Salvation on the Shoreline: How Lake Michigan Weathered Chicago Through the Great Fire of 1871

By Heidie Senseman

October 9, 1871 — Chicago is on fire.

“The fire in the west division is now raging with unabated fury,” writes The New York Tribune, and “the city of Chicago in ashes,” writes The (Washington D.C.) Evening Star, and “fiery clouds, with flames leaping!” writes The Chicago Tribune, and “doomed city,” writes The Charleston (SC) Daily News.

Eyewitnesses confirm the reports. John Chapin draws sketches of the fire. He says the flames are like towers. The sparks are like thunderstorms. Horace White says the sky is too full of smoke to see the whole blaze. James Sheehan calls the fire another Pompeii. Elias Colbert and Everett Chamberlin call the fire a “roaring ocean of flames.” Churchgoers in Lincoln Park sprint through a Catholic cemetery, over headstones and dry grass, toward the shoreline.

And so cries H.R. Hobart, “to the lake!” with all of Chicago, fleeing from this sea of fire. Thousands of people plunge into the water. Parents throw their children into the water. Even after the flames subside, they stay in the waves and wait for rescue boats.

The fire breaks the next day. October 10 — the day of rain. 300 Chicagoans are dead. 100,000 are homeless. The city is wet.

Mayor Roswell Mason proclaims that the city will preserve “order and peace and private property” in the face of such tragedy.

“Peace,” Mason groans, but this city has no peace. Forty-one burglars are shot in the night. More fill the prisons.

October 11 — Chicago sits under martial law. Chicago smells of smoke. The fire blackens 17,450 buildings and eats 73 miles of city streets. Broken china lines the streets. There are no trees or shrubs. The fields are gone. The cemeteries look like deserts. Even the soil is burnt. All that remains are the bank vaults, Old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and the water tower. And the water tower — a sign of hope?

Ellen Shubart, a docent at the Chicago Architecture Center, describes the city’s attitude like this: “The water tower survived. We will survive.”

And so, the water tower becomes a symbol of perseverance to Chicagoans. It reminds people that water beats fire.

Here’s another reminder: After Chicago’s waterwork pipes fail under flames, teams pull water some five miles from Lake Michigan for public use.

And another: When homelessness and rubble crowd the city, 500 Chicagoans escape via barge through the river, the pier, and ultimately, Lake Michigan.

And another: Though Chicago has turned black, Lake Michigan remains blue.

And another: When it comes time to clean up the rubble, all eyes turn to Lake Michigan.

The city pushes millions of tons of rubble toward the shoreline, through the sand and into one of the lake’s massive lagoons. East of Michigan Avenue, mountains of ash that used to be Chicago sink in water. People carry charred wood to the water. They bring shards of china and glass. They roll headstones burnt beyond recognition. Rubble pours in so plentifully that it fills in and spills over the lagoon. In 1915, the city will commission Grant Park — 319 acres for public recreation in the Loop community — to be built atop this debris-extended shoreline.

Perhaps in 1871, Chicagoans know that they are abusing their precious lake, this crisp savior that delivered them from boiling alive in their city’s river or joining the blanket of ash. Perhaps in 1871, Chicagoans feel guilty about thanking this salvific lake with millions of tons of charred rubble. Or perhaps in 1871, Chicagoans are too overwhelmed to care about the environmental dangers.

They know that rubble will pollute Lake Michigan. But what else could swallow Chicago’s burnt bones? Where else could the trash and ashes go?

And another question: Could the lake handle the contaminants, or would it wither as Chicago had under flames?

“The lake would absorb it,” Cedarville University professor of biology Dr. Mark Gathany says. He’s confident. And he’s correct. When Chicago turns Lake Michigan into its dumpster in 1871, the lake survives. “But not without impact,” Gathany adds.

It’s difficult to know precisely how much the fire damages the lake. Ecology is only five years old in 1871, and Chicago is more concerned with survival than scientific documentation.

Gathany thinks that likely, the lake’s water quality plummeted and its fish and wildlife dispersed. Likely, rain runoff carried carcinogens directly to the shores. The lake that saved Chicago did not escape unscathed. It was injured alongside the city.

And yet, as time passed and its water quality improved and its wildlife returned, the lake healed. It modeled healing to Chicago. It saw that raw and smoking city through the Great Rebuilding, another fire in 1874 and a population increase of 1.4 million over the next 30 years.

Historians and authors and politicians and ecologists and economists and most people who know about the Great Chicago Fire wonder how Chicago survived the flames. No other city could have recovered like that, they say. So they approach the city with awe. They see in it a certain potential, a certain grit. It is a mysterious, most resilient city. But why? How? Where does that strength come from?

See it how Brian Doyle, late author of the 2016 novel “Chicago,” sees it. He writes:

What is the city made of? What are the things that are here and only here and compose the here of here? The prevalence of the lake. The way the lake is a sea and not a lake. The way the lake shoulders the city.

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