tv Carl Smith Chicagos Great Fire CSPAN November 28, 2021 10:11pm-11:01pm EST
shoulder and if you shoot that man you will have to cook our breakfast. he was the cook. our breakfast was on his handlebars. i tell you, you can't make f like that up. >> you can watch this interview in its entirety along with other oral histories, c-span.org/history. >> welcome to the 30 sixth annual planning board, please help me give a special thank you to all the sponsors. before we begin. >> and the camera flashes. i will introduce today, in conversation proud smith with
rick cogan. and with chicago great fire. and and please join me, please welcome rick hogan. >> you are good to come out on a hot day like this. >> a big part of this book, the paperback edition was just out and in the current of that addition, simply put, the best book ever written about -- my father who i admired tremendously wrote a book about the fire and i still say this. my brother is here.
where we have run out of things, you knew my dad. >> i came to chicago, just finished graduate school in yale in newhaven connecticut. what i was most interested in was history and culture in the second half of the nineteenth century. and we've got this job on northwestern. >> >> i was teaching a heavy load
but in the spring, i went to teach a course on chicago literature and i don't remember the exact way it happened and somehow before the internet and emails, there he is. >> your book is better. >> sitting upstairs at the chicago press club, ordered a chicken salad and pineapple, the only thing that is edible and just enthused and gave me the most important thing which is validated and taught the course including the wonderful
book, with the levy. >> the title the publishers fought and 20 years after the book was published, would increase sales. i always loved the title. >> the first or, the infamous first or the - >> john coghlan. >> next thing i knew i was teaching a course, there is stuff here and did stuff that was in some ways conventionally career suicide except it worked out, a few articles in my dissertation on henry james but didn't try to turn that into a
book, write a book about chicago and that ended up being the first of five books that are in one way or another. >> writing a book, as smart as you are, is not easy, especially when as you were, digging into the history of chicago, in the near case, whatever the topic was. >> that was the most literary of the books. dozens of chicago novel and in the context to learn much more about the city and the one through line, i was interested
in how people living in america in the great age of urbanization were thinking and how they expressed it and how ideas matter, they basically live by. in another book, the development of what i call intellectual infrastructure, the ideas people living which are insufferable. that the -- louis sullivan, sermons in stone. if you look at any building expresses certain ideas and assumptions. what does it mean? armories in a city, they are
making a statement, what the assumptions are about society. >> what is especially true about this city, as you started to research you must have been ravenous about it. >> it is pretty ravenous, and it kept being interesting. carl condit, john, walter at the university of chicago, they got me going, robert streeter who wrote a book, robert herrick who wrote a bunch of novels about chicago. >> one of the things, a person who is researching at all sorts of levels, academic research,
scholarly research, fiction writing research, how do you determine, is there a point you say to yourself this book is junk, because chicago more so than most places will get to this. there are myths that arise that are so durable and one after another through the decades, takes a bright, smart guy, and are we stunned that historians in chicago. >> i might add to a culture role historian, the myths are
as much fodder as the truth how certain versions of things, the o'leary thing. and and and and the difficulty is chasing down the sources, where do they get that. most of these books we are talking about have no footnotes or anything like that. most of my books are more scholarly. 50 pages of small print is not numbers on the page. this is written to be a good
read. >> that is what i to say about this book. i have read a great deal about the chicago fires, this reads like a great novel. the narrative drive is so powerful, that can be on the front of the next paperback edition. i would like to talk about how you grew as a writer. did you see a pattern of growth through your books? you must have. >> they are all different in their own way and the great difference between this book and other books, it is about ideas but i wanted to be about
people and events. it is very much focused on how people living in chicago experienced the fire. it will arise heavily on contemporary sources they wrote or as i try to come back and see the fire in their eyes and talk in terms of how people are thinking. >> for these nice people here, draw a portrait of chicago, chicago has been to many periods that has been so unbelievably chaotic it is hard to believe people lived like this. what was chicago like before the fire? certainly a city of would. >> heavily a city of would.
