city consists of the worst rookeries imaginable, most of which are occupied as houses of ill fame.”

The rookeries refer to the south Chicago neighborhood that was home to low-income immigrant communities made up of densely packed housing. As for the houses of ill fame, it was estimated that nearly 500 prostitutes from brothels and bordellos in the neighborhood were left homeless because of the fire. The Chicago Times reported that the fire had burned out a notorious red-light district with the following colorful description: “the gathering of prostitutes fleeing the advance of the flames as ‘Hogarth’s Gin Lane’ with a touch of ‘The Harlot’s Progress’.”

Prominent buildings destroyed in the fire included the First Baptist Church on Wabash Avenue, the Great Adelphi Theatre, the Jones School Building, Aiken’s Theatre, the Michigan Avenue Hotel, Congress Hall, the Inter-Ocean Building, the St. James Hotel, and a post office which had formerly served as the Wabash Avenue Methodist Church, according to the Chicago Daily Tribune. The fire burned itself out around midnight, claiming the Michigan Avenue Hotel as the last major building destroyed by the flames, reported the Chicago Evening Journal.

In the Report of the Board of Police in the Fire Department issued immediately to the city’s Common Council after the fire, there was no information included about the individual losses or insurance claims, but the total loss from the fire was estimated by the board to be $1,067,260, with insurance claims for $1,860,000.

This resulted in the fire insurance industry demanding reform in the wake of the 1874 fire that included a list of demands. The National Board of Underwriters recommended that all fire insurers refuse to do business with any clients in Chicago until the size of the water mains was increased, the fire department was reorganized under a single chief instead of an elected board, and the erection of wooden buildings inside city limits was banned.

Chicago’s city leaders had no choice but to take immediate action. In an ordinance officially recommended to the council on July 20, 1874, permanent fire limits were extended to the city limits. The Board of Public Works was also given greater authority over new construction and the ability to issue construction permits for existing wooden buildings that needed to be enlarged, raised, or repaired within Chicago’s corporate limits.

The fire also highlighted the importance of implementing a more effective firefighting infrastructure. “Chicago improved its fire department by expanding its personnel, acquiring more modern firefighting equipment, and enhancing training programs,” explains TERPconsulting’s Rob Sontag, CFPS, who has served on various National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) code and standard committees. “Additionally, Chicago invested in an improved water supply system and an expanded network of fire hydrants to ensure an adequate water source for firefighting purposes.”

The fire spurred efforts to implement fire prevention measures including the establishment of fire prevention bureaus, regular inspections of buildings, and increased enforcement of fire safety regulations. The Citizens’ Association of Chicago was formed in 1874 and soon implemented building inspection and surveying measures. Most of the reforms demanded by the National Board of Underwriters were achieved by the fall of 1874, and the insurers resumed business in the city.

As for Isaacson, the “Mrs. O’Leary” of the 1874 fire, he was arrested and charged with arson but was never found guilty.

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