tv Carl Smith Chicagos Great Fire CSPAN November 20, 2021 1:10pm-2:01pm EST
on his handle bars, and i have checked around in that machine gun and i have got it right on hmm and i'm about to blow his gizzard out when the captain hits me on the shoulder and says son, if you shoot that man, you're going to have to cook our breakfast. [laughter] awe -- he was -- and our breakfast was on his handle bars. [laughter] i tell you -- you know? you can't make stuff like that up. >> you can watch this interview in its entirety along with oral histories at c-span.org/history. welcome to the 36th annual near south planning board role lit fest. please help me give a special thank you to all of our sponsors. [applause]
before we begin, i ask that you silence your phones and turn off your camera flashes. i'm going to introduce today in conversation karl smith with rick kogan karl isn't it is the author of chicago great fire. the destruction and -- resurgeon of an iconic american city. please welcome me in please join me in welcoming karl smith and rick hogan. [applause] you're good people to come out on a hot day like this to partake of literature. this book i'm now claiming to be a big apartment of this book because the paperback edition is just out. and on the top of that edition is something that i wrote that say it is simply put --
the best book ever written about the fire, my father who i admire tremendously wrote a book about fire and i still say this and my brother is here. pleasure to meet you i met you at the so-called, you know, writers spot over here where they've run out of things to drink and eat. you knew my dad. i did. and i came to chicago in 1972. from yale in new haven, connecticut, and i grew up in east and i went to college and graduate school in east and what i was most interested in was american history and culture in the second half of the 19th century and i was thinking of boston and places like that. and then i got this job at northwestern and kale out here and looked around and said --
this is where a treasury trove this is where it happened. >> do you know much about chicago and its history before coming out here? >> no quite littling and i said i've got -- i was teaching a heavy load but they gave me a free kowrgs i can teach whatever i wanted in the spring and i wanted to teach a course on chicago literature. and someone i remember the exact way it happened but someone said i should talk to your father. and somehow before the internet and e-mail -- next thing i knew he was -- [phone ringing] there he is. dad i'm sorry your book is better. [laughter] >> and i was sitting on the upstairs somewhere in the hotel at the press club, he said order the chicken salad -- in the pineapple only thing
that's edible here. [laughter] and he just enthused he gave me most important thing a person like me could have which was what can i say -- he validated my and i taught the course including the book, wonderful book two different titles bosses in chicago and morgues of the levee. >> in chicago was the title that the publishers thought and 20 years after the book has been published it that it would increase sales. and i've always loved the title lords of the levee -- >> we're in the levee. >> that's right. the first war -- infamously infamous first war with mike -- >> and house john coughlin, and -- so next thing i knew i was teaching a course and i said well there's, there's stuff here. and i did what was in some ways
conventionally career suicide which is except as i say it worked out. i wrote a few articles from my dissertation chftion on hangry jairn and tried to turn that and write a book about chicago. that ended up being basically now five books in one way or another is -- >> writing is a book is, obviously, smart as you are. writing a book is not easy. especially when one is as you were digging into the history of chicago and reading a number of other books. about and in your case no matter what the topic was. >> right. well i read i was most literary of the books other were hitting more historical, and i read dozens and dozens of chicago
novels that for example, and then tried to read stuff in the context and try to learn much more about the city and also what the one through line all my work is i was really interested in how people living in america in the great age of urbanization were thinking. how they experienced it and how they expect it and how ideas mattered. how, you know, they basically live on ideas and another book i talk about development of i call it intellectual infrastructure. but the ideas that people live in which i think are inseparable from the physical world. >> especially when you talk about someone like burrnam. >> or louie sullivan words and
poem. but when you look at any building it expresses certain ideas and certain assumptions. >> sure. >> and thought, and it makes what does it mean when you go time of today armories in a city. making a statement about the ways -- and assumptions are about society. >> well especially, i mean, it is so especially true about this city. you must have just been as you started to research, you must have been kind of ravenous about it, were you not? >> i was pretty ravenous. [laughter] and it's being interesting. there were some other crucial people like karl i spoke to at northwestern, john at the university of chicago then. and they sort of got me going, and in various ways, and robertstreeter who was which chicago who wrote a book and