but chicago was at a crucial moment in history. it explains why the city rebuilt so quickly. chicago was built out of nowhere and out of everywhere and the modern chicago that we know in 40 years before the fire, 100 white settlers in 1830, they kick the indians, native americans out three years later and growth takes off so there may be for thousands people at the center of 1840, there are 330,000 at the time of the fire. between 1850, and 1871, 30,000 to 330,000 people, no place
grew so fast. it is the expression as i was saying earlier of the nineteenth century. industrialization, immigration, westward movement, transportation, and communications revolution. >> the stock yards had been built as big as they became but you had this wonderful river flowing through into lake michigan and it had become a real rail hub by then, had it not? >> chicago came into its own as chicago in the 1850s and 60s. you talk about 1848 where the board of trade is, the first train and the first telegraph message and so on. 1850s, grain center and all that, civil war really gives a
bump. triples in size by the 1860s, this is the period it is switching or not switching and becoming more complicated from a mercantile center, a center of trade where things are exchanged to a manufacturing center. it is in process for things like this. and steel bills and much larger things and a lot of these things made the 1860s to equip the union army. >> people who were drawn to chicago. many of us who read chicago history, these incredibly cool steve jobs of their day, marshall field, who were the other people. who were the o'learys?
>> chicago in 1870, 40% of the population was foreign-born and something close to 80% had one foreign-born parents. by early on, the irish were the dominant group but by the time of the fire the germans, tricky term to use in either case because so many of these people, you can't talk about them as a unified group, they are protestant germans and catholic germans in germany didn't exist until 1871. most of the city is immigrant/ethnic, relatively small percentage, yankee,
nativeborn, protestant, white people and they earn all of the wealth and the number of them came earlier. >> were they to my job opportunities? >> this is where the future was happening. chicago is a creation of the nineteenth century. many of you read nature's metropolis. it is the crucial nexus between the manufacturing and agricultural and mining west. a place of exchange. it is basically built by eastern european investment. the international economy needs this place, wants this place and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. it is a boomtown. it is only going to grow.
that kept up all the way to the 1930s. it took the depression to stop the growth of chicago which peaked in 1950. >> what did the o'learys do? >> one of the things i tried to do in this book is bring the lives of immigrants, women, children. >> which he does magnificently. >> the o'learys are demonized, the mainstream papers talking about the spectacle of papers, it is impossible to overstate the vilification of working-class immigrants, especially irish catholic immigrants. joseph markdill was irish
catholic but patrick reed was like many chicagoans, unskilled labor. he did what jobs he could earning $5 a week, $6, when he found work, they had five children and she to supplement the family income had not one cow the four cows, a calf, a horse, a wagon in the barn, north of where they live, but again these five children, these are deeply human people, members of holy family, build back congregation, had their children baptized their, living a life. one thing when the house caught fire, neighbors helped throw water on it. and the community later and it
is impossible to overstate the condescension, the nastiness of respectable people. >> i would have to say in large part the nasty reputation after the fire was fostered and set fire by what past for the media in those days, the tribune was very boosters and they, the irish invective and racism, i suppose, that is what fostered -- that set fire to the o'leary myth. >> that she was a perfect scapegoat. ..
>> perfect but a place that was ready to burn any one of them and as the person as olmsted in the nation said that the commonplace, what should the city burn down a blamed goal place for the city was built. >> this was the city built it was a perfect storm, it was a city built of wood in place experiencing incredible drought. >> and understaffed fire department and beaten down in the night before, something called saturday night fire that they fought for like 16 hours and one third of them already too small fire department was basically out of commission and so was a lot of their equipment.
then less than six or hours later comes the one for the "chicago's great fire" and that alarmed basically for various reasons we don't understand, came a half-hour late so the fires going the time we get to the scene. >> basically they had a guard wandering the top like looking out like someplace like the city hall, it seems prehistoric but look there may be a fire over there, what is that over there. >> it had too few people into little equipment and there were one or 95 fighters of the city of 3,130,000 people but they had a state-of-the-art as it were, equipment and steam equipment and they also had a telegraph alarm system, it just did not work at night. someone threw an alarm but it did not register downtown.
