Visualizing Chicago Before the Great Fire

Interested in visualizing Chicago before the Great Fire of 1871?

If you have a lot of ancestors in Chicago, like I do, inevitably you find yourself wondering about life there before 1871. Recently the Smithsonian published an article, “What Did Chicago Look Like Before the Great Fire,” on digital mapping. It’s a great example of the power of digital mapping for genealogists.

The Smithsonian Magazine asked première map collector David Rumsey to supply a map for this project to help visualize the pre-1871 city. Rumsey chose an 1868 map of Chicago from a guidebook called “The Citizen’s Guide for the City of Chicago.”

Of this map, Rumsey says, “One of the things that you notice right away are the railroads shown. There are around seven railroads coming into the city. Almost all of those railroads are gone today.”

Visualizing Chicago’s Western Growth

The map also illustrates the growth of western subdivisions “popping up around pockets of streets, reflecting the way that neighborhoods grew in specific and insular ways.”

Visualizing Chicago’s Eastern Growth

The ways Chicago expanded eastward are less known.

‘Chicago did grow to the east, because it filled [Lake Michigan] in. That’s one thing that’s really exciting about this map. Put the lens on the shoreline and you’ll see how much land was added compared to the old map,’ Rumsey explains. To facilitate their booming population, the city used Lake Michigan to its advantage in many ways, from filling in shoreline to create more land to the “Lake Tunnel” and “Tunnel crib,” shown in the upper-right part of the map, which were used to channel fresh water from the lake back to the city. The map shows Chicago in a boom – but that expansion would be devastated less than five years later in the Great Chicago Fire. Rumsey points out the huge swaths of city that would be burned by the fire – all the blocks shaded pink, green and pink to the north and the blocks shaded yellow and blue to the south.

Read the Smithsonian Magazine article here.

To use the interactive map, visit What Did Chicago Look Like Before the Great Fire.

For links to a wide variety of free genealogy resources for Chicago, including free city directories, click here.

About the Author:

Nancy Loe has an MA in American History and an MLS in Library Science and Archives. She has appeared on PBS’s American Experience, at Rootstech, SCGS Jamboree, and state and regional genealogy conferences. Her website was featured in Family Tree Magazine's “Social Media Mavericks: 40 to Follow.”

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