wrote novels about chicago. >> one of the things as a person who was researching and all sorts of different levels, the academic research, the scholarly research, and the fiction writing research. how do you determine, does there come a point where you say to yourself wait a minute this book is junk. because chicago more so than most places that i know more of big cities -- and we'll get to this. there are myths that arise that are so durable and repeated. one after another through the decades where they become true and it takes -- it takes a bright, smart guy to see the crap -- the crap from -- to see the crap from the valuable. were you kind of -- were you stunned a bit at how the do it yourself historians
sometimes treated chicago? >> well first of all sometimes i'm grateful for them and i might add -- to a cultural historian intellectual historian like me the myth is partser farther about truth about versionings happen, fire, obviously, the big one is leery thing but i've been told so many things about the fire that are just not true. like, that the origin of the alley system and stuff like that. and -- that t that you have to sort it out and the difficulty of what a person like me has is chasing down the sources of things where people say something and where do they get that? >> exactly. >> and then -- most of these books we're talking about have no foot notes
or anything like that. this book i tried it to most of my other books are, quote, unqoat more scholarly. this one is got 50 pages of small print the notes. but not with numbers on -- >> right, right -- >> don't get in the way and this is written to be a good read in a whole other -- >> that's what i want to say about this book. it is and i've read a great deal about the chicago fire over the years. and the thing about this, this reads like a great novel. the narrative drive of this book is so powerful and absorbing maybe that can be on the front of your next paperback edition. >> write it right here. >> write it inside. >> that i would like to talk about how you grew as a writer. did you see a pattern of growth through your books? you must have -- >> well, yes.
but they're all kind of different in their own way. >> indeed. >> and the great difference between this book and the other books as i said are most of our writers cultural intrek intellectual so it is about ideas and wanted this to be about people and events, so it is very much focused on how people living actually experience the fire. and so it relies very heavily in one way or another on contemporary sources that either they wrote or that quote them directly. as i try to again come back and see the fire through their eyes and talk about it in terms of incident and event not in terms of -- of how people -- >> cultural import. >> let me ask you for these nice people here, draw a -- a portrait of chicago -- chicago has been many periods where it so manied seemed to me
in retrospect chaotic that is impossible to believe that people live like this. what was chicago like before the fire? it was certainly a city of wood. >> it was a very heavily city of wood. but chicago was a kind of at a crucial moment in its history and sort of also explains why the city rebuilt so quickly. chicago was built -- i would say out of nowhere and out of everywhere. and basically the 40 -- modern chicago that we know in the 40 years before the fire. maybe 100 white settlers here n 1830. they kicked the indians native americans out of three years later, basically, and the growth takes off and so there are maybe 4,000 people at the time of the
census of 1840. and there are 330,000 at the time of the fire. between 1850 and 1871 it goes from something like 30,000 to 330,000 people. no place grew so fast and it is the expression as i was saying earlier of the 19th century industrialization, immigration, westward movement, the transportation and communications revolution. >> now the city already was the stockyards have been built not as big as they became -- but you had this wonderful -- [laughter] this wonderful river flowing right through into lake michigan. and you also -- become a real rail hubby -- hub -- had it not? >> chicago came into its own as chicago in the 1850s and 1860s we talk about 1848 being
the miraculous when board of trade set up and first train is here, and the first telegraph message is sent, and so on. the 1850s it becomes real center lumber center, grain center, and all of that. but civil war really givings it a bump. it triples in size during 1860s, and when i say crucial this is also the period when it is switching or not switching, it is sort of becoming more complicated from a mercantile center. where just a center of trade where things are exchanged to a manufacturing center. it is already in process at this point. i mean, things like the stockyards, and the mccormick works but now talking about steel meal and much larger things made an a lot of things are made in the 1860s to equip the union army. >> but people who were drawn to chicago, we know many of us who read chicago history that many
of them were, you know, these incredibly cool, steve jobs of their day. you know, potter palmer and marshall field, who were the other people who were the o'learys? >> chicago in 1850s and 1870 and by sense of that was 48.of the population was foreign born. and something close to 80% had at least one foreign born parent. but earlier on the irish were dominant group by time of the fire germans, now that's a tricky term to use in either case because there's so many of these people you can't talk about them as some unified group and they're a catholic german and germany as we know didn't exist until 1871 so from different parts that became germany under bismarck.
