What became of the debris left from the Great Chicago Fire in 1871?
Congratulations to those whose answers included landfill in Lake Michigan.
During the fire, October 8, 1871, Chicago witnessed its meteoric development in reverse. The fire that began on the city’s southwest side destroyed nearly everything in its path before burning itself out at the northern city limits – more than 4.5 square miles. The city was reduced to “a mass of ashes, stone-fragments, melted and agglomerated nails, spikes, horseshoes, bars, bundles of iron, crockery, china and glassware, and thousands of other relics.” There were literally millions of tons of rubble.
And this new wasteland was also hot. Almost two weeks after the fire, bricks and stones were still too hot to pick up. Finally, thousands of men and boys and hundreds of teams of horses and wagons could get at the ruins to pick up usable bricks and scrap iron. Five thousand wagon-loads of waste and litter a day were dumped into Lake Michigan.
The landfill was used for two major projects. The first was to fill in a lagoon that had been formed by the lake shore, adjacent to Michigan Avenue, and the Illinois Central Railroad that had ridden a trestle parallel to the shore since the 1850’s. The second project reshaped the mouth of the Chicago River at the Lake, enabling the construction of locks to manage the flow of water.
When I look back on the effect of the Great Fire on the city, I understand that it had a truly transformative impact. It not only burned, it led to the addition of nearly a half-mile of land east of the existing lake shore as well as initiating the modernizing of the city and, in the process establishing the city’s reputation as the great repository of innovative architecture. Without the Fire, Chicago would be nothing like it is today.
References: “American Apocalypse” by Ross Miller, “Smoldering City” by Karen Sawislak, and “The Encyclopedia of Chicago”