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Table of Contents > Chapter 1

The Loop (continued)

In 1860 Chicago's commerce and industry still centered around the Chicago River close to the lake. But entrepreneurs were beginning to look for new locations away from the central business district. River traffic had become much too heavy, and pollution problems were already developing. Besides this, the new technology of the railroad was making manufacturers less depending on the river. Two of Chicago's major industries moved away from the central city at this time. In the early 1860s a few meatpacking plants moved to the South Branch of the Chicago River in Bridgeport. Then in 1865, when the Union Stock Yard opened on 39th Street to the southwest of the city, the remaining plants moved to the Town of Lake. Steel makers also looked for new locations away from the crowded banks of the Chicago River. In 1875 the first steel mill opened on the Calumet River and began a trend which would make the far southeast side of Chicago a steel-producing center that would eventually surpass Pittsburgh in tonnage. As the mills, packinghouses, and factories left the downtown area, so did the workers.

The Chicago Fire also contributed to the outward movement of the working-class neighborhoods (See Fig. 1). A little after nine o'clock on Sunday evening, October 8, 1871 a fire broke out in the O'Leary barn on DeKoven Street near Jefferson in the Irish "Patch," just southwest of downtown, where the Fire Academy stands today. No one knows how the fire began, but once it started, the O'Leary name was linked with the tragedy, and by Tuesday morning most of Chicago was a smoldering ruin. Nothing could stop the inferno as it first consumed the wooden houses of the Patch then attacked the "fire-proof" buildings downtown. Mrs. O'Leary's house stood untouched as the fire burned an average of sixty-five acres per hour and destroyed the proud, young city. Over 1,600 acres lay in ashes from the Near West Side to the lake and up to Fullerton Avenue north of the river. To many people the fire seemed to mark the end of Chicago.

To many others, however, it presented an opportunity. The fire did not touch the industry that had moved to the outskirts of the city. While the fire consumed the lakefront, the Union Stock Yard continued its processing of hogs, cattle, and sheep. The newer grain elevators away from downtown were ready to take an additional produce. Railroad tracks, twisted and destroyed near the heart of the city, still came in from the East. Money, too, soon arrived. The Chicago Fire drastically affected the insurance business, but investors soon saw that the city had great potential for new growth. The important Eastern connections that had helped to create Chicago now helped to resurrect it. The city rose like a phoenix from the fire.

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Figure 1: Fire of 1871, looking north on Clark Street from Cook County Court House and City Hall.  »

Figure 2: Pillar of Fire, Jefferson and DeKoven Streets, 1985.  »

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