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Saturday, March 2

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Editor's note: This article originally ran on December 4, 2003.

This week's question was submitted by Cinnamon. Thanks!

Q: I'd heard something when I first moved here about Ashland getting its name because the ashes from the Great Chicago Fire were pushed there, which was the edge of the city, and they were just mounded up. So, just how did the fire alter the city's sea level?

I received this question exactly a month ago, and I took a long time trying to decide just how to approach it. The question is excellent, but although it seems straightforward, it has many different facets. I will try to address these aspects as best I can without straying too far from the path.

The Naming of Ashland
First, the story related above about Ashland being named for the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire is an urban legend. Ashland Avenue, first known as Reuben Street, was already developed before the fire and was considered the height of suburban living on the West Side in the 1860s. In 1864, real estate developer Samuel J. Walker further improved Ashland between Monroe and Harrison, widening and paving the street, building costly homes, and planting trees up and down the sidewalks. Walker was originally from Kentucky and moved to Chicago in 1855. Historians believe either he or Henry Hamilton Honore, another Kentucky native and Chicago developer, renamed the street after the Lexington, Kentucky estate of statesman Henry Clay.

The City Limits and the Path of the Fire
The Great Chicago Fire began between 9 and 10 o'clock on the night of October 8, 1871 in the now-infamous barn behind the home of Mr. and Mrs. Patrick O'Leary. The O'Leary barn was on DeKoven Street, just east of the current site of the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. Many factors contributed to the severity of the fire, including unusually dry conditions, the city's primarily wood construction, an understaffed fire department and a strong southwest wind. Within minutes of its beginning, the fire got out of control and, guided by the wind, burned a path through the West Side. The flames easily breached the South Branch of the Chicago River and consumed the Southwest Side, moving north towards the central business district. By 4:00 a.m. the fire had already destroyed the downtown area and had jumped north across the main branch of the river, and it was abundantly clear that it wouldn't stop until nothing was left to burn. Twenty hours later, at the northern limits of the city, some 4 1/2 miles from where it started, the fire was finally extinguished.

The Chicago city limits in 1871 stretched north from Pershing Road (then Egan Avenue) to Fullerton and from the lake west to Pulaski/Crawford Avenue -- considerably further west than Ashland. The path of the fire, however, stretched northeast from its origins on DeKoven Street, then north along the lakefront all the way to Fullerton. On the North Side, the fire was held in check by the North Branch of the Chicago River and burned only as far west as Halsted. In all, the fire laid waste to over 2100 acres of the city, or about 3 1/2 square miles.

When the smoke cleared, almost 300 lives had been lost in the fire, and approximately 100,000 people were left to face the coming Chicago winter without a home. The flames had leveled nearly 18,000 buildings, including the entire central business district. In the area hit by the fire north of the main branch of the Chicago River, only four structures remained. The Water Tower and Pumping Station on Chicago Avenue are the most well-known survivors, but the other two buildings to remain standing were the mansion of real estate millionaire Mahlon Ogden, brother of Chicago's first mayor, William Ogden, and the home of police officer Richard Bellinger. Ogden's home was later torn down and is now the site of the Newberry Library, while Bellinger's home, on the other hand, still stands at 2121 N. Hudson Street in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. But I digress.

Though the bulk of the rebuilding efforts did not take place until the following spring, within a week of the fire almost 5,500 temporary structures had been erected. Like a phoenix, Chicago rose from the ashes.

And so, we finally come to the debris. What happened to all that brick, mortar, steel, stone and wood that the Great Fire so capriciously turned to rubble? In the days following the fire, as soon as the smoldering ruins of the downtown area had cooled sufficiently, thousands of workers jumped into action to salvage usable materials such as brick and scrap iron. They knocked down what few walls remained, clearing the plots of land and dumping over 5,000 wagon loads of debris every day into...Lake Michigan. Yes, the rubble left by the fire was swept into the lake, and while it didn't alter the city's sea level, it did alter the shape of the city's lakefront. In fact, this dumping process created about five acres of landfill downtown in what is now part of Grant Park. So the next time you go strolling through Grant Park, have fun imagining that you may be walking over the ruins of the Great Chicago Fire.

One last fact: The surface of Lake Michigan is approximately 580 feet above sea level while Cook County resides between the lake level and 700 feet.


Chicago Historical Society. The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory.

Hayner, Don and Tom McNamee. Streetwise Chicago: A History of Chicago Street Names. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1988.

Sawislak, Karen. Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871-1874. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a Chicago librarian. She welcomes questions and topic suggestions for her column at . Due to the volume of email received, she may not reply to every query, but you may be contacted if your question is selected for the column.

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