Blazing a Trail: 5 Fires That Changed America

Blazing a Trail: 5 Fires That Changed America

Mike Wood - March 28, 2017

Fire can be a devastating thing. Flames have no respect for class, wealth, or power and their ferocity is often the whim of the weather, circumstance and pure luck. While fires can be catastrophic, they present the opportunity to build again from the ground up, replacing the scorched earth with something new and hopefully something better. Here we talk you through the five fires that changed America, from their destructive beginnings to the ways in which Americans came together to rebuild after them.

Blazing a Trail: 5 Fires That Changed America
Burning of the White House, 1814.

1 – The Burning of Washington, August 1814

Our first conflagration is our only deliberate arson. The Burning of Washington was a seminal moment in the young United States of America and a turning point in the creation of a uniquely American national identity. The context of the fire is more important than the blaze itself, with the burning of the nascent national capital essentially a symbolic act.

The War of 1812 was an extension of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and the importance of it on the wider world scale pales next to the conflicts taking place in Old World at the time. For the United States, however, it was of paramount importance. Many historians have later described it as the “Second War of Independence”. While Britain was vanquished and independence secured in the late 18th century, there was still an ever-present threat from the north, where the old enemy continued to control what is now Canada. They had long conspired to undermine the newly established government in Washington by siding with Native American tribes who sought to halt the American drive to the West.

Washington, named for the first President and founded in 1790, had been the seat of power in the United States since 1801. The idea of a designated, purpose-built national capital was relatively new and untried, but the symbolism of Washington as a city was not lost of the British. It was into this city that they marched on the 24th August 1814, taking it as a spoil of victory following the Battle of Bladensburg, a defeat that would later be described as “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms” because of the free run at the capital that it afforded to the British.

Moreover, the Americans had riled the British by raiding Port Dover, a British stronghold on the shores of Lake Erie in May of 1814. US soldiers has burned and looted that town, and with it close to the memories of the British commanders at Bladensburg, they decreed that the same would take place to the new American capital. Anticipating the attack, President James Madison withdrew his government to the small Maryland town of Brookeville. The soldiers entered Washington and proceeded to set the Capitol Building, the White House and the Library of Congress, which lost 3,000 books.

Washington DC burned for a whole day, but in a stroke of luck, a huge storm arrived on the evening of August 25th and put the majority of the flames out. The force of the storm was such that It was said to have lifted cannons clean off the ground, while the weather event claimed more victims – both British and American – than the fire did. Still, history has recorded it as The Storm That Saved Washington, as it forced the British to leave.

The symbolism of the fire was not lost, however. The British had proven to the Americans that they still had the power to hit right at the heart of the new state’s government. The war would continue for six more months, with no side taking any territory in the peace deal that was signed at Ghent in 1815. The effect on the US was profound however: never again would Washington be taken and measures were put in place that turned the irregular militia of the new nation into the US Army that is now the largest in the world.

Blazing a Trail: 5 Fires That Changed America
Chicago After The Fire, 1871. Chicago Tribune

2 – Great Chicago Fire, October 1871

If we fast-forward 50 years and move inland, we come to a fire that shaped the destiny of the industrial United States. 1871 Chicago was a sprawling city of some 300,000 people, drawn largely to work at the railroads, lumber yards and meat stockyards. The city had grown tenfold in the last two decades and most of those new Chicagoans had been housed in hastily erected wooden homes. These would be the kindling to the Great Chicago Fire.

The cause of the Chicago Fire is long lost to myth. The main story – that of Mrs O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern – has been largely laughed off over the years, but the fire certainly did start near to the O’Leary’s cottage in what is now University Village, just to the southwest of the Loop. The story of Mrs O’Leary has long been associated with anti-Irish sentiment in the Chicago area and was reported in the first post-fire edition of the Chicago Tribune, though the reporter later admitted that it was a fabrication.

The origins of the fire may be unknown, but the devastation that it wreaked was easy to see. The whole city was built from wood and the fire spread rapidly across the North, West and Southwest of Chicago. As it leapt the Chicago River, the city’s waterworks were taken into the inferno, halting any attempts by firefighters to get the blaze under control. Eventually a rainstorm extinguished the flames. 300 lay dead and another 100,000 had been left homeless, a third of the population of the city. The panorama of Chicago after the fire is one of the most shocking photographs in American history.

