The Great Chicago Fire happened 150 years ago. NPR's Scott Simon reflects on the tragedy's historical impact and modern relevance.



This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire. It may sound strange to call something so deadly great, but it suits Chicago's self-image as a place where things are bigger, taller and greater, even tragedies. The 1871 fire killed an estimated 300 people. It turned the heart of the city, wood frame buildings quickly constructed on wooden sidewalks, into ruins and left 100,000 people homeless. My family has an engraving from the London Illustrated News of Chicagoans huddled for their lives along an iron bridge. A reflection of flames makes even the Chicago River look like a cauldron. Like the great fire of London in 1666, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Great Chicago Fire reminds us that big, swaggering cities can still be fragile.

But that same night, about 250 miles north of Chicago, more than 1200 people died in and around Peshtigo, Wis. It was the deadliest wildfire in U.S. history. Survivors said the flames blew like hurricanes, jumping across Green Bay to light swaths of forest on the opposite shore. A million and a half acres burned. Chicago's fire came to be seen as a catastrophe that also ignited the invention of steel skyscrapers raised up in the city's ashes. It has overshadowed the Peshtigo fire. And for years, the two were seen as separate, almost coincidental disasters. Many of those houses and sidewalks that burned in Chicago had been built with timbers grown around Peshtigo in forests conveniently owned by William Ogden, Chicago's first mayor. He owned the sawmill, too.

Chicago's fire was long blamed, falsely, on an Irish immigrant family's cow kicking over a lantern. Some people thought the Peshtigo fire started when pieces of a comet landed in the forest, which has never been proven. What we understand better today was that the Midwest was historically dry in the summer of 1871. When a low-pressure front with cooler temperatures rolled in, it stirred up winds, which can fan sparks into wildfires. The fires themselves turned up more winds. Several parts of nearby Michigan also burned during the same few days. At least 500 people were killed there. One hundred and fifty years later, all of those fires on an autumn night in 1871 might help us see even more clearly why rising global temperatures and severe droughts from Australia to Algeria to California have made forests more tinder dry, fragile and flammable and people more vulnerable to the climate changes we've helped create. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.