In 1871, Chicagoans knew they were due for the “big one”—a massive fire that would decimate the city. There hadn’t been a meaningful rain since July, and several big blazes had nearly outstripped the fire department’s resources. On October 8, when Kate Leary’s barn caught fire, so began the biggest and most destructive disaster the United States had ever endured. And as quickly as the firefight ended, another battle for the future of the city began between the town’s business elites and the poor and immigrant working class. Historian Scott W. Berg presents an enrapturing account of the fire and the powerful transformation that followed.
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