>> and as as the first fire engines that went out in the information to the guy on top of the city hall he went to the wrong place. it was about a mile away. >> he missed by a mile, a sentence i try to put in there but it just did not sit right. >> it always amazes me that the o'leary's, will he did call in a house but it did not burn. >> the reason that it burned was it started on the near west side, if you know academy is, that is a block where they were. but the wind was blowing north and east. >> and the wind was ferocious wasn't not.
>> it was burning chicago into the air and then the winds blew it towards the downtown and so it left the south branch of the river and in the main branch of the river and burned a child of the west side and it stopped with the city had been were the night before and jumped over and berg the entire downtown and virtually the whole north side, 13300 of 13003. >> some people would position themselves in various places to watch the fires when they start and was like a torch. >> there was no photographs and it was sunday night and they were watching a fire, sending i will could be more fun and he watch it and even earlier on
during for saturday night fire, the crowd gathered around the firemen sprayed them and they thought that was the greatest thing and then they went over they look over the fire started on sunday not thought it would stay there but it did not in the next thing i know, they are running for their lives. >> and basically to the prairie up to the west into the lake through linkin park that used to be a cemetery. >> he was changing from the city cemetery to what we know as lincoln park the bottom half-hour of linkin park now, above north avenue with was the city cemetery lincoln park was or had just become the linkin park just after the president was assassinated in there moving the bodies out and another health that you could not bury the bodies within the city limits and that is when places like graceland and rose hill
and so on. >> when the panic really took hold, people gathered whatever they could and they would bury their worldly possessions in the park or at the beach. >> people work very piano's i can't believe it but there are so many different accounts unlike others of people would say that i did it as opposed to some of the other rumors that i heard that kind of seven and another thing when you're dealing with the sources of what you trust we don't and someone. but getting back to missus o'leary, what he did it was horrible minnesota brought out this fear of the urban under pressure we gotta control these people are they will burn us down literally and figuratively pretty. >> so the o'leary's were forced to over the lives as the kids
grew up in one grew up to be a first, big jim and colin james of course for formality and one of the first gambling bazaars certainly of this city if not the whole country but they were forced to move around the south side. >> as far as i can tell, they largely lived basically near the east entrance of the stockyard on the near piece changed by 15th street and south homestead and that is where they were living when he died, 1894 and she in 1895. >> they were hounded, they were hounded by the present media and you couldn't even imagine what it is like today the reporters would show up and i can't will you do a great job of doing it.
i so sympathize with her. >> she learned quickly that there was nothing to be gained. these were people who cannot read or write so they have no way to strike back. and they don't have access to print even if they could. so she stopped talking to them and they made fun of her. and the one thing that happened though is that with the recovery, chicago's triumphant rise, phoenix like, from the ashes and became the part of the positive mythology so she became like a chicago folk hero. condescending and patronized. >> you can make the case in which you would that the whole thing inspired was irish family, you have this count, this
nameless cow, easy to blame and it is like a little kind of a nasty fairytale. it had the elements to become a story. >> what's wonderful about it is it reaffirms existing prejudices and in some ways makes it not dangerous, just some clumsy irish woman if we don't have to have some wholesale overhaul here. there is nothing wrong with the system, the way things are. and not this terrible threat and at the same time, there were other rumors that rejected that people from the paris commune were burning chicago down and that's a much scarier and then people like homestead, also to their credit to the tribune say it is not her fault.