but most of the city is -- i want to call immigrant/ethnic working class and relatively small percentage about 20% are can i say yankee -- white protestant people they virtually earn all of the wealth at the city at that time and number of them came early and establish larger businesses. >> were most of the people driven by the upper job opportunities? >> absolutely -- by, this is where the future was happening. that again, chicago is a creation of the 19th century. many of you have well bill crohn's book nature, it is crucial between manufacturing east and the agricultural and mining west. a place of major place of
exchange and it is basically built by eastern and european investment because the developing national international economy needs this place, wants this place, and it becomes self-profilling prophesy it is a boom town. it is only going to grow and that kept up all of the way into the 1930s took the depression finally to to the growth of chicago. which peaked around 1950. >> what did o'learys do besides milk their cow? >> one of the things i try to do in the book is bring the lives of the immigrants, women, children -- >> he does significantly. >> oh leeries are deem demonize mainstream pearps and we're talking about respectable papers tribune and so on. it is impossible to overstate
their -- the vilification of working class immigrants especially irish, catholic immigrants. madil joseph was irish but he wasn't catholic, anyway -- so patrick o'leary was like many chicago unskill labor he got what jobs he could, earned maybe $5 a week. $6 a week, when he found work they had five children. they and she to supplement family income had not one cow but four cows calf, a horse a wagon in the barn north of above where they lived. but again, these five children, these are deeply members of holy
family and they were baptized there. ... >> it is impossible to hold the conversation and the nastiness e respectable people. >> i have to say part, the nasty reputation after the fire was fostered and set a fire by what was the media in those days. the tribune itself was very boosterism we shall rise again and all that jazz. but the irish and the racism i
suppose, that is what really fostered and that's a fire to the myth rated. >> absolutely, that she was a perfect scapegoat remain half the fire did start there but there was only two dozen fires throughout the city the previous we get it and hundreds of the city was a tinderbox and the took a kind of a perfect coincidence of various things but there was a place that was ready to burn at any one of them and is distinguished the person, olmsted and running for the nation said the same thing, the commonplace and why should the city burn down and he blamed the way the city was built pretty. >> is your take, it was a perfect storm, is a city built of wood, a place that was experiencing an incredible
drought. >> grout with hundreds of fires and understaffed firemen. >> and they were beaten down. >> is saturday night fire they had fought for 16 hours in one third of them already too small fire department was basically out of commission it and so a lot of their equipment was as well and then finally gets struck and then six or seven hours later comes the alarm for the "chicago's great fire" and that alarm basically for various reasons became half-hour late in the fire was going and by the time we get to the scene. >> so basically the way they sought the fires those days they had a garden wandering on the top of the people of the city call like looking out that seems prehistoric but that maybe there's a fire over there. >> and chicago had as good of a to few people in two little equipment and 190 firefighters
for the city of 3,130,000 people but they had a state-of-the-art equipment and steam equipment and they also had a telegraph alarm system that it just did not work that night pretty someone through an alarm but it did not register downtown. >> in the first fire engines that went out from the information at the guy at top of the city wall went to the wrong place. about a mile away. >> a sentence i kept trying to figure out how to put in there he missed by a mile i never could quite get it to set right. >> so this was the city ready to bring always amazes me that the o'leary were, i hate to call it a house but it burned her didn't burn pretty.
>> and another reason that chicago burn is because it started on the near west side, if you were the fire academy is, that is a block where they were, right there but the wind was blowing north and east. and it was ferocious in the fire help generate these updrafts in burning chicago and the wind blew it towards the downtown. select the south branch of the river and then it left the main branch of the river and burned a chunk of the west side and is stopped with the city had been burned the night before by the saturday at night fire and he jumped over burn the entire downtown and virtually the whole north side, 13300 out of 13800 buildings.
