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How the Great Chicago Fire shaped the suburbs 150 years ago

While the Great Chicago Fire scorched more than three square miles of the city 150 years ago Friday, its effect on the landscape was far wider.

For some nearby towns like Elmhurst and Des Plaines, it meant an almost immediate population explosion as refugees sought shelter.

The fire forced some business owners like cigar maker Henry Godknecht, brick maker David Haeger and photographer Casmir Arcouet to relocate operations to Palatine, East Dundee and Aurora, respectively.

And for some people, it affected their very existence.

“I have direct connection to the Great Chicago Fire through my family,” Geneva History Museum Executive Director Terry Emma explained. “My great-grandfather was the engineer at the water pumping station the day of the fire, but he’s the reason we’re out here.”

Emma’s great-grandfather, DeWitt Clinton Cregier, was chief engineer of Chicago’s water system when the massive blaze gutted most of the downtown, killed a few hundred people and displaced more than a third of the city’s residents beginning on the night of Oct. 8, 1871.

Cregier, who would later go on to be Chicago’s mayor from 1889 to 1891 and is widely credited with helping lure the famed 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition to the city, worked the pumping station to try to save the city from ruin. A plaque in his honor hangs on the old Water Tower on North Michigan Avenue, one of the few buildings in downtown Chicago to survive the fire.

With his arms singed and his hair and clothes burned during the hours spent trying to stave off the fire’s destruction, Cregier was finally able to find his way to his home, or what was left of it.

“Their house had burned to the ground, so he gathered his family and they made their way to St. Charles where he had a summer house, and they stayed there throughout the city’s rebuilding,” Emma said. “My grandfather, one of DeWitt’s 10 children, eventually ended up in Geneva and started his family here even though my great-grandfather had moved back to the city.”

An estimated 100,000 Chicago residents were left homeless by the conflagration that started late on a Sunday night, southwest of the city center, and burned for days. Amazingly, given the scope of the blaze, only about 300 people were believed to have been killed by the fire.

Anecdotal reports from the time indicate many suburban residents in places like Elgin, Geneva and Naperville could see the glow of the massive fire on the eastern horizon if they found high enough vantage points.

Historians say free rail passes were given to displaced residents in an attempt to find them shelter outside the city limits.

“Many houses in Elmhurst at the time took in refugees,” said Dan Lund, curator of the Elmhurst History Museum. “Elmhurst was the country back then. Many wealthy businessmen who lived and worked in the city had summer homes here, and the size of these estates allowed them to take these fire refugees in.”

In Chicago, planners saw an opportunity to rebuild in a way to maximize burgeoning transportation technologies like rail travel and make an urban center replete with uniquely designed and innovative architecture.

It was called the Great Rebuilding and ultimately transformed Chicago into an internationally recognized economic hub.

The rail lines that snaked into the city like spokes of a bicycle wheel had stops in the suburbs and helped bolster the economic fortunes in those towns, providing new residents the ability to travel back and forth between the city and their new homes.

“The Great Fire kicked off this renaissance of Chicago because we can redevelop the city into this great rail city metropolis,” said Chris Goodman, an assistant professor of public administration at Northern Illinois University. “It is a golden opportunity to reconfigure some things we didn’t like about the city and get rid of things that weren’t working previously, and we now have what is essentially this pristine land, and the city planners took great advantage.”

But this came at a cost to many laborers who felt squeezed out of the city’s redevelopment. Places where workers once lived were now being developed for commercial properties, and residents were pushed to the outskirts.

An initial attempt to allow only brick construction made rebuilding expensive for the working class. When businesses moved out of the city, many employees went with them, explained Elaine Lewinnek, author of “The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl.”

“The fire hastened the suburbanization that was already going on,” said Lewinnek, who is also a professor of American Studies at California State University at Fullerton. “We tend to think of suburbs as only residential, but there were suburbs that were industrialized as well, so people moved to be near work.”

After the fire, businesses that specialized in real estate and building materials sprung up throughout the suburbs, including brick makers, stone masons and metal foundries, because one of the biggest businesses at the time was rebuilding Chicago.

Other business owners chose life in the suburbs as well.

Cigar maker Henry Godknecht built his home in Palatine and sold his wares from his parlor 137 N. Plum Grove Road. Family members lived in the house for more than a century, according to local historians.

“They had moved out here to be with other family members when their shop in the city burned during the fire and stayed,” said Palatine Historical Society President Joe Petykowski. “The historical society still has the cigar store wooden Indian from Godknecht’s Palatine shop.”

The Norton family moved to Des Plaines when their “dry goods” store on Lake Street in Chicago burned during the fire, according to records at the Des Plaines History Center.

“We know generally that the suburbs, including Des Plaines, received new residents and businesses from those displaced by the fire,” said Siobhan Herarty, curator of collections at the history center. “There may have been other families that moved to Maine Township in the 1870s as a result of the fire, but their stories are not known to us.”

The idea for Maryville Academy in Des Plaines originated from the need to house children orphaned by the Great Chicago Fire, though it wouldn’t open as St. Mary’s Training School until 1883.

While the 1871 Chicago Fire prompted some migration to the suburbs, a smaller 1874 fire in the South Loop also had a big impact, because that’s when city leaders in Chicago finally imposed building codes that limited the amount of wood that could be used in construction.

“That has a ripple effect where people decide to build outside the city limits, spurring big growth in suburban construction,” said Robert Loerzel, a freelance journalist and author who recently had a piece on the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire published in Chicago Magazine. “The decision after the second fire in 1874 to prohibit wooden houses really started to push people outside the city limits to build homes and live.”

But the dangers fires posed in the city also existed in the burgeoning suburbs.

“Shortly before the Chicago Fire, we were starting to see more professionalism and more formal firefighting outfits being created,” said Brian Failing, executive director of the Aurora Regional Fire Museum. “Obviously, the Great Chicago Fire is not something you can exactly plan for, but it certainly shows the necessity of a fire service and formal training to have adequate equipment and adequate staffing.”

There was also a push in the fire’s aftermath to create libraries in the suburbs after the Chicago Fire destroyed the city’s library and other private book collections in the city.

“That was certainly a major effect on people collecting books,” said Elizabeth Marston, executive director of the Elgin History Museum. “That impacted a lot of communities in the Chicago area because of the scarcity of books.”

Some historians believe this rush to create professionalized firefighting companies and public libraries in the suburbs might be one of the reasons Illinois has so many public taxing bodies today.

“There’s no way to prove it or disprove it, but it’s a fascinating question about how this big event might have kicked off this whole structure of government we have,” Goodman said.

And while the effects of the fire vary in each suburb, none at the time were untouched by the gravity of the event.

“The fire accentuated suburbanization trends that were already underway,” Lewinnek explained, “spurring suburbanization by offering the opportunity to rebuild the burnt areas of the central city in a way that accelerated segregation by separating home and work, rich and poor.”