1871 Chicago Fire
Whether Mrs. O'Leary's cow really kicked over the lamp that started the whole thing or not is still a matter of debate. But the fact is that somewhere near the O'Leary barn on the evening of Oct. 8, 1871, a small fire became a big fire that became an out-of-control conflagration. It had been a dry fall, and Chicago firefighters were already stretched thin. By the end of the next day, the city's "burnt district," as it became known, covered a swath four miles long and about three-quarters of a mile wide.
The fire killed perhaps 300 people, destroyed 18,000 buildings, left 100,000 Chicagoans without homes and caused some $3.2 billion in damages, at today's prices. Half of the city had insurance, but only half of those actually got paid from their policies.
Smallpox and cholera spread in an atmosphere of poor sanitation, close living and filthy water. "The city is infested with a horde of thieves, burglars and cut-throats, bent on plunder, and who will not hesitate to burn, pillage and even murder, as opportunity may seem to offer them to do so with safety," the Chicago Evening Journal advised the day after the fire, according to an essay published by the Chicago Historical Society.
An artist's rendition of the Chicago fire of 1871 as people flee downtown.
The authorities declared martial law, and Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan, the Civil War hero and a Chicago resident, led troops in to help preserve "the good order and peace of the city," in the words of Mayor Roswell B. Mason.
Yet almost as soon as the embers had cooled, Chicago business leaders deployed to New York to persuade investors that this was the time to put more of their money into Chicago, not less. Peter Alter, curator of the Chicago Historical Society, recounts the story of William D. Kerfoot, a real-estate speculator whose offices had burned. The day after the fire was extinguished, Mr. Kerfoot erected a crudely made painted sign: "All Gone But Wife, Children and Energy."
The stockyards had been spared the flames, as had much of the city's heavy industry. "Five years will give Chicago more men, more money, more business, than she would have had without this fire," John Stephen Wright, one of the city's most vocal boosters, said at the time, according to the Chicago Historical Society.
He proved prophetic. Chicago, on the shores of Lake Michigan, was a crucial crossroads of agriculture and industry, too valuable to give up. By the end of the decade Chicago was bigger and better than before. The city had a population of roughly 300,000 before the fire. In 1880 it was home to half a million.
"Chicago was both built and rebuilt so quickly because the rest of the national and international economy needed it so badly," says Carl Smith, a professor of English, American Studies and History at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. The rebuilding accelerated the division of the city into commercial and residential districts, and hurried the adoption of fire-resistant building materials. The city grew so quickly that many of the buildings put up after the fire were torn down within a couple of decades to make way for the new skyscrapers.
1906 San Francisco Earthquake
When the last fire was extinguished after the San Francisco earthquake of April 1906, survivors emerged from their makeshift shelters to find three-quarters of their city in ruins. All telephone and telegraph communications had ceased. There was little water for drinking.
A man photographs the ruins of a building following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
The railroads had been destroyed; the port was completely blocked by debris. Few, if any, hotels, restaurants or cafés survived, and 300,000 people were homeless. Banks were closed, and would remain so for a month. Despite martial law, looters roamed the streets, and the mayor ordered them to be shot on sight.
"As regards industrial and commercial losses, the conditions are appalling," wrote Victor H. Metcalf, secretary of labor and commerce, in a report to President Roosevelt. "Not only have the business and industrial houses and establishments of one-half million people disappeared, leaving them destitute financially and their means of livelihood temporarily gone, but the complicated system of transportation indispensable to them has been almost totally destroyed."
Yet there was never any doubt, among either the survivors or their elected officials, that San Francisco would be rebuilt. Indeed, just five days after the earthquake, California's governor, George Pardee, told a reporter, "The work of rebuilding San Francisco has commenced, and I expect to see the great metropolis replaced on a much grander scale than ever before."
San Francisco's mayor, Eugene E. Schmitz, quickly appointed a group of local businessmen, lawyers and journalists, known as the Citizens' Committee of Fifty, to organize the recovery. In the first days and weeks after the disaster, that meant trying to feed, clothe and shelter survivors while raising money to repair the city's infrastructure. Private citizens from across America pledged $10 million, as well as train cars full of goods. The federal government voted to give the city $2.5 million, and Japan and Canada contributed to the relief fund. New bond issues were authorized, and Eastern financiers were encouraged to buy about $14 million of previously authorized but unsold municipal bonds.
Engineers, contractors and draftsmen were recruited from other parts of the country, and the city began trying to buy all the lumber, cement and glass it could find. Temporary structures were erected in several centrally located squares for use by architects, transportation and insurance officials and lawyers.
Labor unions quickly convened to mourn their lost members -- and set rules for the coming boom. The painters' union, for example, suspended many of its trade rules: "No overtime will be allowed; straight time for night or Sunday work. The brothers are requested to be satisfied with eight hours' work and give unemployed brothers a chance." Members of the Plumbers, Gas and Steam Fitters' Union, 80% of whom said they had lost their tools, voted to volunteer their services; about 500 plumbers worked around the clock for more than a week repairing broken pipes.
Obviously, all did not go smoothly in the three years it took to rebuild San Francisco. There were complaints of red tape and poor coordination among relief agencies. Unscrupulous building contractors installed new foundations made of mud rather than cement.
Some public officials, including some from the citizens committee, or "boodle board," as it was nicknamed, funneled donations into their own pockets. Yet just three months later, in July 1906, the St. Francis Hotel Annex re-opened, and hundreds of buildings were under construction.
Charles B. Sedgwick, editor of a newspaper called the British-Californian, described the resilience of the people of San Francisco the day after the earthquake. "Men and women came to see what was going on, gazed about in blank astonishment for a few moments, then went their way as though nothing extraordinary was transpiring," he wrote. "It was this indifference, or philosophical resignation to the inevitable, that struck me as the most marvelous thing in connection with the great tragedy. This, and the ease and quickness with which people grew accustomed to the changed conditions."
In both the Chicago Fire of 1871 and the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, people were left in similar situations immediately following: no water, no plumbing, no place to live, and no one to protect them from the looters who saw an opportunity and grabbed it. In both instances martial law was instituted and citizens set about the business of recovery as fast as they were able. Even now that's what's happening in New Orleans: no one's giving up. No one is leaving those stranded to their fate. No one is talking about farewell ceremonies in honor of a city that once was. All anyone is doing is talking about ways to help this city get back on its feet, what steps need to be taken and how to obtain the resources in order to do so. Everything is a mad scramble right now, but it was never going to be anything else. This is just how the first step goes.