>> and in those days something else that i learned from this book that some people would position themselves in various places to watch the fires when they start and is like a tourist attraction pretty. >> there's no photograph, no radio, there was a fire and watching the fires in the firemen's fighting the fires, what could be more fun and they go over and you watch it any minute earlier on, and during the saturday night fire, the crowd gathering around the firemen sprayed them and they thought that was the greatest think. think pretty. >> in the thought it was going to stay there but it did not in the next thing they know is that they are running for their lives. >> they want to like through lincoln which used to be a cemetery. >> it was changing from the city cemetery to what we now know as lincoln park in the bottom half
mile, lincoln park now, above north avenue was the city cemetery lincoln park was a small thing that had just become lincoln park after the president was assassinated and they were moving the bodies out. and another health law, he could not carry parties within the city limits in places like graceland and rose hill and so on. >> and with the panic really took hold, people gathered whatever they could and they would bury their worldly possessions in the park or at the beach. >> there are accounts of people burying pianos and i can't believe it it but are so many different accounts unlike others, people say that i did it as opposed to some of the rumors and i heard that kind of stuff. and another thing dealing with the sources, would you trust what don't you and someone getting back to missus o'leary,
with the whole thing was, if sort of brought out this fear of this urban under we gotta control these people read or they will burn us down literally and figuratively. >> and so the o'leary's we were forced in one of the kids grew up to be a really, one of the first big jim rated and i call him james of course for the formality but one of the first gambling bazaars certainly of te city if not the whole country but they were the first to move around the south side they were kept moving. >> is far as i can tell, they basically lived near the east entrance of the stockyard and the new york exchange my 50th street and south homestead.
and that's where they were living where he died in 1994 and she 191895. >> they were counted, they were counted by the media and can you imagine what it would be like today but they were counted every anniversary and the reporters would show up in a cannot, you do a great job of doing it, i so sympathize with her. >> she learned quickly that there was nothing to be gained, these people cannot read or write so there is no way to start back and they don't have access even if they well stop talking to them they just made fun of her they would done that if she did. the one thing that happened though is that with recovery, chicago's triumphant rise, phoenix like, from the ashes.
and become the positive so she became kind of like a chicago folk hero of sorts. condescending and patronizing. >> and you can make the case in which you will that the whole thing that inspired you have this irish family, you had this cow, this nameless cow easy to blame and it's like a little kind of a nasty fairytale that had all of the elements to become a story. >> it reaffirms existing prejudices and in some ways makes it not dangerous that is just this clumsy arborist woman that we don't have to wholesale overhaul here. but there's nothing wrong with the system and the way things are and there is not this verbal
threat and the same time, there were other rumors that the people from the commune were burning chicago down and you know, that is a much more scary thing and then people like homestead but also the tribune say it is not her fault. we built this place burned out and we have to rebuild it better read. >> tribune and other papers time there were other papers at the time, wrote editorials generally morning of this one in city rated very strong editorials. >> and they said it would happen again and it did, we are now in the second chicago fire was, in 1874, july 15, 1874, just south of where the fire ended about a block away from here at this end of it it went up to fullerton but down here around harrison
street, and then this fire burned this area all around here in burned from the historic black churches in the jewish synagogues. and also a number of brothels. >> it was an immediate aftermath of the fire, there were fears of arsonists and wandering around as in any tragedy, there are losers and people trying to take advantage of the situation. >> the paper were full of stories that all of the criminals around the country are coming here to pray on this area and there were tales of people setting like crazed fighters and then being hanged on the spot of righteous citizens in their is no verification of any of the stories. there was probably some looting and probably some other -
>> will the city was under martial law are sort of, lisa marshall law. >> will illegal martial law, one of the residents of the city, said so many wonderful stories here, was philip sheridan hero of civil war and an indian fighter and even had a role in dealing with maximilian in mexico but he has the headquarters of the army, here which basically commanded basic fighting the indians west of the mississippi river but he is living here and he is completely regularly pressed into service to kind of lead a ad hock group of policeman militia and volunteers to police the city thought to be very vulnerable and to some degree it isn't pretty we concerned about the downtown and all of these spaces
with valuables in the businesses and someone downtown. >> the resurrection part of this story, and the resurrection part is also kind of cinematic. >> well it is full of wild incidents of all kinds and one of the attempts are one of the things after the fire, is to enforce what are called fire men zoning and to enforce a law that every single building in the city must have a broker a stone exterior. no wall would not be wooden in the problem with that is the working people cannot afford stone or brick and they see it as a direct attack on them which to some degree it wasn't easy and also as a way to get them, a remarkable five percentage of
homeownership by the working people in the city in a way that they cannot afford to build on their lots in the lot is worthless. and it's the downtown interest to grab a lot so there is a meeting in the chicago city council, and therefore a temporary city hall where the rookery building is over there. and is a march on it on the working people and it turns into a complete melee with rocks and stones and things thrown and a quick adjournment and kind of a compromise on the firemen but the chicago goes on and forced a long time in chicago remains very fire prone for a long time. >> will be a thing of the fire commissioner fire in chicago fire scared of the people in the next a man named braswell for the mayor at the time of fire then became the next mayor ran on it the fire proof ticket.
