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Great Chicago Fire Web Site
Rich in Language Arts


The Web Site "The Great Chicago Fire and The Web of Memory" explores the historic fire in ways that engender rich Language Arts activities.

"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 are a newspaper reporter in Chicago who is writing about the effects of the Great Chicago Fire on October 11, 1871. List five questions that you would ask a person whose home was destroyed in the fire.
  • Work with a classmate. One of you is a person whose home was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire; the other is a reporter who will ask five questions about the fire. The person whose home was destroyed must answer the questions. Then the reporter will write a news story based on the answers to the questions, and the person whose home was destroyed will write a diary entry about his or her feelings.
  • Did the Great Chicago Fire start because a cow kicked over a lantern in the O'Leary barn? Write an essay explaining whether you think the legend was true. Use evidence from the Web site to "prove" your point of view. Refer to "The O'Leary Legend," part of the Web site.
  • Toward the end of the day on Monday, write a paragraph or two describing the events of the day in school. Save your description. On Friday of that week, again write a paragraph or two describing what happened in school Monday. Don't look at your original descriptive paragraph(s). When you have finished the second description, compare it with your first. Which description do you think is more precise and accurate? The results of your comparison will be the basis of a classroom discussion on the accuracy of memory.
  • You and a friend witnessed the start of the Great Chicago Fire, and you're going to tell your classmates about the experience. Work with a classmate to write a dialogue (two-person speech) describing how the fire started. The dialogue should last about two minutes. Perform the dialogue for your classmates.


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:

  • ask parents to keep a working smoke detector in the house, preferably one for each floor.
  • ask parents to test detectors once a month.
  • replace the batteries at least once a year.
  • plan two escape routes out of the home.
  • practice keeping low to the floor.
  • know to touch doors before opening them.
  • plan a place to meet the rest of the family after escaping a fire.

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
Education World®
Copyright © 2010 Education World

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Originally published 09/28/1998
Last updated 10/07/2010