The Journal for MultiMediaHistory
Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998

The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory,
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 Web site, originally from Harper's Weekly, 1871.
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.

The Great Chicago Fire site, at, 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.

A family perishes in the Great Chicago Fire.
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.
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.

From 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 lecture.

Panic in the streets. Source: Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, from The Great Chicago Fire Web site.
Panic in the streets. Source: Frank Leslie's Illustrated
, from The Great Chicago Fire Web site.
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 does 1873.
Child's Sketch: Justin Leads His Goat to Safety - From The Great Chicago Fire Web site
A child's sketch: "Justin Leads
His Goat to Safety." 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.
from The Great Chicago Fire Web site
One of the opening images
from the The Great Chicago
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.

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 Society.

Paul Harvey
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs  

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Web Site Review of The Great Chicago Fire
Copyright © 1998 by the Journal of MultiMedia History 

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Contents: JMMH, Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998