Chicago’s Great Fire of 1871 killed 300 people, left 100,000 homeless, and leveled four square miles of the city. Yet as the flames died, resolve replaced despair. This photograph was made perhaps one month after the fire, and it shows the makeshift homes, businesses, telegraph poles, and streetcar tracks that were in place even before the rubble was pushed into the lake. Within three years, Chicago would regain its position as the premier city of the Midwest.
This panorama was probably made by George N. Barnard, who documented the tremendous devastation of the South by the campaign of General William Tecumseh Sherman during the Civil War. Barnard had a studio in downtown Chicago, but, forced into the lake to flee the fire, he lost everything except the equipment he held aloft in the water. Like Chicago itself, he quickly recovered and joined colleagues who documented the rebuilding of the city.