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Within days of the Chicago Fire of 1871, William D. Kerfoot erected the first building in the burnt district at 89 Washington Street. An enterprising real estate agent, Kerfoot posted a sign proclaiming All gone but wife, children, and energy.
Realtor, W. D. Kerfoot’s Office
Painted by W. J. Burton
Chicago will never be like the Carthage of old. Its glory will be of the past, not of the present; while its hopes, once so bright and cloudless, will be to the end marred and blackened by the smoke of its fiery fate.
This was the typical gloating done by Chicago’s rivals after the devastation. It was quite obvious to anyone viewing the remains that a city that had grown to 300,000 people in thirty years could never recover.
John Stephen Wright, one of the first citizens of Chicago, answered this constant pestimism about Chicago’s future with these words, “Chicago will have more men, more money, more business, within five years than she would have had without the fire.” He was often ridiculed for his fairyland vision of Chicago, but even his dreams were pale compared to reality. By 1880, Chicago’s population reached over half a milliion.
On Wednesday, October 11, 1871, after the editor had to borrow $64 from friends to buy paper, a half sheet paper was issued by the Chicago Tribune with a five column story of the fire with the following editorial beginning:
In the midst of a calamity without parallel in the world’s history, looking upon the ashes of thirty years’ accumulation, the people of this once beautiful city have resolved that
CHICAGO SHALL RISE AGAIN!
This editorial set the tone of determination for the city to return to its former glory. John McKnight, set up a fruit and cider stand in the middle of Clark street’s rubble. Typifying the humor that often accompanied the determination, realtor, William D. Kerfoot announced his reopening with “all gone but wife, children and energy.”
On the Monday morning of the fire, a man was found carefully examining the bricks of the ruins of Reynold’s Block (Dearborn and Madison streets), picking them up gently and “feeling” them. When asked by an observer to explain his conduct, he replied:
“I was just seeing if they were cool enough to build with again!”
Wood’s Museum was wholly destroyed, and conspicuously upon the bricks was a sign that was inscribed:
“COL. WOOD’S MUSEUM
Standing room only
R. Marsh, Treasurer”
Another sign read: “Owning to circumstances over which we have no control, we have removed.”
In an East St. Louis depot, the following conversation took place between a carpetbagger rushing to catch a train to Chicago and a gentleman who he elbowed in his haste:
Carpetbagger: “Must get that train.”
Other Man: “Well, there is plenty of time – the train does not start for ten minutes; and besides, there are several other people who want that train.”
Carpetbagger (very excited): “I must get that train, and that’s fixed. I’ll get that train if it costs me my life!”
Other Man: “What in hell is the necessity of your reaching Chicago by this train, anyway?”
Carpetbagger: “I must get to Chicago tomorrow on this train, or those people up there will have built up the whole damned town again, and I won’t see them ruins!”
Gaylord Watson. Chicago Fire Map, 1871
After the devastating Chicago fire of 1871, citizens of many foreign countries established relief funds to help the 90,000 Chicagoans left homeless from the catastrophe. In England, the weekly illustrated paper The London Graphic raised a significant amount of money for the effort as well. When it was announced that the City of Chicago had received enough funds to meet the immediate needs of the sufferers, The Graphic decided to use their funds to commission a large mural for the city by Edward Armitage. After it was gifted to the city, it was housed in the collection of the Chicago Historical Society until it was destroyed by fire in the early 1950s. Reproduced above is a detail from an 1885 version of the mural created for the frontispiece of volume two of A.T. Andreas” influential work entitled History of Chicago from the Earliest Period to the Present Time in Three Volumes. Other more modest versions of the work were reproduced in print, but the present work shows the original intent of the artist for the mural.