This fall, WTTW tells the dramatic story of a defining and prescient moment in Chicago history, the Great Fire of 1871 when Chicagoans faced destruction, rebuilt, and prepared the city for a thriving future.
The Great Chicago Fire, a one-hour Chicago Stories special, premieres on Friday, October 9 at 8:00 pm, the 149th anniversary of the fire, on all WTTW platforms with narration by Chicagoan and Lookingglass Theatre Company ensemble member Anthony Fleming III.
On October 10, 1871, the citizens of Chicago awoke to an unrecognizable landscape: where 48 hours earlier there had been a vibrant city of ornate civic buildings, grand hotels, and cultural institutions, now there was nothing but a smoking pile of rubble stretched for miles on end.
Many wondered: could the city possibly recover? And how did tensions between the city’s elites and the immigrant poor lead to the wrong person being wrongfully accused of starting the blaze?
The Great Chicago Fire brings to life this seismic event as never before, using vivid animations, elaborate re-creations, and interviews with noted historians and the descendants of eyewitnesses. The story unfolds through the eyes of people who lived through the inferno, including Chicago Tribune publisher William Bross, Mayor Roswell B. Mason, a heroic Board of Trade custodian (and former slave) Joseph Hudlin, and a successful business woman named Catherine O’Leary.
The companion website will explore the causes, progression, and lasting repercussions of the disaster, including how a terrible fire the previous day further depleted a woefully understaffed fire department.
Animations, photos, illustrations, and interviews explore the connections between four eyewitnesses and themes that emerge from their stories: What was life like for Irish immigrants like Catherine O’Leary? How did the city rebuild? What buildings and relics still show the scars of the fire today?
And what allowed Chicago to become a tinderbox waiting to catch ablaze in the first place? Video extras tour 11 Buildings that Survived the Great Chicago Fire and 11 Objects that Survived the Great Chicago Fire.
“This is the time to tell this important story of adversity, strength, and optimism,” said Chicago Stories Executive Producer Dan Protess.“The tensions around class, race, and immigration that surrounded the fire resonate in our present moment. And as with our current crisis the coronavirus pandemic the disaster disproportionately affected marginalized communities.”
“With the Chicago Stories series, we are staying true to our mission to produce and present trusted, best-in-class content fueled by a distinctly Chicago sensibility,” said WTTW President & CEO Sandra Cordova Micek. “The story of the great Chicago fire shows Chicagoans turning a tragedy into opportunity as they recovered and transformed into a world- class city.”