What Was the Great Chicago Fire?

What Was the Great Chicago Fire?
Written by Janet B. Pascal, Illustrated by Tim Foley

Publisher’s Summary:
On Sunday, October 8, 1871, a fire started on the south side of Chicago. A long drought made the neighborhood go up in flames. And practically everything that could go wrong did. Firemen first went to the wrong location. Fierce winds helped the blaze jump the Chicago River twice. The Chicago Waterworks burned down, making it impossible to fight the fire. Finally, after two days, Mother Nature took over, with rain smothering the flames. This overview of a stupendous disaster not only covers the fire but explores the whole history of fire fighting.

Primary Source Pairing:
The Chicago Fire was a fast burning, massively destructive fire that changed the landscape of the city forever. In 1871, in a city where many of the buildings were made of wood and rain had been scarce for months, the risk of fire was a constant fear. When the fire started on October 8, 1871, no one knew just how much of the city of Chicago would burn. For this primary source pairing, invite students to analyze a map showing the Burnt District of Chicago. Encourage students to study the map and identify places they may have visited in the city.

There is an abundance of primary sources available about the Chicago Fire. Check out the primary sources available on the Library of Congress website. Additionally, The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory website has a vast collection of photographs, maps, letters, and oral histories.

Questions for Discussion:

  • Describe what you see.
  • What do you notice first?
  • What size and shape is the map?
  • What graphical elements do you see?
  • What on the map looks strange or unfamiliar?
  • What questions do you have about this map?
  • Make connections to what you know of this area today to what you see on the map.

Book Cover and Summary: Follett
Map Showing the Burnt District of Chicago: Library of Congress

Additional Resources:
The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory: https://www.greatchicagofire.org/web-of-memory/
Library of Congress Great Chicago Fire Primary Source Collection: https://www.loc.gov/search/?fa=subject:great+fire,+chicago,+ill.