>> and what it also was, a ticket of the best men and i do mean men. as to say kind of a fusion to get on the most respectable republicans and the democrats basically reclaim or what is going on in this period is a real fight for the future of the city because 60 percent of the electorates is ethnic working people and similar representation the common council in 1935, is now the city council as we know it. and there is a factor of over who controls the city. >> some people think well what a wonderful world that we live in, something like $50 million was poured into people in chicago who they wanted to help these people have been burned out of
much of that was self-serving president, the people who were giving the money, there was some, written sent books but a lot of it was fueled by people understood the commercial value of chicago. >> first of all, one thing that you learn especially if you look closely at something, it is never you want to say, was at this or was it that. it is not either or usually, it is both and into a remarkable extent, people from all around the country and around the world, immediately rallied and sent food, sent clothing, and sent money in the equivalent today of over $200 million of stuff and some, they feel yes there is kind of that we need
chicago. i don't want to understate the human dimension it in time when there is no safety net of any kind. and 90000 people in one night in the city of three or 30000 people, had lost their homes and it is october and while it was a hot day, we know is going to get cold and what will happen not long after october. so the sense of and probably more than that, most of the jobs because of all of the places the bird and all the hotels, all the newspapers of all of the restaurants, all of the office buildings. >> one of the things that helped resurrect chicago was the fact that the docs were still here in the stockyards remained and many many many of the railroad tracks were not burned and that is what
they were able to get there commercial wheels spinning fast. >> the infrastructure was largely in place, the waterworks was nothing but networking within about a week. but as you say most of the grain was outside of the burned area, most of the lumber was outside of the burned area and the railroad tracks were fine, the stations were gone with the press were there most of the telegraph lines also but the one thing that could absolutely not burned even if all those were, was the location. this was this nexus in this developing national and international economy too much had been invested in it and it was built by external capitol and on the inside entrepreneurs in the inside workers and all these immigrants and then it was rebuilt by the same people in
the same forces again. so that's the reason why chicago bounced back so quickly in place like new orleans still has not bounce back and that's very important when this happened, it is a terrible thing to say in some ways but chicago had to be burned down and any point, that was the right moment for it. all the things that created it were there to re-create it immediately. >> what do you think, a continuation of these fires, would chicago be chicago without the chicago fire. >> the one place that i step
into a very hesitantly is a counter actual history, with this happened when the civil war etc. or what if harvey oswald had you know these kinds of things. it is generally thought that chicago, it would been the same place. and again all these sources were still there and there's some that argue that it accelerated it things because it cleared out a lot of bad real estate that was making money that people would not clear out unless by themselves. and, this gets back to the infrastructure. it basically gave the city a kind of a founding myth and that
chicago was indestructible and they did it. and they celebrated it two years later to be care in a building for the art institute is now, i was there for 20 years and then 22 years later, they celebrated it as the world's columbian exposition which was basically a chicago's moving out party in the world stage. >> it ingrained itself into this will have, we can take that, that blizzard from there is this really eco. >> on one of the four stars in the fighting the fight is not existing until 1913. >> in the first was to stars. i think the fire and the fair. in the other two are the battle
as we now call it and 1930s. in the red and white represents river the lake. >> i want to say is i wish that i had been a student of the col. northwestern, i think he must've been a remarkable professor because he wrote a remarkable writer if you missed of chicago tribune it today, it's an increasing and shrinking number that you probably have pretty. >> increasing shrinking number. and he wrote a magnificent piece in here and a new tribune fashion, he said that it was a historian in the profession of narratives of english at northwestern university and without mentioning this.
i'm all for self promotion when you can get it, it's wonderful thing talking about the need for a real london it for real chicago player monument. it's very persuasive and if he were in such trouble, i'm sure he sort of would be leading in this, we will only a few minutes. and this is been fantastic if you want to argue if it really did start the fire by ms. o'leary's cow, come up here and thank you. >> when you were doing your research, were there any unexpected or unique sources of information and you came across that ended up in the book. >> will first of all thank you. >> that is a great question.
