"It was like a snowstorm only the flakes were red instead of white."
-- Fire narrative of Bessie Bradwell Helmer
That description of the Great Chicago Fire of October 8 through 10, 1871, is drawn from a fascinating, far-reaching commemorative Web site, The Great Chicago Fire and The Web of Memory, from the Chicago Historical Society and the Trustees of Northwestern University. The site offers a wealth of information in essays, electronic images of artifacts, and a library of relevant texts that vividly recreate Chicago before, during, and after the great fire.
"This exhibit attempts to make its own contribution to the memory of the conflagration," says an online introduction, "by offering for scrutiny some of the major ways in which the Great Chicago Fire has been remembered."
The site is divided into two major sections: The Great Chicago Fire, which covers the history of the city at the time of the fire and immediately following, and The Web of Memory, which shows how the fire has been recalled by eyewitnesses, journalists, artists, photographers, and many others. Each of the two sections of the Web site has its own table of contents.
The site is enormous but not difficult to navigate. A clearly written How to Navigate section follows the Introduction.
The Great Chicago Fire started on Sunday, October 8, around 9 p.m. in or very near the O'Leary barn. It had been a very dry summer, and the fire, which was driven by a strong wind from the southwest, aimed straight for the center of Chicago. In the course of the next two days, the fire devastated much of Chicago. The so-called "Burnt District" covered an area 4 miles long and about 3/4 of a mile wide. The fire destroyed some 18,000 buildings and about 200 million dollars in property. Approximately half of the property was insured.
The fire didn't destroy Chicago, though -- far from it! The city battled back, rebuilding its core and growing faster than ever.
The Great Chicago Fire and The Web of Memory Web site provides a strong foundation for a language arts unit. The following activities might be used in such a unit:
You know how the week of October 8 is always Fire Prevention Week? Well, in case you never realized it, Fire Prevention Week occurs then because the Great Chicago Fire, which began on October, 8, 1871, taught people a great deal about fire prevention.
The National SAFE KIDS Campaign, in honor of fire prevention week, suggests that kids become Junior Fire Inspectors. As inspectors, kids can:
If you plan a unit based on The Great Chicago Fire and The Web of Memory site, be sure to include fire prevention tips too!
Article by Sharon Cromwell
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