The Great Chicago Fire that took place in 1871 was a tragedy which swept through the business district of the fastest growing American city at that time. At least 300 people were killed, 100,000 left homeless and about two million US dollars worth of damage incurred. Although the Great Chicago Fire caused a lot of damage, it ended up being beneficial to the growth and development of the city. This was displayed by the wave of modern and sophisticated construction that followed. Within few years, new and strong buildings came up and wider road network with allowances for future expansion. To achieve all this, a committee had earlier been set to assess and analyze the inferno and come up with recommendations. The committee recommended for an effective city planning and mapping in ensuring safety and sustainable growth of the city.
Changes Brought by the Great Chicago Fire
The growth experienced after the Tragic Fire propelled Chicago into the future as one of the leading cities in America. Displays relating to the disaster are found in several Chicago museums and the Chicago Water Tower that was one of the few buildings left standing by the fire. The origin of the fire could not established though there is a legend that implicates the fire to have started from a shed after a cow kicked over a lantern setting fire to the surrounding hay. Inquests to determine its origin proved the cow was innocent though the tale lives on. Before the fire, most houses in Chicago were wooden and built close to each other. In addition, the roads were narrow with no room for future expansion. As population grew, congestion increased and lack of proper planning facilitated people to build shelters all around the city. These factors triggered the spread of the fire at such a high rate making it impossible for people to salvage their belongings.
Prior to the date when fire started, there had been no rain for several weeks. This had made the city tinder-dry. In addition, strong wind was blowing hence speeding up the spread of the fire. By the time the fire department came into action, the fire had spread across many areas making in uncontrollable. Two days later, the fire went off leaving behind burnt-out businesses, unemployment and bare land. Surveying the devastation, the people of Chicago realized that the fire had provided an unexpected opportunity to build the city with ample fire protections, modern skyscrapers and wide streets. Chicago was actually the leader in skyscraper landscaping and other cities such as New York followed suit (Miller, 1990). The businesses in the town wanted to rebuild with better, modern buildings, and they succeeded in setting off a culture of taller structures that have since spread to the rest of the world.
I think it is because of the fire that the people of Chicago re-discovered their new energy and enterprise to develop them. This is demonstrated by the spirit of recovery that flourished aftermath. The development of skyscraper is a manifestation of tragedy turned into success by human will. Human forces promoted recovery and created opportunities for innovation. Reconstruction began immediately as plans for rebuilding had earlier been made way before the fire was out. The determination of some individuals in the society to see their businesses back into operation motivated Chicagoans who rose to the challenge. The spirit of rising again was all over the place as people started raising capital to rebuild. By October 1872, several buildings worth over $50 million had been constructed. Three years later, the city was booming back to live this time with new and modern infrastructure. Perhaps the city could not have improved this much at such a high rate but its geographical location necessitated its growth. Chicago was the country’s biggest market for lumber, meat and grain, with an increasing vital role in the melting of iron and steel. Its established economic ties with even the outside world through its Lake Michigan harbor and the Illinois and Michigan Canal were as much determinants for its growth as was the spirit of its people.
Chicago’s central business district was concentrated in a small location. The price of land was very high meaning that the only way to expand was up. Traditional construction that required massive footings depending on the height of the building limited the potential of tall buildings. A new construction technique had to be invented. Architectures and engineers were put under pressure to come up with a new construction technique that would make the vision of tall buildings achievable. A technique referred as skeleton construction was adapted and applied in building of vertical office space (Miller, 1990). Buildings were held by an interior skeletal structure instead of external masonry walls. The technique turned to be economical in terms of resources and time. The rapid construction, availability of cheap labor and increased vertical space offered by skeleton construction resulted to greater and quicker profitability.
Most of the buildings built after the fire, combined the old techniques of construction with newer techniques in fire protection systems, grillage footings, and the use of iron-steel in skeleton construction. In the early twentieth century, the skyscraper was fully replaced with steel skeleton and the exterior walls were built only to protect the interior rather than to support the weight of the whole building. The architects who dedicated their minds, time and energy in rebuilding Chicago and developing the skyscraper comprised one of the greatest concentrations of architectural talent in the country’s history. From their ideas and skills emerged the Chicago School, which is known for its development and mastery of steel framing and eventual development of the skyscraper as the main feature of the urban skyline.
A coincidence of circumstances brought about the opportunity for a modern urban architecture in Chicago that would be emulated across the US. A variety of factors contributed to this transformation. The main factor was the Great Fire that swept the ground clean and came as a wakeup call for the people to transform from their unsafe traditional way of planning and building the city to a more modern way that not only meets their needs but is cautious about their safety (Sawislak, 1995). The need for office space in a geographically circumscribed central district was another pressing factor. Land was scarce and highly expensive. On the other hand, the economics of real estate and escalating land price required construction to be undertaken rapidly. Availability of cheap labor from the unemployed and a new construction technique made it cheaper to construct tall buildings. The availability of the steel industry provided material and techniques required in using the steel framing method. It is out of these needs, possibilities, opportunities and the creative vision of the architectures that Chicago city was re-born.
The people of Chicago displayed a lot of energy and will in reversing the situation in a better way than before. In the process of searching for the appropriate designs and techniques of building their structures, they realize the potential they have in doing even bigger things. This realization marks the start of their modern civilization. Techniques realized spread to other cities in the country hence marking an era of regional development. This shows that will and enterprise are key elements in realizing a continuous positive change. Man-made disasters such as outbreak of fires have been remarkably reduced and proper mechanisms put in place to counter such events.