|The Journal for MultiMediaHistory
Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998
The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory, http://www.chicagohs.org/fire/intro
The Chicago Historical Society and the Trustees of Northwestern University. Carl Smith, curator and author, 1996.
|Chicago in 1871, before the Great Fire. From the galleries of The
Great Chicago Fire Web site, originally from Harper's Weekly, 1871.
Amidst the immense array of cyberjunk—tenth-grade school
project sites cluttering the Web waves, Holocaust deniers tying up servers,
and endless military battle buffs loading immense graphics of Pickett's
Charge onto yet another Civil War site—the Web's potential for communicating
history remains far from realization. Gradually, though, content is beginning
to match glitz on particular topics. The Great Chicago Fire and the
Web of Memory is one example of a site that could supplement a
class in urban history, Gilded Age/Progressive Era America, or a survey
of American history.
Great Chicago Fire site, at http://www.chicagohs.org/fire/intro,
loaded up quickly onto my 28.8 home modem and immediately presented two options: a main table of contents and a "Web of Memory." Under the
main heading "The Great Chicago Fire," viewers may click onto essays, picture galleries,
and a set of online primary documents for Chicago in the pre-fire years,
the fire itself, the city after the fire, rescue and relief efforts after
the fire, and a section about Chicago's recovery entitled "Queen of the
West Once More." Under the heading of "The
Web of Memory," viewers have similar clicking options for sections titled
"The Eyewitnesses," "Media Event," "Fanning the Flames," "The O'Leary Legend," "Souvenirs," and "Commemorating the Catastrophe." Employing appropriate audio/video browser plug-ins such as QuickTime and RealAudio, visitors may also access the "Special Media" section that includes audio and newsreel selections (although the latter took over
twenty minutes to load on my home modem, and thus would be recommended
for high-speed network users).
The site presents an impressive array of
analytical essays, photographs, primary sources, and audio-visual selections;
in short, the site taps into the full potential of the Web, while providing
for easy navigation
and quick picture downloading. Many of the pictures in the photo gallery
are too small to allow for real study, a choice made no doubt for quick
downloading but nevertheless one that limits the usability of that
feature for teachers.
For professional historians, the heart
of the site will be the fine analytical essays and the diverse primary
documents that the site makes easily accessible. The primary documents
present an ideal teaching opportunity. Students could be sent to different
documents on the immediate aftermath of the fire, for example, and read
one self-congratulatory account of the effective work of the special committee
that in effect "ran" Chicago in the days after the fire. Other students
would read real-time complaints of individuals who experienced less than
even-handed treatment (the accompanying essay points out that better-off
people received relief easily and more quickly since it was assumed they
would be too "embarrassed" to ask for help; meanwhile, working-class immigrants
were categorized by ethnicity, and received help according to the organizing
committee's perception of who were the deserving poor versus who might
participate in looting and pillaging). The Chicago Historical Society has
opened its vaults and provided a window for virtually anyone to study the
same documents that the author of the essays uses for his brief but analytically
effective entrees on specific topics. More advanced classes in historiography
could analyze how the author of the essays uses the primary documents in
his own writing. The "Web of Memory" section, moreover, provides a cornucopia
of recollections, material culture, and folkloric treasures for viewers
and non-academic history buffs.
|A family perishes in the Great Chicago Fire.
Source: originally from E. J. Godspeed, The
Great Chicago Fires in Chicago and the West,
1871; from The Great Chicago Fire Web site.
the standpoint of a professional historian, the site presents an attractive
approach to making its subject both "interesting" for the casual viewer,
meaty enough for the academic historian, and detailed enough for buffs
of disasters, fires, and other human interest attractions of the past.
Briefly, the site tries to provide something for everyone. It comes across
as a well-planned museum exhibit, one that brings in the best of historical
interpretation but provides also for interests of a non-academic sort.
Inevitably, perhaps, in-depth content is sacrificed for ease of use and
degree of interest. The essays are quick hits of historical writing, with
just enough material to hold four or five screens worth. This amounts to
about six to eight pages of a book, or perhaps the equivalent of a short
Two disappointments may be mentioned. One
puzzler is the lack of a link to the next great event in Chicago's history,
the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, itself the subject of a spectacular
exhibit at the Chicago Historical Society in 1993-94 (the 100th anniversary
of the gigantic exhibition). The cyber-museum at this site ends with 1873
(including a brief discussion of another very large fire in that year,
about which I suspect few people would know anything at all). The "Web of
Memory" section discusses and provides graphics for the commemorations
and remembrances of the fire through the latter part of the nineteenth
century and all the way to the centennial celebration of 1971, but the
Columbian Exposition—when the rebuilt city showed itself to the world—merits
only a brief paragraph and one graphic of a program. Many viewers will
look for a separate chapter on the great rebuilding of the city over the
next two decades leading up to 1893. In fact, the conflagration that burned
down the Columbian Exposition in 1894, together with the Pullman Strike
of that same year, in my judgment, make better endpoints for this site than
|Panic in the streets. Source: Frank Leslie's Illustrated
Newspaper, from The Great Chicago Fire Web site.
The final essay discusses how the rebuilding of the city introduced
social class segregation in neighborhoods to a degree unheard of in pre-fire
Chicago, again a topic of immense importance given but a brief mention.
I had expected another chapter that looked forward to the rebuilding of
Chicago over the next generation, the innovations of the modern skyscraper
architectural structure, the expansion of the city to the south and west,
the first inklings of black Chicago, and the rise of the great slaughterhouses,
stockyards, and other industrial giants that would make Upton Sinclair's
Chicago so vivid.
|A child's sketch: "Justin Leads
His Goat to Safety." From The
Great Chicago Fire Web site.
The essays in the "Great Chicago Fire" section mention
that Chicago's central location, together with the fact that the fire did
not burn the rail infrastructure or the industries in the western part
of the young city, meant that Chicago's rebuilding could begin immediately.
In fact, a growing America more or less demanded the immediate rebuilding
of the city; it simply could not wait, because Chicago was too central
(both geographically and metaphorically) to the national economy. Again,
a culminating section taking the "Queen
of the West" story ahead two more decades to 1893 would form an effective
conclusion to the site. Secondly, the site provides neither a traditional
academic bibliography of works on the subject (sorely needed to make the
site more useful to use as a "text" for a class), nor a Webliography of
related online sources about the history of Chicago or American urban history.
A "links" page seems pretty standard on most Web pages, and is missed here.
So is a page that would direct readers to the work of William Cronon, Karen
Sazliszwak, James Gilbert, and other talented historians who have used
Chicago to frame larger stories about Gilded Age America.
|One of the opening images
from the The Great Chicago
Fire Web site."
Together with Edward Ayers's Valley
of the Shadows project, The Great Chicago Fire Web site may be the most effective presentation of American history on the
Web now existing, one that will draw in academics and specialists as well
as the general public who may not have a chance to visit archives or would
not realize the wealth of material to be found at the Chicago Historical
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
~ End ~
Web Site Review of The
Great Chicago Fire
Copyright © 1998
by the Journal of MultiMedia History
Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998