Photographs capture Great Chicago Fire

April 13, 2009 3:28:29 PM PDT
In October, 1871, the Great Chicago Fire killed 300 people and destroyed more than 2,000 acres of the booming town. Photographs that captured the aftermath of the terrible blaze are now part of a free exhibit at Chicago's historic Water Tower. They will be on display for four months.

"This show is 33 photographs from 1871 taken immediately after the Great Chicago Fire," said Nathan Mason, curator, Department of Cultural Affairs.

But who took them? "A photographer ... but we don't know who ... He was ... and it was probably a he ... probably from a nearby city since all the photographers in the fire area of Chicago had their businesses destroyed."

The photos show buildings that didn't survive -- and the people that somehow did. They were originally collected by LaSalle Bank and are now on loan to the city gallery by the Bank of America. They're a look into the city's tragic past, as well as a reminder of a city that rose from the ashes using a water tower and a pumping station and a nearby church tower as symbols of recovery.

Two blocks from the Water Tower is the bell tower of St. James Church, at Wabash and Huron, which had just been fireproofed because it was a war memorial and the people didn't want it to be lost in a fire.

It's not known who the photographer was, but it is known that whoever he was he was a combination of artist, photographer and chemist.

"A chemist to know just how quickly things responded to light. Exposures varied ... depending on if it's overcast or bright sun. It could take a minute to five minutes to get your image."

The free show runs through August 23rd.


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