we built this place to burn down and we have to rebuild it better pretty. >> with the tribune know the papers of the time the work of the papers at the time world editorials were generally warning of this wooden city, very strong editorials. >> and they said it would happen again and it did. we are now in the second "chicago's great fire", in 1974, july 15th, 1874, an enormous chunk just south for the fire ended about a block away from here, this end of it in went all of the way up to fullerton down here around harrison street. and then this firebird from this area already here burned historic black churches and jewish synagogues here in the neighborhood in the number of brothels. >> in the immediate aftermath of the fire, there were fears about
arsonists wandering around and any tragedies, people trying to take advantage of the situation. >> papers were full of the stories that all of the criminals around the country were coming to chicago to pray on them and they were tales of people setting new fires like and then being hanged on the spot on the righteous citizens there is no verification of any of these stories, probably some looting and probably some other - >> the city was under martial law at the time sort of at least martial law. >> at least completely illegal martial law in one of the residence at the time of the fire, there's so many wonderful stories here. philip sheridan a hero of the civil war in india fire even had
a role in dealing with maximilian in mexico but he is the headquarters of the army of the fourth army here, the basically commands basically fighting indians west of the mississippi river but he is living here and he is sort of completely regularly pressed into service to kind of lead a ad hoc group of policeman militia and volunteers, two police city. he sought to be vulnerable and to some degree it is an particulars aren't concerned about the downtown all of the space and valuables in the businesses that we saw in downtown. >> the resurrection part of this, the construction part is like a movie, the resurrection part is also kind of cinematic is meant.
>> one of the attempts after the fire that is to enforce what are called fire limits, kind of a zoning, bring forth a law that said that every single building in the city must have a brick or stone exterior, no wall wooden and the problem with that is working people can't afford stone or brick. and they see it as a direct attack on them which to some degree it was and they see it as a way to get them remarkably high percentage of home ownership by working people in the city in a way that they cannot afford to build on their lot, is worthless and they see it as an attempt to grab the land. so there is a meeting in the chicago city council and a temporary city hall where the rookery building is over there
.in his march on it and it turns into complete - with rocks and stones being thrown in the quick adjournment and it kind of a compromise on the fire limits but chicago, those aren't even enforced. chicago remained very fire prone for a long time. >> the fires in the notion of fire in the chicago fire scared people, the next roswell mayor, and the fire the man who became the next mayor ran on the fireproof ticket. >> but it also was a ticket of the best men and do mean meant, as a kind of a fusion ticket of the most respectable republicans and democrats to basically reclaim the city.
and what is going on in the city is a real find of the city because 60 percent of the electorate is on the ethnic working people and similar representation and what was called the common council by 1835, is now the city council as we know it. and there is despite their over who control the city. >> there is the notion it the people say wow what a wonderful world we live in because something like $50 million hoarded to chicago and people who wanted to help the poor people who had been burned up, much of that was self-serving. the people who are giving and there was some people but a lot of it was fueled by people who understood the commercial value of chicago. >> first of all, one thing that
we have learned as we look closer something is to never the people want to say, was that this was it that. it is not either or usually, it is both and, to a remarkable extent, people from all around the country and around the world, immediately rallied and set food, they sent clothing they sent money. the equivalent today of over $200 million worth of stuff and some because they feel that yes, we need chicago. but i don't want to understate the human dimension at a time work there is no safety net of any kind. and 90000 people in one night, in the city of 330,000 people, have lost their homes. and it is october, and is on a hot day, and we know it's going
to happen not long after october. so the sense of probably more than that loss, their jobs, because all of the places and all the hotels, all the newspapers, all the restaurants and all of the office the legs >> the docs were still here in the stockyards and it many many many of the railroad crafts numbered and that is what they were able to get their commercials wheels spinning pretty fast. >> infrastructure was largely in place in the water was limping it but it was working in about a week. but as you say, most of the brain, was outside of the burned area and most of the number was outside of the burned area and
the railroad tracks refining the stations were gone. but the tracks were there and most of the telegraph lines also but the one thing that could absolutely number even if all of the spread was the location. this was this nexus in this developing it national and internationally economy that too much had been invested in it and it was built by external capitol, by the inside entrepreneurs and inside workers in all of these others and then it was rebuilt by the same people in the same forces again. so for reasons why chicago bounced back so quickly and a place like new orleans so as not go back, is very important when braided is a terrible thing to say but chicago had to be burned down at any point, that was the right moment for it.