The effect on the city was terrible, but the way in which Chicago rebuilt was nothing short of outstanding. Within weeks, donations had come in from around the world to fund the reconstruction of buildings, which were built using brick rather than timber. The level of construction required created an economic boom that drew yet more immigrants to the Midwest, enlarging the city from 300,000 to over 1 million by 1900. The demand was such that towns all over Illinois and Wisconsin became boom towns, supplying lumber to the city. Singapore, Michigan was reduced to a ghost town after the whole city’s timber supply was used to rebuild Chicago.

In the aftermath, a whole new style of architecture was developed that now characterises Chicago. The railroad hub and steelyards remained untouched as the Southside was largely shielded from the flames and they fuelled the rebuilding of the city as one of stone and steel, the most modern in America. The first skyscraper built in 1885 and became a symbol of the new Chicago, emerging from the ashes of the old city.

Blazing a Trail: 5 Fires That Changed America
A Michigan wildfire. 1945. Wikipedia

3 – Peshtigo Fire, October 1871

The Great Chicago Fire was one of the defining moments in the history of the Midwest, but in truth, it wasn’t even the most devastating fire that took place that day. October 10, 1871 has gone down in infamy as the day that the Great Lakes burned, where flames consumed Wisconsin and Michigan as well as Illinois. The largest of them all, the Peshtigo Fire, has been largely forgotten but is in fact the deadliest fire in US history and, indeed, the deadliest ever recorded wildfire.

The town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, is just 250 miles up the shore of Lake Michigan from Chicago but in 1871, was a world away from the bustling city. The some 2,000 folks who called Peshtigo home were predominantly farmers, and would regularly set wildfires in order to clear the vast swathes of forest that surrounded their town in order to create new pastoral land. This was usually a relatively safe task, as fires would burn themselves out, but the atmospheric conditions were to make this routine job deadly.

The summer of 1871 had been long, hot and dry. Months worth of logging and deforestation had left the land littered with sawdust and wood, debris from the extensive railway construction that was linking the Midwest with the Pacific Ocean. As October rolled around, a colder weather front came in from the west and met the small fires, quickly turning them into huge, out of control infernos. When they linked up, a firestorm began.

Firestorms are rare natural phenomenons, but when they are in full flow they are lethal. The heat of the flames changes the atmospheric conditions, sucking in oxygen from the surrounding area, resulting in localised gale force winds. A thermal column is created, as the rising heat attached to the strong wind becomes a tornado. In Peshtigo, the firestorm was so strong that it jumped the river, causing many residents to take shelter in the waters. The Peshtigo Fire was uncontrollable and devastated the whole community, killing an estimated 75% of the whole town’s population and reducing all but one building to cinder.

It was far from the only fire that struck the Midwest on that fateful day in 1871. Across Lake Michigan, the coastal towns of Holland and Manistee in Michigan were also reduced to ashes, with the same combination of dry weather, extensive logging and freak winds coming together to wreak havoc. Further east, at the southern end of Lake Huron, Port Huron was also destroyed. Over the border, Windsor, Ontario also suffered.

Rumours were rife about the causes of the fires. Within just a few years, many posited a theory that a comet had struck the region and caused the devastation, or at least, that the methane that had been left by Comet Biela, which certainly was in circulation at the time of the fires, had added to the fuel for the flames. More likely is the deadly combination of dry wood, caused by logging and a drought, plus irregular and unusually strong winds that came as the winter weather fronts arrived.

Blazing a Trail: 5 Fires That Changed America
Sacramento Street after the San Francisco Fire, 1906. Arnold Genthe

4 – San Francisco Earthquake, April 1906

Natural causes allied with man-made fuels are often the causes of the largest and deadliest fires. They came together in 1906 to create one of the most devastating natural disasters in US history in San Francisco. Though the Earthquake of April 18, 1906 is widely known as a seismic event, the largest part of the destruction was actually caused by the firestorm that followed it rather than the quake itself.

The city of San Francisco had long been threatened by earthquakes. With a location right on the San Andreas Fault, the shock was not unexpected, though the force of it was something that no San Franciscan had felt before. Though it predated the now-accepted Richter scale by around 30 years, it is estimated to have been around 8, with buildings shaking for nearly a minute and tremors felt as far south as LA and as far north as Portland. The centre of the quake was offshore and immediately triggered a tsunami. On the land, buildings were reduced to rubble and more than 3000 people killed, though the exact number remains unknown as one of the most affected areas was Chinatown, where population numbers were not taken.

The extent of the destruction caused by the earthquake and the extent caused by the subsequent fire is still hotly debated. Many residents were quick to claim that the fire had destroyed their properties as insurers were not liable for earthquake damage, while some were reported to have burned their own homes in order to cash in on the insurance, which required a fire to be claimed. The firefighters sent out to deal with the blaze were also held responsible, as they attempted to create firebreaks by felling damaged buildings with dynamite, often creating further fires. Regardless of the causes of the inferno, the results were clear: 80% of the city was totalled, with a cleanup bill that stood at $9 billion in modern terms.

