From the Ashes, 1872-1900
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives

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April 4, 1872

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On Sunday evening, October 8, 1871, at 9:30 p.m. a fire erupted on DeKoven Street in the city's West Division and swept toward the river through narrow streets and alleys. By midnight high winds had caused it to leap the river at Adams Street and by 2:30 a.m. Monday it had reached the courthouse. It was soon across the State Street bridge and went on to consume most of the North Division. In all 250 people were killed and 17,450 buildings were destroyed. About a third of the population, 98,000 people, was left homeless and $196,000,000 in property was destroyed.

The immediate needs of the homeless and destitute were provided for by donations of food, clothing and other necessities valued at over $5,000,000. These came from other American cities and several foreign countries. The state legislature appropriated nearly $3,000,000 to replace bridges and other public works, pay interest on debt, and meet fire and police department payrolls. An influx of capital came from eastern investors who were anxious to protect earlier investments. Approximately $88,000,000 of the destroyed property was covered by insurance. Although many of the insurers failed due to the fire, about half of all claims were paid out. Those insured by British companies fared the best. Overall, the city rebounded quickly. Between 1872 and 1879, 10,200 building permits were issued and the population grew from 367,396 to approximately 465,000. It is not known how many individuals never recovered from the Great Fire.

On the advice of the city's attorney the council refused this and other similar petitions on the grounds that it had no legal authority to grant free licenses.

Points to Consider

Which type of business was Irish, Bullen and Co.? Why would this have been a profitable enterprise in 1872?

Where was 234 South Water Street? How did the lumber these dealers sold come into Chicago?

Why didn't Mr. Coppman attempt to collect unemployment compensation or welfare payments?

In 1872 what was the life expectancy of an adult male? What was J. Coppman's probable fate?

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