Last week, I came across http://greatchicagofire.org. The website focuses on a fire that lasted for three days in October of 1871, and includes photographs, documents and statistics, as well as lengthy discussions about the impact of the fire on Chicagoan historical memory and the city’s subsequent history. The site was created in 2011 as a collaboration between the Chicago Historical Society and researchers at Northwestern University. Interestingly, the project does not appear to have support specifically from the university’s history department. The project’s curator is Carl Smith, a Professor of History and American Studies that does much of his work on the city of Chicago’s literary and cultural landscape.
I became interested in the website for two reasons. First, it differs from many of the historical websites we explored so far because it focuses primarily on one event. The Great Fire is used as a launchpad for broader discussions, of course, but virtually every piece of the website’s content is oriented around this one conflagration. Second, I became interested because it appears to be the type of website that we ourselves can approximate with our own projects. Though the website is ambitious, it does not have too broad a scope, nor is it encyclopaedic.
The website’s main title, The Great Chicago Fire & The Web of Memory, reveals much about the site’s purpose and methodology. None of the pages provide a straightforward account of events. Rather, the essays are organized thematically, and retain a strong narrative voice. One essay, for instance, begins by discussing a speech delivered by Chicago journalist William Bross to the New York Chamber of Commerce. Another essay starts by setting a scene on the night that the fire first broke out. The idea of these essays to capture the mood and anxieties and hope surrounding Chicago’s reconstruction efforts; Sentences like “Chicago, as an inspirational post-fire song went, was “Queen of the West Once More” illustrate how the texts go beyond simply prosaic description, towards a real attempt to be evocative.
With this considered, the website has a significant slant worth exploring. As a project of the Chicago Historical Society, which runs the Chicago History Museum, the creators likely had an interest in depicting Chicagoans positively. This is very obvious throughout, as one of the unifying themes of each of the essays is the resiliency of the city’s inhabitants. This could very well have been the case, so it does not necessarily detract from the website’s value, nor does it disqualify the website from being considered a well-researched contribution to Chicago municipal history. Similar overarching narratives of resilience appear in much scholarly work about the Civil War, for instance. To an extent, this can be expected from such emotive subjects.
Website Design and Features
The website has a minimalist, clean look that makes it relatively easy to read. The top menu has four tabs – “The Great Chicago Fire,” “Web of Memory,” “Special Features” and “Browse All Images.” Aside from the last two, these are not really intuitive descriptors. What sort of information would logically be organized under “The Great Chicago Fire?” It turns out that is where the essays are kept, though an average reader like myself may click around a few times before landing there. Once you have been browsing the website for nearly an hour, remembering where a certain page is located can be onerous. The fact that drop-down menus exist is a great help, but considering that this website has relatively few pages, it would not be a difficult task to either reorganize or rename the tabs.
The website has a sidebar menu on the right which links to other features, including the Photo Gallery and a “Library.” Like the menu, this sidebar remains regardless of what page is visited. The Photo Gallery is rather impressive; It is organized into three separate collections and has helpful captions and dates. Upon clicking, each photo expands for a better view, and the caption becomes a more lengthy description of the photograph and its context. The “Library,” however, is confusing. The photograph of the building almost makes you think there are going to be photos of a burned library. Instead, there are just two short essays from 1871 describing the fire. Why are these not placed with the essays? Furthermore, depending on what page you are on, you might get an expanded list of Libraries, which are otherwise buried on the “Web of Memory” page.
Some of the website’s special features are very useful. The page titled “Touring the Fire” includes a map that shows the fire’s geographical coverage. At this page, more than anywhere else on the website, do you gain a sense of exactly how massive and sprawling this event was. The website’s “3D Images” page takes this a step further and allows you to zoom in on some of the damage. In my view, this greatly humanizes the whole experience. If you zoom into one of the photos, you see what appears to be a father and a child surveying the rubble, an image that was not immediately apparent after a cursory glance. The website also features an interactive timeline that a reader can click through.
Most interestingly, the website includes playable .mp3 files of two songs that were recorded about the fire. The media player is embedded into the page, and features the album artwork and the song lyrics beneath it. This has the dual effect of offering the viewer the chance to listen to some of the voices recollecting the fire, while establishing the far-reaching cultural significance of the event.
Lastly, there is a mobile app which is optimized for iPods, iPhone’s and iPads to a lesser extent. The app, which can be purchased for $4.99, is a streamlined version of the website that retains each of the pages. Here is a screenshot from an iPad:
Conclusion and Lessons Learned
Overall, the site is useful as a look into what appears to be a significant historical event, but also as an example of how to meditate on broad social and cultural questions through the lens of a highly specific event. Though it is primarily a website about Chicago’s Great Fire, it is also a website about a city population during a moment of crisis, a website about a popular reconstruction effort, and a website about the pervasiveness and enduring strength of local and community memory. The fact that it could be easier to navigate is a minor criticism in the context of the website’s much larger achievements.