>> yes and i think the internet for part of this i found a lot from ancestry senses, read more close than i ever read before the daily newspapers and it was just remarkable but this book tries to do is to give a sense of things pretty close up, a sense of the texture of life in a sense of the feel of the streets and again, all these different people's in the different ways these lives intersected so i read about these personal memoirs that i read about and i learned a great deal. in the newspapers most involved in a fanout things that i would've never even if guest like mark twain was here a few weeks after the fire and the nephew of czar was here at the end of the new year and he met with among other people, custer and the chief, this was five
year before little big horn. and about certain kinds of life in individuals and lives of people i only knew his name, jay young sam and was this remarkable man who was a lawyer who trained abraham lincoln son in his law office in chicago. but then he went broke in the panic of 1873. and really knocked out by the 1874 fire where he had reinvested into chicago and basically in a terrible pitch. but all of these individual stories read. >> you gotta love newspapers that's what i have to say about that pretty spec you reference the one son, what about the succeeding generations, did they kind of live these o'leary's, i
don't know do you one of them own a house on the boulevard considered a mention pretty. >> yes and no, first of all, i testified in 1997, the city council committee meeting exonerating ms. o'leary animate the great-granddaughter, and a suburban matron, and her said the famous none of the five children, james patrick, big jim o'leary became a gambling divorce and he built a mansion, not far from where his parents lived and it is now for sale, very run down, 17 bedrooms and whatever and the real estate said that it was built for his mother. she died when he was 25 or 26,
the house was built after that so that part is untrue. but then he was a wealthy and colorful figure in the city. that's very much true the house was his is very much true but he did not build it for her as far as i know she never lived in it. >> in his place which was near the stock yards burn gavin when it burned down, and with my dad as well, while i was covering events, he was at the university of chicago occurring that any told me is because i never got into the newspaper. and whether it was fanciful or not you're going to love this and it was a huge huge fire in chicago, really damaging maybe second only to this big fire. >> the huge stockyard fires mean the one in before.
34. >> people that the story in the tribune and as a kid he filed and he said there's this great mind that i got from a man that guy was standing across the street as i was watching the fire company i told my father, them cows, they had a coming. [laughter] >> if it is not true, you should be. >> this is a magnificent book. [applause] and thank you. >> we kandiss on "c-span2" are an intellectual feast, every saturday american history to be documents america's story on sunday, book tv bring to light his nonfiction books and authors, funding for "c-span2", comes from these television companies and more including charter communications printed. >> broadband is a force for
environment and that's why charter has invested billions building infrastructure and upgrading technology empowering opportunities and communities big and small charter is connecting us to have charter communications along with these television companies support "c-span2" as a public service. recently in american history tv, and debate between educating for american democracy project author, danielle allen and critic mark - with emily university about the best way to teach american history. >> why is it that you think the teachers are going to be teaching at a liberal frame the scott and a lot of you know, you spend your career at the university the maybe a freshman summary will be discussed but is it possible that the secondary teachers in america are not
ideological or interested in particular yannick going there. what would you say to go into that pretty. >> you would know more about the lower grades that i would but you think the social studies teachings perfection is nonpartisan, that there is not an ideological slant in social study teachers in the professional organizations. >> i think the teacher are teaching kids k - two they are trying to help them learn the norms of the behavior in a classroom and try to help them understand the right responsibilities and relationship to the groups are part of including the classroom and set basic. the politics is at the end of the day about people coming together to establish rules in arms and respect infusion. we do think that collectively, a
word that kids can understand, that is what is going on in those early grades the conversation. >> you can watch this entire debate online at cspan.org/history. simply search for danielle allen it or mark power line at the top of the page. >> our weekly series and the presidency both sides the legacies of u.s. presidents and the first lady's and fx former president barack obama and former first lady michelle obama break out of the presidential center in chicago. >> every years in the white house, michelle and i know joins all of you. we want to thank you once again from the bottom of our hearts for giving us the incredible privilege of serving the country you love. and i'll tell you a little bit about what we will be up to