The Great Chicago Fire of 1871: A Story of Human Tragedy and Triumph


Ask anyone what the greatest disaster in Chicago was and probably no one will say, "The Great Iroquois Theatre Fire of December 30, 1903." Six hundred three souls perished in that fire. They probably won’t say, "The sinking of the Eastland excursion boat in the Chicago River in 1915." Eight hundred thirty-five died in that tragedy. The answer will most likely be, "The Great Chicago Fire." The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 left approximately three and one-third square miles of the city in ruins, created $192,000,000 in property damage, and took the lives of some 300 people. But it also spurred one of the greatest American triumphs—out of the disaster and devastation in 1871, Chicago rebounded and held the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 is not remembered for the body count but for the near inhuman effort of those who remained amid the ashes, grieving for their lost loved ones, mourning their destroyed city, and building a better one that would be a monumental tribute to their strength, determination, and character. From the ashes of the old, the present world-class city of Chicago rose as a powerful and triumphant phoenix.

Essential Question

How did the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 affect individuals socially and economically?

Motivational Strategy

Ask students what they know about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Record their responses for all to see. Present the background information from above, your own summary, or your textbook’s account of the fire. Ask them to compare it with their earlier responses. Explain that in this lesson, after reading some eyewitness accounts of the fire, they will be responsible for selecting their own performance tasks or activities.


Students will be able to

  • examine primary source documents to analyze the immediate impressions of eyewitnesses
  • analyze primary and secondary documents to explain the effects of the fire on the city of Chicago
  • select performance tasks (activities) that best suit their learning styles or challenge them to attempt another



Day One

Begin with the Motivational Strategy (above).

Students will intently read as many personal narratives as they can in the time period you allow. (You will need to allow time for the distribution of the performance tasks, choosing tasks, and completing a contract, if you wish.)

Ask students to read empathetically, to put themselves in the place of the person about whom they are reading.

Distribute the Performance Tasks handout and ask students to choose one that best fits their own learning style. They may also choose an activity that is contrary to their preferred learning style as a challenge.

Decide on a due date. (You may want to have them formulate a contract informing you of which task they have selected.)

Familiarize students with a peer rubric so they will be aware of evaluation criteria. (Note: I always use a peer rubric for my own evaluation, but of course, you may have another that you will want to share with them.)

Note: The most comprehensive site I found to study the fire is The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory. It is the result of collaboration between the Chicago Historical Society, from whose collections the contents of the exhibit are drawn, and Academic Technologies of Northwestern University, which was primarily responsible for the creation of the website. The resources listed below originate from there. 

Eyewitnesses to the Fire 

  • Fannie Belle Becker was ten years old at the time of the fire and wrote about it two years later.
  • Joel Bigelow’s letter to his family is dated October 10, 1871, and includes his own map of the burnt district.
  • Bessie Bradwell (later Helmer) was the daughter of James B. Bradwell, a county judge, and Myra Colby Bradwell, founder and editor of the Chicago Legal News, whose subscription book thirteen-year-old Bessie saved from the flames. The Bradwells lived in the South Division. She sent her memoir to the Chicago Historical Society on the fifty-fifth anniversary of the fire, in 1926.
  • Clarence Augustus Burley was a young man at the time of the fire, living with his family in the heart of the North Division’s Old Settler neighborhood. He later served as president of the Chicago Historical Society. This excerpt is from "The Clarence Augustus Burley Family Record."
  • A.S. Chapman wrote his "Boy’s Recollections of the Chicago Fire" in 1910. 
  • O.W. Clapp, who lived south of the fire, tells of his important part in the first relief efforts. This is taken from a presentation Clapp made to the Borrowed Time Club of Oak Park in 1914.
  • William Gallagher was a student at the Chicago Theological Seminary. His letter to his sister in Boston is dated October 17. 
  • John J. Healy’s account is part of his longer essay, "A Bit of the Old North Side." His family was one of those that built a shelter house after they were burned out. He was then about eight years old. 
  • Mrs. Alfred Hebard came from a pioneering family. She was a cousin of the oldest of the Old Settlers, Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard, who had arrived in Chicago in 1818 as a fur buyer for John Jacob Astor and who was living in the North Division at the time of the fire. After her marriage in 1837, Mrs. Hebard and her husband settled even further west, in Iowa. They were passing through Chicago on October 8, 1871. Her recollection was written in 1880.
  • Anna E. (Tyng) Higginson’s letter to Mrs. Mark Skinner is dated November 10, 1871. Mrs. Higginson was the wife of George M. Higginson, who had been an important figure in the Chicago real estate business for almost three decades. After the conflagration, he was very active in behalf of the Chicago Historical Society as a collector of fire narratives. 

There are ten more eyewitness accounts to choose from at The Great Chicago Fire’s Eyewitness page.

Day Two

You may want to continue with other curriculum and concepts until the due date for the final projects, creating a time lapse between Days One and Two. A written reminder of the due date should be posted and verbal reminders given, with small progress reports.

Write the Essential Question on the board and let students know they must listen intently to their peers’ projects.

Distribute the peer rubric.

Remind students that the rubric must remain anonymous and that you will be checking them before the presenter sees them.

Let the projects begin! You may want to invite another class to enjoy and learn.

After each project or performance, allow students to ask questions as they complete the evaluation.

Collect evaluations. Make certain all are anonymous and appropriate. (Students enjoy seeing their peer average scores on your own evaluation.) You might want to return the evaluations to the students.


There should be a class discussion of the Essential Question. Also, refer back to the motivator and show what students initially knew. Compare and contrast that with what they know now.


Compare and contrast the aftermath and effects of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

What types of disasters, natural or man (or cow) made, might occur in your own geographic area? Predict how your community would respond.