You Are There with Walter Cronkite: The Great Chicago Fire

0 Posted by - October 8, 2015 - Media Moment

Every tour guide in Chicago talks about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  It is essential for understanding this city.

On my tours, I like to show the site of where the fire started and relay how Mrs. O’Leary was finally exonerated in the 1990s.

O Leary barn

Visitors cannot believe that 17,000 buildings were destroyed and one third of the population was left homeless.


But one of the most important things to understand about the fire is how the city recovered.   I discuss Marshall Field staying in business and rebuilding his store more elegantly than ever.  I share how Potter Palmer secured a $1.7 million loan to rebuild the Palmer House – fully fireproof, of course.

State St after fire

On my Mag Mile in the Morning tour, we focus on the Chicago Water Tower and its miraculous survival and iconic status in our city.


Chicago’s identity is very much tied up with what happened after the fire: from building the world’s first skyscrapers to the 1893 Columbian Exposition: the phoenix rising from the ashes with “I Will” as our motto.


I’m continually learning new things about my city.  Digging around online for more about the fire, I came across this 1955 documentary about the Great Chicago Fire from Walter Cronkite’s 1950s history series, “You Are There.”  This episode broadcast on December 11, 1955 and is pretty evocative, but quirky.  I especially like the “city fathers” calmly surveying the conflagration and deciding they’d best get moving along..!  All the cattle fleeing the stockyards is a fanciful touch, too – !

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