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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Tuesday, May 21

Gapers Block

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"Chicago has paid the penalty of permitting her handsome business blocks to be surrounded with wooden buildings. Wooden buildings will be at a discount in that city hereafter."
--the Winona (Minn.) Republican writing about the 1874 fire

If there is one event in Chicago's history that everyone knows, it's the Great Chicago Fire, which began on October 9, 1871, destroying the downtown business district and leaving a third of city's residents homeless. But did you know the city suffered a second massive fire less than three years later? Although not nearly as destructive as the 1871 conflagration, the fire of 1874 led to important changes in the city. This is the story of the Second Great Chicago Fire.

The first alarm sounded around 3:30 in the afternoon on Tuesday, July 16, 1874. It was raised near the corner of Clark and 12th Street (Roosevelt Road), just a few blocks south of the downtown business district. A fire had broken out, inauspiciously beginning the same way the Great Fire had, in a small barn. Unluckily, the barn was located next to an oil factory. And that unfortunate location, coupled with the same dry conditions and wind from the southwest that proved so fatal in 1871 fire, again spelled disaster for the city.

A segregated company of black firemen was the first to respond to the fire, but although they arrived within minutes of the general alarm, it was already too late. Flaming oil from the factory had already spread the fire the width of the block between Clark and 3rd Avenue (Plymouth Court) and it was burning its way north towards Taylor Street. The firemen attempted to halt the blaze, but were forced to abandon the fire engine in the street as the fire grew in strength and threatened to overwhelm them.

The fire continued in a northeasterly direction, burning through to the intersection at Taylor and State streets by 5:30pm, consuming everything in its path. An hour later the fire was making its way north on State Street and breaking through to Wabash Avenue between Eldredge and Peck Courts (8th and 9th Streets). There it burned the First Baptist Church, a huge stone structure described as "the finest church structure in the city." The loss of the church was a heavy blow. Other major buildings lost in the fire included the post office, Aiken's Theatre and the St. James Hotel.

Wealthy residents living in mansions along South Michigan Avenue saw the flames approaching and feared the scene of the Great Fire was being repeated. They began packing up their belongings, loading furniture onto wagons, and prepared to leave their homes.

But sometime after 10pm, the fire finally stopped on Wabash Avenue, between Adams and Van Buren streets. Critics observed that the fire stopped not because of the efforts of the Chicago Fire Department, but because the fire had run out of wood to burn. The firemen were only able to gain control when the flames encountered the impenetrable brick walls of the newly rebuilt business district.

Reporters made much of the fact that the neighborhood burned in the fire consisted "of the worst rookeries imaginable," most of which were "occupied as houses of ill-fame." One reporter went as far as to estimate more than 500 prostitutes were left homeless by the fire, including "all the most notorious keepers of the vile abodes."

But in addition to prostitutes the densely populated area had been home to many poor immigrants, including Germans, Irish and Poles. The neighborhood also included a small but burgeoning African American community. All lived close together in compact, poorly constructed wooden housing. But now even what little they had was gone, and while Chicago's more well-to-do residents felt badly for the victims of the fire, they were not especially sorry to see the dilapidated "shanties" wiped out.

Many of the residents displaced by the fire dispersed to other corners of the city, but some just moved a little farther south. The prostitutes relocated between 18th and 22nd Streets, establishing Chicago's notorious Levee District. And many of the African Americans left homeless by the disaster moved south of 22nd Street, forming the beginning of the so-called "Black Belt."

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the fire, Nathan Isaacson, the man who owned the barn where the fire began, was arrested and charged with arson. But whether Mr. Isaacson deliberately set fire to his barn is unclear from early newspaper accounts. Several neighbors testified in court that Isaacson or his wife had started the fire, but their testimony and accusations bordered on the outlandish. Accounts lead one to believe Nathan Isaacson was as likely a victim of his neighbors' racial prejudice, who bore little affection for "the Jews," as he was an arsonist.

Early reports estimated 60 acres had been destroyed by the fire, only a small fraction of the 2,100 acres burned in the 1871 fire. But the lessons learned from this second fire had important consequences for the city.

After the Great Fire of 1871, the city had established fire limits prohibiting the construction of any wooden building north of 22nd Street or east of Halsted Street in the downtown area. However, the city then permitted temporary wood structures to be built within the fire limits until more permanent buildings could be completed. These "temporary" wood buildings were supposed be torn down within a year of construction, but their demolition was never enforced. And now the entire area had burnt to the ground.

Business owners, prominent residents and insurance companies tired of paying out for fire losses seized their chance to demand real reform. Their efforts immediately after the fire of 1874 resulted in the fire limits being extended to encompass the entire city limits. This act laid the foundation for the later formulation of Chicago's building code. In addition, their criticism led to the increased organization of the Fire Department and infrastructure changes to increase the city's water supply to critical areas.

On the scale of destruction, the fire of 1874 was only a lighted candle to the Great Fire's roaring inferno. But Chicago's Second Great Fire resulted in many real changes that would shape the city as it moved towards the 20th Century.


Join the Gapers Block Book Club! Just sign up for the email list for news, announcements and more. And, visit the book club forum to discuss the book online. This month we are reading Division Street: America by Studs Terkel. We will be meeting to discuss the book on Monday, February 13, at The Book Cellar, located at 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. The meeting will begin at 7:30pm.

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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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