Bird’s Eye View of Chicago as it was before the Great Fire [and] Chicago in Ruins


Pair of views showcasing the devastation from Chicago’s Great Fire of 1871.

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This stunning pair of woodcut prints were issued in two separate issues of Harper’s Weekly magazine, just a few weeks after a devastating blaze consumed much of Chicago’s commercial district. Known as the Great Fire of 1871 and commemorated with a star on the city’s flag, the conflagration destroyed over 10,000 buildings and left 90,000+ in the city homeless.

One image, issued Oct. 21, 1871, shows a bird’s eye view of the city on the eve of the terrible devastation. Prosperity and industrial enterprise is reflected by the numerous watercraft plying the river and Lake Michigan, billowing smokestacks, and a tightly packed urban center. Nearly fifty locations of interest are numbered and labeled at the bottom of the sheet, while a dark shadow hangs over the portion of the city that remained unburned.

The second sheet shows the city in the midst of the blaze, although the depiction is somewhat inaccurate. According to contemporary accounts, a strong northerly wind was a primary cause of the fire’s rapid growth. Here, the flames are shown blowing south. Patches of smoke show that the conflagration was actually a series of smaller fires that combined over the course of Oct. 8-10 to devastate the area darkened within the image.

Both prints are based on sketches from Theodore Davis, a Harper’s Weekly artist who was in Chicago during the disaster.

Map Details

Publication Date: 1871

Author: Harper's Weekly

Sheet Width (in): 21.6

Sheet Height (in): 15.1

Condition: B

Condition Description: Pair of Harper's Weekly centerfold views showing a before and after of the Great Fire. Each sheet is brittle and toned with age, with numerous edge tears and several small chips confined to the margins. Separation along the vertical centerfold tears along the outer edges have been repaired on the verso with archival tape. Fair to good condition overall.


1 in stock