Monday, June 2, 2014

The Chicago Fire Telegraph -- June 2, 1871

Chicago Burns, October 8, 1871 (Wikipedia Photo)
Most Chicagoans recognize the significance of the year 1871.  The second red star in Chicago’s city flag memorializes that year, the year that the city burned to the ground in a 36-hour fire that destroyed over 17,000 buildings and left a third of the city’s population without a place to sleep.

One would think that in a city built almost completely of cheap and readily available lumber during a drought of unprecedented proportions, authorities would have gone out of their way to keep disaster at bay.  But when Matthias Schaffer spotted the fire at 9:00 p.m. on the evening of October 8, the city was ill prepared for the horrors that would unfold over the next 36 hours.

It’s always easy to look back at events and see how things would have changed if different decisions had been made.  It’s easy, and It’s unfair to those who were meeting events as they unfolded in real time.

Still, the other day I was looking through a Chicago Tribune article that ran on this date, June 2, of 1871, a piece that provided the deliberations of the city’s common council on the previous evening.  One piece of business caught my attention . . .

   A communication was received from the Board of Fire Commissioners, with a communication from E. P. Chandler, Superintendent of the Fire Alarm Telegraph, calling attention to the fact that no estimate had been made by the Finance Committee for the necessary expense of the fire alarm telegraph for the current year.  The communication further set forth that a reduction of the repairing corps by one man was unwise, and undesirable.
   The report was referred to the Finance Committee, with instructions to report why no appropriation had been recommended.

Here was a city about to burn to the ground, a wooden city, a doomed city, at the beginning of a summer’s-long drought, and no appropriation had been made to find a way to fund the system that would .  More than that, the staff upon which the system depended had apparently been reduced in size.

Like I said at the beginning of this little piece, it’s easy to sit back and criticize, especially easy in this case given the magnitude of the disaster that would unfold four months later. 

Yet, how much different are we from the penny-pinching, shortsighted members of the 1871 Chicago common council?  With reports that almost daily inform us that Miami will be underwater in a century or so or that the traders on Wall Street will be wearing wet suits and fins to work in that amount of time, we keep doing what we have always done, hoping that the unthinkable will not occur.

Human nature, I guess.  Refer it to committee.

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