all of the things that created it were there to re-create it immediately. >> what you think, i know this is an idiotic question to ask but are not one of your students and i'm not getting graded, what you think, a continuation of the assault fires and would chicago be chicago without the "chicago's great fire". it's too hard of a question. >> the one thing that i step into very very hesitantly is counter factual history and one of the what-ifs, the harvey oswald had or these kinds of things. it is generally thought that chicago would have been the same
place. and again all of these forces were still there. there are some that argue that it it cleared out a lot of bad real estate was making money that people would not clear out by themselves and so it had made things this goes back to the intellectual infrastructure. it basically gave the city a kind of a sounding myth that the lesson of the destruction of chicago is that chicago is indestructible. and they did it. and they celebrated it, two years later in big bear in a building where the arts institute is now printed that was there for 20 years and then 22 years later, they celebrated
at the world's columbian exposition which was basically a chicago's party on the world stage. >> it didn't in many ways and brain is open toward of this well we can take that blizzard well he really is chicago thank. >> one of the four stars in the flag, does not exist until 1913. >> and at first was to stars and the other two are for the battle as we now call it hand the 1933, and the red and white represents the river the lake. >> i want to say is that i wish
that i had been a student of a col. and northwestern i think he must've been a marked remarkable professor and if you missed the chicago tribune, increasing in shrinking number, you probably have. >> and increasing shrinking number, is a great two-way printed. >> he wrote a magnificent piece in here, and the new tribute passionate said that is a historian professor of english and northwestern university without mentioning this. and i am all for self-promotion when you can get it, is a wonderful thing to talk about the need for a real chicago player monument. and is very persuasive and i'm sure with such trouble that he would be in leading writer and
have only a few minutes and this is been fantastic. if you have questions, please if you have them, come up here and if you want argue if they did really start the fire, be my guest and thank you. >> when you are doing your research, were there any unexpected or unique sources of information that you came across that ended up in the book. >> is a great question. >> yes, and i have to think the internet in part for this and i found out not a lot of interest from ancestry from census things. i read more closely than i ever read before the daily newspaper and it was remarkable of what this book tries to do again is to give a sense of things pretty close up in the sense of the
texture of life in a sense of the field and again it and then the different ways that these lives intersect and i read a lot about these personal memoirs and i learned a great deal about the people in the newspapers. most of all i cannot things that i had never had even guessed, mark twain was here a few weeks after the fire and the nephew of the czar was here at the end of the new year and he met with among other people, custer and chief that was five years before little big horn, and about certain kind of life pretty that pursued certain kind of individuals for these lives of people, there's a jane young - a remarkable man who was a lawyer who trained abraham lincoln's
son into the law office in chicago. but then went broke in the panic of 1873. and then was really locked out of the 1874, fire and reinvested into chicago and was caught in a terrible pitch but all of these individual stories pretty. >> you've got to love newspapers printed. >> you reference to the one son of the five children, what about the succeeding generations, did they finally cut a live there or i don't know if you know this, but wasn't one of them owning an house on the garfield boulevard, the mansion. >> wealth yes and no and first of all, i testified in 1997, after city council committee meeting exonerating animate the
great-granddaughter and a granddaughter and a suburban matron, the south suburbs. the famous son of the five children, james patrick o'leary, kind of a gambling boss, he billed imagine, not far from where his parents lived and it is now for sale very run down 17 bedrooms and whatever the real estate listing said it was built for his mother. and she died when he was 25 or 26, the house was built after that. so that part is untrue but that he was a wealthy colorful figure in the city that is very much true that house was his is very much true but he did not build it for her in part because she never lived in it.
>> in his place in the stockyards hummingbird down and whataburger down, and this was with my dad as well, he was a student at the university of chicago uncovered that and he told me this because it never got into the newspaper and whether he was or was fanciful enough you will love this. the fire was a huge huge fire in chicago, really maybe second only to this big fire. >> the huge stockyard fire in 34 34. >> and i said what was that like dad he followed the story of the community center just starting and is this great line that i got from a man that i was standing across the street in as we were watching the fire, the guy told my file under father them cows, they had it coming pretty. [laughter] and it's all true it should be.