Like Chicago, San Francisco would rise again, but in their case, it would take far longer. City leaders were reticent to blame the earthquake as they feared that it would dissuade vital business from investing in the area, but they did not hesitate from recreating the wooden houses that had contributed to the blaze. An economic upsurge followed the rebuilding, particularly in upstate California, Oregon and Washington, where lumber mills were running at excess capacity to supply San Francisco with the raw materials.

H.G Wells, who had just landed in America for the first time, commented on the reaction in New York, where he was: “There is no doubt anywhere that San Francisco can be rebuilt, larger, better, and soon. Just as there would be none at all if all this New York that has so obsessed me with its limitless bigness was itself a blazing ruin. I believe these people would more than half like the situation.” A few short years later, New Yorkers too would feel the devastation of fire in their city.

Blazing a Trail: 5 Fires That Changed America
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, 1911. New York World

5 – The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Early 1900s New York City was one of the most modern in the world, fuelled by the thousands of immigrants that arrived from Europe every year and the scores of factories that churned out consumer goods to provide these new Americans with the essentials of life. One such factory was to be found on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, just a block from Washington Square Park and in the heart of bustling Greenwich Village.

Drawing workers from the nearby Lower East Side and Little Italy neighbourhoods, the factory was one of the largest sweatshops in the city, employing some 500 people, the vast majority of whom were women. They made shirtwaists, a new fashion that had accompanied the rise of women in the workplace and the increasing financial independence for women that had followed. The predominantly Jewish- and Italian-American workforce were no pushovers, and had struck multiple times in the years running up to that fateful day of March 25, 1911.

The spring had arrived in New York City on that Saturday, but in keeping with the norms of the time, the weekend had not yet begun for the workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Just an hour or so from closing at 4.45pm, a discarded cigarette ignited some loose cotton in a bin on the 8th floor of the building, which at the time was one of the tallest in Lower Manhattan. The alarm was raised and workers attempted to flee, but the fire spread rapidly, taking just 18 minutes to engulf the 8th, 9th and 10th floors. The tonnes of loose fabric fragments that had been discarded over months of work provided the ideal fuel for the flames.

There were fire escapes, but two were blocked by the mass of people attempted to get out, while a third had been locked by the owners as a precaution against theft, as it was custom to stop all female workers and search them before they left work each day. The bosses, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were at work that day – Blanck had his two daughters with him – on the 10th floor and were able to reach safety in a neighbouring building, where a university law class had been taking place. Seeing the panic close at hand, students had lowered ladders to allow Triangle staff to escape.

Other staff were not so lucky. An fire staircase was overloaded and collapsed, sending twenty fleeing workers to their deaths in the street 100 feet below. Trapped on the upper floors, many young women died jumping from the building to escape the blaze, the ladders of the fire brigade not tall enough to reach further than the 6th story. The corpses of the workers who had fell impeded the efforts of the firefighters to get close to the building. In total, 148 people, 123 of whom were women, perished through smoke inhalation, burns and as a result of falls. It was the greatest industrial disaster in New York history.

The people of New York were outraged. 300,000 marched in a memorial through the Lower East Side and demanded that the factory owners be held responsible for the deaths. Blanck and Harris were indicted for manslaughter, but were acquitted in December 1911. Their lawyer won them the case by calling into question the testimony of many survivors, most of whom spoke English poorly. A later civil suit found them guilty, but the amount awarded to every victim of the fire was just $75 – a figure that they could easily pay, as the insurance company had paid them $60,000 for their personal damages in the fire.

The legacy of the Triangle Fire would be long-lasting. The female workers, already organised into the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, redoubled their efforts and eventually won huge victories for female workers and greater safety legislation concerning safety in the workplace. Soon afterwards, the 54-hour Bill was passed, which limited the hours that a worker could be forced to work per week, while the Democratic political machine in Tammany Hall adopted the cause of workers’ safety and made it a key issue for newly arrived immigrant voters. Some 64 pieces of legislation would be passed in the following years which held factory owners responsible for the safety of those in their employ.

Frances Perkins, who witnessed the events of March 25, later went on to be US Secretary of Labor under the Roosevelt Administration, and campaigned hard for worker’s rights, particularly for fire regulations and health & safety – largely inspired by the horrors that she saw that day. Over 100 years later, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire continues to be memorialized as the starting point of the movement to bring greater public safety to American workplaces.