1869-1872: The Chicago Fire

Drew E. VandeCreek, Northern Illinois University


 In December of 1869 assembled delegates began the constitutional convention mandated by the voters in the elections of the previous year. The state constitution had served as the law of the land since 1848. But in the years following the Civil War a wave of political spoilsmanship and corruption had seemingly engulfed Illinois politics. Every year an increasing number of private bills, devoted to promoting specific individuals or local interests, swamped the legislature. Determined "rings" of political insiders pillaged the state treasury through contracts with the penitentiary and the new state industrial university at Champaign, among others. Voters responded by demanding a new state constitution.

The new document largely forbade such special laws. It curbed the legislature's ability to override a governor's veto and regulated grain warehouses and railroads in response to agrarian demands as well. The constitution of 1870 also granted suffrage to African Americans in Illinois, in keeping with the provisions of the Fifteenth Amendment. While Union armies fought to return the Confederacy to the Union and, ultimately, destroy the institution of slavery, African Americans in Illinois had not enjoyed the franchise. Despite this constitution's provision, and the legislature's rapid ratification of the Amendment, many white residents of Illinois continued to resist any notion of black civil rights or social equalities. Democrats often continued to portray Republicans' drive for black equality as a threat to white supremacy. And many Republicans themselves, while supporting the abstract notion of black equality, balked at the prospect of its realization.

The matter of political spoils badly damaged the Republican Party in Illinois. Despite the new constitution's closing of several legal loopholes, many officeholders and their friends persisted in enriching themselves at the public's expense. In 1869's local elections disapproving Republicans and Democrats often combined forces to run "citizens" tickets that defeated the "ring” tickets put forward by Republican machines. In other locales Democratic candidates displaced Republicans tarnished by scandal. At a national level, the issue of political corruption split the Republican Party.

President Grant had excelled as a military leader, but in Washington he often fell victim to the machinations of cronies whom he appointed to important positions. As in Illinois, the search for political spoils often dominated the day-to-day operations of the government. In this period many Republicans distanced themselves from their party and began to work for political reform. Reformers often criticized governments' persistent awards of lucrative state contracts to political insiders and the wholesale appointment of political hacks to civil service positions. Their movement resulted in the Liberal Republican Party's challenge to the two-party system in 1872.

Many of Illinois' top Republicans, including Governor John Palmer, the German-American leader Gustave Koerner, Senator Lyman Trumbull and Supreme Court Chief Justice David Davis, sought the new party's presidential nomination. But the Liberal Republican convention in Cincinnati, Ohio could not agree on a strong candidate, and comprised by naming the New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley. Democrats, at loose ends, accepted Greeley as their own nominee as well.

The new party signaled the emergence of a new middle class of professional men, including many Republicans and some northern Democrats, devoted to administrative competence in government, but the Liberal Republicans made little attempt to appeal to traditional Democratic voters. Nor did they address the concerns of farmers or other voters alienated by the two-party system. Illinois, like the rest of the north, gave its solid support to President Grant, and he returned to Washington for a second term marred by corruption and scandal.

Although they could not vote, Illinois women made a modest political gain in this period. In 1870 the voters of Jersey County elected Amelia Hobbs as Justice of the Peace. She became the first woman elected to office in the state. In 1871, the case of Myra Bradford reminded women reformers how far they had to go. Upon passing her bar examination Ms. Bradford applied for a license to practice law, but was denied by the Illinois Supreme Court on the basis of her sex. Persistent, she finally won admission to the bar in 1892.

In 1871 the Chicago minister Dwight L. Moody met the gospel singer Ira Sankey at a religious meeting in Ohio. Moody immediately recruited Sankey to his cause. Together the two found widespread popularity, touring Europe and the United States in search of converts to a new fundamentalist faith. In a period that saw the rise of new historical criticism of the scriptures and the impact of Darwin's theory of evolution, Moody preached an ecumenical Christianity that undermined Calvinist doctrines of original sin while emphasizing Christ's love for all men. Many critics found Moody sentimental and lacking in intellectual rigor, but he became the Gilded Age's leading evangelist.

The nation's rapid economic development, accelerated during the Civil War, made Chicago the hub of northern commerce. Strategically located at the nexus of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River's navigable drainage, the city also became a crucial rail link between eastern commercial centers and the rapidly expanding West. New York interests especially invested large amounts of capital in Chicago and its railroads, making it a city of warehouses and merchants gathering in raw materials like lumber and grain and providing western farmers and settlers with finished goods.

The city grew pell-mell, and as a major center in the production of lumber, Chicago rose with wooden structures. In 1871 a severe drought plagued Illinois. By late September of that year Chicago had seen little or no rain for almost three months. Several major fires tested the city's fire department, and destroyed several pieces of fire-fighting equipment.

Chicagoans remembered October 9, 1871 as an unseasonably warm Sunday, and when another fire broke out on the west side that evening, a relentless southwest wind drove it toward the center of city. The fire soon jumped the Chicago River and destroyed much of the north side. The extremely high temperatures generated by the burning of thousands of wooden buildings demolished brick and stone structures as well, usually by incinerating wooden beams mounted behind facades. The earth shook from the collapse of large buildings, and Chicagoans fled their homes with only such things as they could carry.

When the Chicago fire receded early on the morning of Tuesday, October 11, an estimated three hundred persons had lost their lives. Eighteen thousand buildings had burned, a loss of almost two hundred million dollars. Neighboring communities were quick to send aid. As word of the fire spread, entire trains loaded with food, clothing and other basic necessities arrived in the city's railroad stations. Individuals, some from as far away as Europe, sent cash contributions totaling nearly five million dollars to the newly expanded Chicago Relief and Aid Society. While powerless to provide the city with direct aid, the state legislature voted to relieve Chicago from the payment of its debts on the Illinois and Michigan Canal, effectively providing it with funds.

The Chicago fire took lives and ruined fortunes, but it also provided the city with an opportunity to rebuild itself from a new vision. In 1869 a transcontinental railroad spanned the United States for the first time, and made Chicago the gateway to western markets. The city became a Mecca for architects and city planners eager to experiment with new techniques in an atmosphere of continual construction. In place of the acres of pine structures that made up the old Chicago, new brick and stone buildings arose.

Many Republicans pushed hard for compulsory education of children, but Democrats often opposed these measures as means of instituting Yankee religion and values in youths from different cultural backgrounds, all while raising taxes. Democrats also opposed the growing temperance movement that had taken root among many Republicans. Germans-Americans especially resented temperance reformers' successes in banning alcohol consumption on Sundays, and many left the Republican Party.

Private associations like the Grange continued to gain popularity in rural Illinois. In 1872 alone Illinoisans organized 69 new local Granges, where only eight had been organized up to that year. Granges admitted women on equal footing with men, and became hubs of community life by sponsoring picnics and programs that included lectures and poetry reading. The Grange's' crusade against middlemen in business indirectly benefited Chicago's merchants, who took up a new mail-order business. Montgomery Ward's and Sears Roebuck each appealed directly to Grangers eager to cut their local merchants out their business, and won devoted legions of rural customers.

Despite Chicago's disastrous fire, the city continued and even redoubled its remarkable growth, and played an ever-larger role in the national life. But trouble was brewing in downstate Illinois. As in most rural areas of the West and South, farmers found it more and more difficult to succeed in the Gilded Age's political and economic arrangements.