This Week In History: October 8-14


This week in history: The Second City is ravaged by fire and the Big Apple premieres “Porgy and Bess.” Read more below and dive deeper with The Great Courses Plus.

October 8, 1871 -The Great Chicago Fire

As an apocryphal tale about a cow goes, the Great Chicago Fire (aka- Great Conflagration) swept through the city without abandon. Starting in or around the O’Leary farm, the blaze started in the shed next to the barn and spread.

As was typical for the age, the buildings were predominantly made of wood with tar or shingle roofs. To make matters worse, the city had only had 1″ of rain from July 4th to October 9th.

As the fire grew, the 185 firefighters of the Chicago FD were sent out with their 17 horse-drawn steam engines, but due to a communication issue, they were guided incorrectly and arrived at the wrong spot, letting the fire grow. The fire was aided by spreading flaming debris, part of which landed on the roof of the South Side Gas Works. The fire continued to spread through a weather phenomenon known as a “fire whirl.” After two days, it started to rain and helped the already burnt-out fire mellow.

The remains were too hot to survey for many days, but eventually it was determined that the fire destroyed an area 4 miles long and about 0.75 miles wide (2,000 acres). Monetarily, it cost more than $4 billion in today’s money. There is no certainty on the death count. 120 bodies were pulled from the remains, but the total could have been as high as 300. This was one of the biggest disasters to touch the Windy City in its whole history.

Learn more about the construction of early Chicago in The Rise of Iron- and Steel-Framed Buildings from the course: Understanding the World’s Greatest Structures

October 10, 1935 – Porgy and Bess premieres on Broadway, NYC

George Gershwin, 1937

Originally clocking in at four hours with two intermissions, the Broadway premiere of Gershwin and Heyward’s Porgy and Bess was adapted for the Big Apple. Opening at the Alvin Theater, the run lasted 124 performances with Todd Duncan and Anne Brown as the leads.

The folk tale focuses on Porgy, a disabled, African-American street beggar living in Charleston, SC and his attempts to rescue Bess from the possession of her violent lover, Crown, and her drug dealer, Sportin’ Life.

Gershwin and Heyward vacationed to Folly Beach, SC to get a feel for the culture and music. Down there, the most famous songs “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” were penned.

Learn more about the Great Wide Way in Great American Music: Broadway Musicals